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Crabby about prices

January 14, 2008 | 12:59 pm

People who love Dungeness crab will pay almost any price to get it. But this year, that devotion is being put to the test. I walked into my local Asian grocery Friday to pick up some crabs for a weekend dinner and found that my usual $4.99-per-pound splurge is running $7.99 per pound this year. Actually, they were the same price at Christmas and New Year’s as well, but I just figured that was due to the normal holiday inflation. Not so. The fact is, there just aren’t as many crabs being caught this year as in the past, and as a result prices are as high as anyone can remember.

Gene Mattiuzzo, who works for Caito Fisheries in Noyo Harbor near Mendocino, says it’s a cyclical thing. “I was telling people last year that the season was going to be short and sweet this year,” he says. “And lo and behold, I was right.” It seems the crab harvest runs in cycles and we were due for a downturn. “Mother Nature runs this business,” Mattiuzzo says, “we don’t.”

Pete Kalvass, a marine biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, says that this year isn’t really all that bad, it’s just that we’re Dscn0877_2coming off a run of extremely large catches. “We’re coming off of three or four near-record years in a row,” he says. The state’s average Dungeness harvest is around 10 million pounds, but beginning in 2002 we had three straight years of more than 20 million pounds. Last year was about average, and this year will be slightly less. On top of that, this has been one rough winter up on the north coast, with repeated storms blowing through and keeping the fishermen home and high and dry. (And if it makes paying this winter's high prices any easier, remember that many of these are the same fishermen who were so devastated by the closure of the salmon fishery last spring and summer.)

This is one of those years when if you’re going to serve crab, cook it as simply as possible to show off its natural glory — it’s not like you’re going to be eating the stuff every day. Choose crabs that are lively and willing to put up a good scrap as they’re hauled out of the live tank. Put them in a large pot and fill it with room-temperature water. Add lots of salt (the water should taste like the sea). Bring the water to a boil and let the crabs cook about 15 minutes after the water comes to a boil. You’ll know they’re done when you pull one of the small back legs and there are little feathers of body meat attached.

To clean the crab, pry off the top shell, lifting from the back hinge, and rinse out the fat. Pull off the gills on either side, the jaws and the “apron” underneath. Pull off the legs and crack each large section using the back of a large knife. Cut the crab body in half lengthwise, then cut each half in sections between the leg joints. Put them all on a platter and you're ready to feast.

-- Russ Parsons

Photo by Russ Parsons