The local farmers’ market may be closed till spring, but that doesn’t mean the end of locally harvested food. Here in the Willamette Valley, we’re just a hop over the Coast Range from the Pacific Ocean, where December marks the start of Dungeness crab season.
Say what you like about the scary-big Alaskan King crab, or the cute little crabs of the Atlantic coast: to my taste, nothing beats Dungeness crab for briny-sweet crab goodness.
Before the season’s over, I’ll make it to the coast to pick some up at my favorite crab stand, The Crab Pot, just south of the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, where the catch is mere hours from boat to boiling pot. For now, I’m satisfied to buy them at the local supermarket, cooked and iced and ready to eat.
And inexpensive. With crab selling for under $5 a pound, little wonder that it’s something of a holiday tradition here. Lots of Oregonians feature crab cocktail as a prelude to Christmas dinner. Me, I prefer to enjoy it alone, simply prepared and lightly sauced. I’ve been known to spread newspaper on the dining table, tie a dish towel around my neck and sit down with a whole crab, some melted butter, a cut-up lemon and my indispensible crab-cracker and not get up from the table till all that’s left are the shell fragments.
But crab is also suited for more elegant fare, as long as the treatment is simple enough to let its flavor shine through. Served over pasta, for instance, with a delicate cream sauce scented with saffron, which has a real affinity for seafood. (I’ve been growing my own saffron crocuses for four years now, and each fall my neighbors can see me squatting by the front garden bed, carefully plucking the three red stigmas from each little crocus as it blooms. Like most bulbs, saffron crocuses naturalize easily, so every year my harvest grows; after drying, I wound up with roughly four tablespoons of saffron this year; at market prices, this stuff is worth more than its weight in gold.)
Dungeness crab pasta in saffron cream sauce
- Meat from one fresh, cooked Dungeness crab, carefully picked over to remove shell fragments. (If you don’t know how to clean and pick crab, search YouTube for “crab cleaning” – you’ll find several great how-to videos).
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 Tbsp chopped mild onion or shallots
- A pinch of real saffron threads
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 Tbsp cognac (optional)
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp lemon zest, minced
- 1 Tbsp creme fraiche (optional)
- 1 Tbsp fresh Italian parsley, minced
- salt, fresh-ground pepper to taste
- Spaghetti, linguini or angel-hair pasta
In a small skillet over medium melt the butter; add garlic and onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.
While the onion and garlic are cooking, sprinkle the saffron threads onto the wine (saffron is water-soluble, and letting it soak in liquid for a few minutes will release more of the flavor and color).
Put pasta on to boil according to package instructions. When done, drain and return to pot.
When onion and garlic are soft and fragrant, add cognac; raise heat and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the saffron and wine, reduce heat back to medium and cook until reduced by half.
Stir in the cream, creme fraiche and lemon zest and simmer until the sauce is reduced enough to coat a wooden spoon (2-4 minutes). Stir in the crab to coat throughly; heat gently until warmed. Taste before adding salt – you may not need it.
Plate the pasta and cover with a generous helping of crab and sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and black pepper.
Serves two, but also makes great leftovers.