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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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July 14, 2008 7:30 AM

'Tis the season to get cracking: DIY Dungeness crab-feed

Posted by Nancy Leson

Last week, my heart beat a little faster when, standing in front of the seafood counter at QFC I saw that whole fresh-cooked Dungeness crab was selling for $4.99 a pound. That's six bucks off the "regular price" -- so long as I brandished the card that has that freaky disembodied voice at the self-checkout saying, "Thank you, QFC member!"

I'll take two, I told the gal behind the counter, who fished around in the cracked ice for a couple of nice-sized specimens, weighing-in at about a pound-and-a-half each. "You want me to clean those for you?" she asked. I did. And then I took them home, dismembered the legs and body and prepared the crab "Asian-style" -- which I'll describe below. Lickety-split -- so to speak -- I had an amazingly easy-to-fix and downright delicious dinner.

I'm not usually one to buy pre-cooked crab, as I've been stung one too many times by crab that looks fresh, but isn't. Most of the time, I buy live crab, take it home and clean and cook it myself: not a job for the faint-of-heart, the supremely squeamish nor your garden-variety vegetarian. The best crab, of course, is always the one you caught yourself. Just ask Nate, seen here crabbing with his buddy Kosta and showing off his soon-to-be dinner:

When I was a kid, I liked to go crabbing, too. I have fond memories of fishing off the dock next to Andy's in Barnegat Light, NJ, using a manual line, a small hook and little pieces of wadded-up bread. I was always amazed at how those juicy little blue crabs would hold on as we slowly, sloowly, slooooowly reeled them up, to be steamed later, with Old Bay seasoning. My sister Sherry and I still tell the tale of the time she hooked her finger while on the job. With her sobbing profusely, I had to run into Andy's to get a grownup to assist in its removal. She got over it, and now, some 40 years later, she gets her blue crab the easy way: at DiNardo's in Philly, where she goes with her gal-pals to make a mess and knock back a few drinks.

I often see those same little crabs, snapping their little claws, at Asian markets like Viet Wah and 99 Ranch. But why eat those dinky little numbers when you can have Dungeness, instead? One of the places I like to shop for crab is Wong Tung Seafood near 12th and Jackson. Last time I was there, it was selling for $6.50/pound:

I brought two home and went to work. [Note: gloves are a good idea]:

Here, the crab prepares to meet its maker:

There are those who prefer to steam their crab, but this (slightly) guilt-ridden cook prefers to "get it over with" faster by tossing them into boiling water, then cooking them for about ten minutes till the shells turn red, like this:

Drain the crab, remove the carapace and discard the gills and the "apron" (the tailish-looking thing seen bottom-center that pulls down like a lever for easy removal):

Then I cracked the crab in half with a Chinese cleaver (I bought this one at the Seattle Restaurant Store years ago for about $10):

Next, I cleaned out the schmutz:

When I eat whole wok-fried crab at Chinese restaurants, they leave those innards intact, and they're delicous fried. Swear! Sushi-chef Yutaka Saito also considers those a delicacy -- and after having the guts to eat those guts (seen here on the left, at Saito's), I'm here to tell you, he's right!:

I use the cleaver to hack the crab into pieces, like so:

Once that's done, I make the sauce. OK, here's the deal with this: I never make the sauce the same way twice, but it's always delicious. In fact, last week when I made the pre-cooked crab's sauce, I didn't even bother to saute garlic, ginger and Thai peppers first, as shown here:

Instead, I just heated up a touch of peanut oil in my big cast-iron skillet, added a tablespoon or so of Chinese black bean garlic sauce, a squeeze of hoisin and a splash or two each of soy sauce and inexpensive sake. Then, after it's reduced somewhat, I turned down the heat and added the secret ingredient: butter. So, depending on how much time you have to cook, you can do it the "slow" way (which is still pretty quick), or the "fast" way (which involves no chopping).

And listen up: If you like to cook Asian food, and don't have the above-mentioned condiments on hand at all times, go out and get some: inexpensive jars and bottles of hoisin, oyster sauce, various chili- and black bean sauces, etc. are kitchen staples in my house. You'd be surprised how often they come in handy. I regularly use variations on the throw-it-in theme for saucing freshly blanched Chinese broccoli (with soy and hoisin, or with soy and oyster sauce), or marinating kalbi-style shortribs (an easy "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" effort that always gets big applause).

So, once you've got a sauce that looks something like this:

You add the crab to the pan, toss it around:

And that's when the fun begins:

By the way: forget about using your fancy tablecloth for this meal. Eating crab the "right" way is messy. So, do as we do and haul out some old newspapers so you can wallow in the messiness:

What? You don't have any newspaper? Call 206-464-2121: operators are standing by. And if you think that's a ploy to get you to subscribe to the paper that pays my salary, well, you're right. Crab's cheap now, but. . .

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