Like any seasonal food, when the first Dungeness began showing up in markets in mid-November, nothing but crabs in their purest form would do.
Boiled, cracked and served up with little more than drawn butter was sheer bliss. But after the holiday crab feasts and charity feeds at the local parish and Lion's Club, it can be fun to find other ways to use these sideways-scuttling sea creatures before their season comes to an end.
Purists who don't want to mess much with the simple perfection of cracked crab can try it chef Russ Moore's way. When he hosts special crab dinners at his Oakland restaurant, Camino, he serves crab seasoned generously with herbs and spices, then grilled in the giant fireplace over high heat.
"The heat chars the herbs and spices, and they stick to the shell," Moore says, "then you lick your fingers, and it tastes really good."
Of course, our obsession with crab is hardly new, and a look back in history offers plenty of inspiration. According to food historian Erica Peters, author of the new "San Francisco: A Food Biography" (Alta Mira Press, $38, 242 pages), crab has long had an influence on the Bay Area's food culture. In fact, the Ohlone people ate crab thousands of years ago by baking it in the sand.
Peters says crab's real heyday was in the late 19th century, when San Franciscans and visitors alike were lured to the wharves with the promise of free crab legs when they bought beer. These, days tourists from around the world flock to the Bay Area to taste the storied Dungeness crab in all its forms.
One of those forms is in cioppino, a dish Peters says is based on an Italian fish stew from Genoa called ciuppin. The Italian immigrants, who essentially ran San Francisco's fishing industry, began selling it at crab shacks and restaurants, and it quickly became associated with San Francisco.
"It's our signature dish and something we always identify ourselves with," says Albie Spadaro, the seafood buyer for San Francisco's famed Alioto's restaurant. Rose Alioto, the matriarch of the family, began serving her version of the stew -- with spiced tomato sauce spiked with white wine -- when she converted the family's fish stand and seafood bar into a full-blown restaurant in the 1930s.
Another crab dish that's a bona fide San Francisco treat is Crab Louie, named for chef Louis Coutard. According to Peters, he was well-known in the early 1900s for serving crab in a spicy chili sauce at Frank's Rotisserie, but the dish didn't get its name -- "Crab Leg a la Louis" -- until after his death in 1908. Since then, there have been countless variations, but many still include a dressing made with spicy chile sauce and mayonnaise.
Perhaps the most successful use for crab, at least in terms of imitators, was developed in the mid-20th century just across the Bay at Trader Vic's. Owner Victor Bergeron, working with one of his cooks who hailed from China, came up with a concoction of crab and cream cheese, wrapped in wonton skins and then deep fried. Crab Rangoon became a menu staple at Chinese restaurants from coast to coast.
And then there are crab cakes, a standard at sports bars and high-end restaurants alike. Although many claim to have the best crab cakes around, chef Nicholas Petti of Fort Bragg's Mendo Bistro actually has proof to back it up. His recipe was recently chosen by Sunset Magazine as one of its 25 all-time favorite test kitchen recipes.
Petti's crab cakes are deceptively simple; the meat is held together with little more than panko breadcrumbs and his secret weapon -- a tarragon aioli. The key to crave-worthy crab cakes, he claims, is good ingredients and proper technique.
"I use a very light hand," Petti says. "One out of three orders goes to the table broken or crumbly because I don't want to squeeze them too much."
On cold nights or anytime a comfort food craving sets in, Petti's crab cobbler also hits all the right notes. A subtly seasoned crab stew is topped with biscuit dough in a riff on classic potpie.
And for die-hard crab devotees, a multicourse dinner is the perfect way to celebrate the glorious crustacean -- and the crab theme needn't stop at dessert. Rather than concocting a crab crÃ¨me brÃ»lée (really, please don't), think about using flavors that normally complement crab to carry the theme through to the final course.
Moore served a particularly inspired dessert at one of his recent Monday night crab dinners. He made ice cream flavored with bay leaves, a common ingredient in crab boils and stews, and served it with crisp, sweet benne wafers, a delicacy of Charleston, South Carolina, that, in savory form, makes a good accompaniment to crab dip.
Regardless of the preparation, be it salads, soups or souffle, the point is to enjoy the crab while it lasts. According to Alioto's Spadaro, the demand for crab increases each year, which means prices likely will, too.