I’ve always considered myself, mostly incorrectly, to be a proficient crabber. Growing up on Lake Pontchartrain – in a house where half a dozen crab traps lazily dangled off the dock that was connected to our back door, where they sat just waiting for my sister or mother or I to get hungry enough to pull them up in search of dinner – tends to inflate crabbing confidence levels a bit. But here in the Pacific Northwest, on the hunt for Dungeness crab not blue, my homegrown, very unofficial childhood crabbing experience meant nothing.
Toss in a few traps, zig zag around the bay, sip on piping hot coffee because the air is cold and your boots are wet and the sun hasn’t quite made its journey above the mountain horizon yet. That’s how it went on my first foray with friends for Dungness.
“You have to let them marinate,” my friend Colin says very officially but with a shit-eating grin as he weaves our tiny boat up and down the bay. He’s talking about the slimy silver fish heads affixed to the bottom of our traps. Of course, of course, the marination part. That’s definitely a word and I definitely knew that about crabbing for Dungeness. We’ll let them marinate before circling back to check.
A few more zigs, my hands are frozen, the sun is up. The guys light some cheap gas station stogies that leave brown stains on their lips and make me gag a little at the smell and we can’t help but laugh every time we pull in a well-marinated trap – always empty or filled with babies that get tossed back so they can grow big. We pass around a few morning beers and clink them together in the name of good luck, we need luck of any kind at this point. I do my usual spit-on-the-bait trick, which I’m starting to think only works in the murky brown, warm Louisiana waters, but not here. Not in the cold crisp water of Oregon.
Somehow, and maybe it’s the morning beer or else sheer desperation, we convince our friend Jess to kiss the slimy fish bait. “There’s no other way! This is our last hope! You have to!” We really are a bunch of children sometimes. In the name of luck and laughter, she plants a fat one square on the face and tosses the trap back into the water. We zig and we zag, we laugh some more and we forget where we left the traps to marinate. Damn. An hour later we stumble upon our long-lost traps, “there have to be crabs in there now…they’ve been sitting there forever!,” we pull them up…empty.
Needed more marination, maybe.
We headed home empty-handed after that very early morning coastal crabbing adventure. So when I spotted whole cooked crab in Whole Foods, I knew, those beauties were coming home with me.
I went back and forth in the recipe concept development for a while. Do I stay with what I know, how I’ve eaten crabs my whole life – boiled in spices and served alongside a bowl of lemony butter and a baguette – or do I do something different, more playful, more intriguing? I experimented with pasta recipes and bisques and bright coastal-inspired salads and eventually settled on a southern classic, one I’ve eaten in search of warmth and comfort too many times to count in the years since I lived in the south: Shrimp and Grits.
A base of creamy, slow-cooked grits, please don’t skimp on the butter. A spoonful of garlicky tomatoes and onions, seasoned heavily with cayenne and smoked paprika and flecks of dried oregano, thinned out with a few cups of seafood stock. All topped off with juicy, pan-seared shrimp and nuggets of sweet, salty Dungness crabmeat tucked in around the tails. I might be a stranger to west coast styles of crabbing, but I can say with certainty that this, this cozy bowl of crustaceans and coastal comfort, I am no stranger to it.
- 1 1- to 2-lb Dungeness crab, or 1.5 cups of picked Dungeness crab meat
- 1 cup of uncooked white grits*
- 3 tablespoons of butter
- 3 teaspoons of kosher salt, or 1.5 teaspoons of regular salt
- fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
- 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 4 shallots, chopped finely
- 5 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
- 4 tablespoons of all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper, optional depending on spice preferences
- 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, or 1 teaspoon of regular table salt
- 3 roma tomatos, diced, inner flesh removed
- ½ pound of shrimp, peeled with tail ends on
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 1.5 cups of seafood stock*
- ½ lemon, juiced
- microgreens, for garnish
- chives or green onions, chopped, for garnish
- If using a whole cooked Dungeness crab, peel meat from the crab. You can use the crab and shrimp shells to make your own seafood stock (see note below) or you can discard if using store bought.
- Prepare grits in water according to package directions, cooking until creamy and stirring regularly. Add 3 tablespoons of butter, 2 teaspoons of kosher salt (or 1 of regular salt), and fresh cracked black pepper to taste once grits are cooked through. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired. If grits sit for a while before serving, you may need to add water from time to time and stir to keep them from getting lumpy. In my experience, the key to well-cooked grits is cooking low and slow, adding a little water if they start to get too thick/clumpy, and stirring frequently.
- While the grits are simmering, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and cook until it turns fragrant, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to low, add flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until flour and oil turn a light golden color, about 3 minutes. Add oregano, smoked paprika, cayenne, and salt, stirring to combine. Add shrimp and tomatoes and cook until shrimp are cooked through, about 4-5 minutes, turning shrimp over once halfway through. Add stock and lemon juice to the sauce and stir to combine.
- Spoon grits into bowls and spoon shrimp, sauce, and crab over the grits. Garnish with chives and microgreens.
For the sake of simplicity, I used store-bought seafood stock. However, you could also make your own stock using the shrimp and crab shells, or in a pinch you could use chicken or vegetable stock.