One Ingredient Three Ways: Dungeness Crab

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The delicate but distinctive flavor of the Pacific Northwest’s Dungeness crab combines winter’s reality with summer’s promise, making a perfect New Year’s resolution.

STORY AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS

It seems fitting that January is named after the two-faced Roman god Janus, because he reflects how torn I am about what to cook at this time of year. On the one hand, I look toward the skimpy-dress days of summer and want to eat cleanly and healthfully after the excesses of the holidays. But on the other, the relentless gray skies and torrential rain drive me to embrace the rich warmth and earthy satisfaction of traditional comfort foods.

Fortunately, the delicate but distinctive flavor of the Pacific Northwest’s Dungeness crabs lends itself perfectly to both seasons of eating, pairing happily with fennel and citrus for a bright winter crab salad with orange miso dressing; snuggling down with rich cheese and cream in cozy crab and sorrel tartlets; while still being robust enough to stand up to the warm Thai spicing of a deeply satisfying crab, mushroom, and winter squash curry.

Wht better way to start the year?


Winter Crab Salad with Orange Miso Dressing

Eating salad in January can seem a bit of a chore, but this zesty winter salad is packed with more than enough flavor to enliven even those tastebuds dulled by a surfeit of cookies and eggnog.

This salad is full of unexpected juxtapositions: the crunch of pomegranate seeds, nuts, and apples, alongside the earthy creaminess of miso; the zing of ginger and mint against the juicy tang of oranges; and the soft, elegant sweetness of Dungeness crab that brings all the different notes together.

dungeness-crab-paola-thomas-food-photography-4Serves: 4| Active time: 15 minutes

For the salad

2 cups shredded white cabbage or Napa cabbage
2 cups arugula
1 small bunch green onions
1 Anaheim pepper
1/2 fennel bulb
1 small tart apple (Granny Smith or similar)
4–6 ounces fresh white crab meat
1 orange, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
1 handful mint leaves, coarsely chopped 

For the dressing

1 tablespoon white miso paste
Juice of one orange (about 3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
Zest of one orange
1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon flaked sea salt (I like Maldon)
fresh ground black pepper

Place the shredded white cabbage and arugula in a medium salad bowl. Finely slice the green onions and Anaheim pepper and add to the salad leaves. Slice the fennel thinly, cut the apple into matchsticks, and add both to the bowl. Toss the ingredients together until well mixed (I use my hands).

Top with crab meat and orange slices and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds, chopped hazelnuts, and mint.

For the Dressing: Whisk all the dressing ingredients together in a small jug, making sure the miso paste is fully blended in. Spoon the dressing over the salad and toss gently to combine.


Crab and Sorrel Tartlets

These toothsome tartlets lend themselves to all sorts of occasions. Use sorrel if you can get it (ask a gardening friend), as the slight lemony flavor cuts beautifully through the richness of the butter crust and creamy filling — but spinach also works well. Serve a tartlet or two with a sharp green salad for a satisfying lunch, make a bigger whole tart for a family supper, or fashion smaller tartlets as tiny cocktail bites for a New Year drinks party.

dungeness-crab-paola-thomas-food-photography-3Makes: 8 small (3 1/2-inch) tartlets or one large (11-inch) tart | Active time: 30 minutes (start to finish: 2 hours including chilling and baking)

For the butter crust (or use a pre-made ready-rolled pie crust or pre-made tartlet shells)

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
3–5 tablespoons ice-cold water
Butter for greasing the pans

For the filling

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup fresh sorrel leaves, roughly chopped (or substitute spinach)
1 cup baby spinach leaves, roughly chopped
4 ounces fresh white crab meat (canned is OK)
1 cup half and half
3 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
1 cup finely grated gruyere, comté, or cheddar
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (or substitute regular paprika)

Put the flour and salt into a bowl and stir together with your fingers. Add the diced butter and rub it into the flour until you get a breadcrumb-like mix. Leave a few larger lumps of butter, as these make for a flaky crust. Sprinkle the ice-cold water over the flour mix, tablespoon by tablespoon, stirring with a fork until the dough starts to come together. Turn the mix onto a floured surface, press everything together with your hands to create a smooth dough, press into a flat disc, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge for one hour.

Grease your tart pans with a little butter. Pre-heat the oven to 375°F and roll out the chilled dough to about a quarter-inch thick. Don’t make the crust too thin, or it will shrink too much during cooking. If you are using mini tartlet pans, use a bowl or plate and a knife to measure and cut out dough circles that are slightly wider than the pans.

Press the circles of pastry into the pans, making sure you get into all the corners.

Prick the bottom of the tart shells with a fork and bake them blind in the oven for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the filling, heat the butter and oil together in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, sorrel, and spinach and cook until the garlic is fragrant and the green leaves have wilted, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a jug, whisk the half and half, egg yolks, and chopped chives together with a fork and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Spoon the sorrel and spinach mixture into the bottom of the tarts, dividing it equally among them. Top each with the crab meat.

Pour the egg mixture into the tarts until each one is just filled.

Sprinkle each tart with grated cheese and a pinch of paprika.

Bake 12–15 minutes at 375°F, until puffy, set, and golden brown, but still with a slight wobble. Stand for 10 minutes before serving.


Thai-Style Crab, Mushroom, and Pumpkin Curry

One of my most memorable culinary experiences happened a couple of years back on a trip to Thailand. I booked a cooking class at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok and arrived to find that I was the only person in attendance. So I ended up having a four-hour private lesson and personal lunch with the chef. That day, we made curry from scratch, grinding up the paste ourselves from whole spices and making coconut milk from fresh coconuts.

This recipe doesn’t claim to be as authentic, but it borrows from the techniques I learned that day, using ingredients more readily available in our supermarkets. Adding fresh Thai herbs to commercial curry paste and canned coconut milk really lifts this dish to another level, while the inclusion of sweet pumpkin and earthy mushrooms makes this dish rich and satisfying enough for the darkest winter evening.

dungeness-crab-paola-thomas-food-photographyServes: 4–6 | Preparation time: 20 minutes

2 tablespoons peanut or coconut oil
2–3 tablespoons red curry paste (about half a small jar)
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms
1 1/2 cups water
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1 stalk lemongrass (cut into 3 x 2 inch pieces and bruised with the flat of a knife)
2 cups pumpkin or winter squash, cut into 1-inch dice (kabocha squash works very well and does not need to be peeled, just cut out any blemishes)
10 Thai basil leaves, shredded
1 tablespoon granulated sugar (or palm sugar if you can get it)
3 lime leaves, shredded
2–4 heads bok choy or 2–4 cups spinach
6 ounces fresh white crab meat (or canned crab, cooked shrimp, or cooked salmon)
cilantro, roughly chopped, for garnish
lime wedges to serve

Heat the oil and red curry paste in a large pot or wok over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in 3 tablespoons coconut milk and cook for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and stir until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add the water, fish sauce and lemongrass, and stir in the diced squash or pumpkin and simmer 8–10 minutes over a medium heat, or until the pumpkin is cooked through and tender to the fork.

Stir in the rest of the coconut milk and return to a simmer. Stir in the basil, sugar, lime leaves, and green vegetables, and cook for another minute or two until the greens have wilted. Stir in the crab and simmer for another 30 seconds to warm through.

Remove the lemongrass pieces and serve the curry sprinkled with cilantro and accompanied by lime wedges. This curry is perfect ladled over fragrant jasmine rice.

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