We had the two crab feeds, like we do most years for Christmas/New Year: one for friends and then one for my family. In Northern California it coincides nicely with the Dungeness crab season. Our dining table is too small to accommodate both crowds at once: you need to sit down to tackle the crab properly, you can’t really do it buffet style. (Besides, my relatives are notoriously shy and clamp up around strangers, but drown out all explosions in the James Bond movie on TV with their normal dinner conversation when amongst themselves, in typical Cantonese fashion.)
Crab feeds are a relatively easy way to feed your nearest and dearest festively. And it’s more fun and economical to eat crab at home than in a restaurant. Roll up those sleeves and go!
Only after almost ten years of crab feeds have I perfected my system:
1) Buy live crabs, easily available from a Chinese market. Demand the fishmonger to show you the crabs as he picks them out of the tank, i.e. so he won’t fob you with off 6-legged specimens. “Tai jek tee, sang mang tee” (“Bigger and livelier!”) Buy 2/3 the number of crabs as number of guests. For instance, 6 crabs will feed 9 guests. Especially if you will be providing other food.
2) When you get home, carefully pick up each crab from the butt end, and rubber band each of the crabs’ claws shut. Try not to get pinched or poked.
3) Scrub the crabs a little bit with an old toothbrush, just to get rid of the residual mud.
4) Have big pots (pasta pot or wok) with a little bit of water boiling, at medium heat, and stick 2 crabs (or 1 or 3, depending on capacity) in. Slam lid on; you may have to hold it down for a few minutes, as the crabs may actually struggle a bit, until they’re steamed to death. If the claws aren’t rubber-banded, the crabs may struggle too much and break off their legs. While this doesn’t affect taste, it will affect appearance.
5) Steam for 25-30 minutes.
6) Remove crabs and let them rest for 20 minutes, or until cool enough to handle.
7) Remove the carapace shell from the two leg clusters, by shoving a small knife in the butt end to lever it off. Discard the vertical tab and the gills, reserve or discard the crab roe/liquor (according to your preference: some people like it, some people don’t.)
8) Rinse and clean the carapaces of residual parts, set aside
9) Rinse the leg clusters clean of the roe (optional, depends if your guests will like it or not)
10) Arrange leg clusters on large platter, and put the carapaces on top of them (which makes them look whole again
11) You may provide condiments for people to assemble their own dipping sauces: chili, lemon, sugar and fish sauce; dark Chinese vinegar and finely chopped ginger; drawn butter, roasted garlic. Most people will just eat it plain, for steamed fresh crab itself is sweet and tasty enough, you don’t really need to add anything.
What else to serve at a crab feast? An appetizer. Joe has been perfecting his clam chowder recipe, based on Ivar’s. Mulled apple cider, kept warm in a crock pot. Good Acme bread (sweet and sour, batard or baguettes). Salad (spinach or mixed greens) with Brianna’s poppyseed dressing, crumbled cheese, toasted walnuts or pecans (this year we also added diced persimmon). People usually bring deserts and drinks.
We bought too much spinach for the salad. I filled a bag at farmer’s market, at 1 ¼ lbs. “That’s not enough,” exclaimed Joe! We got another ¾ lbs. (A total of two plastic produce bags full.) Of course it ended up being too much. Even for 11 people, 1 lb of spinach leaves was enough. Nominally, the spinach was more expensive ($4/ lb) than crab ($3 / lb), but of course, much of the weight of the crab is shell and cartilage!
For appetizer this year, we just had carrots and celery sticks, and slightly steamed cauliflower and broccoli . . . and potato chips, to go with onion dip (the ‘classic’ powdered soup mix with sour cream.) Just because I had a craving for it. Otherwise, we’d usually pull out some Aidell’s sausage, fry up and slice: very simple.
Chris brought almond jello, complete with canned fruit cocktail and lychee, which made me very happy. It’s a childhood comfort desert, even if it’s more of summer than winter thing. It’s her grandmother’s recipe, but is based on Knox gelatin rather than agar-agar.
For the family crab feed, I got a buche de noel from Prolific Oven. (Of French origin, it’s a chocolate swiss roll cake in the shape of a log, accompanied by marzipan mushrooms. I’ve always wanted to try one, but it’s something you do need to share with a dozen people.)
We hadn’t gotten around to getting a tree this year. But we bought a Christmas wreath, just to have some Christmas greenery aroma in the house, and hung it up inside the house. The mulled apple cider also adds a festive smell to the atmosphere.
With guests who don’t eat crab because they think it’s too weird or they’re too lazy, we usually get a slab of salmon or steak, and shove it under the broiler. Or we tell them to bring their own bucket of KFC!