5 Sonoma Chefs Share Their Best Dungeness Crab Recipes

5 local chefs share recipes starring Sonoma’s favorite winter fare.

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In the spring, swarms of baby Dungeness crabs float through the protected, shallow waters of North Coast bays like so many tiny stars in a far-off galaxy. But when winter arrives, the mature, male crustaceans fattening up in the eelgrass off the coast become the region’s true culinary stars.

After being steamed and cleaned, the crabs’ hard shells are eagerly cracked open, exposing mounds of moist and delicate flesh whose subtle sweetness pairs well with butter and tomato sauce. Those flavor pairings have been immortalized in such Bay Area classics as Crab Louie Salad and Crab Cioppino.

Like the heirloom tomatoes of summer, the winter supply of Dungeness crabs often seems to be endless; then all of a sudden, it tapers off. That’s when the fishermen pull up their pots, and it’s back to eating mac ’n’ cheese.

Except for last year, when the North Coast crab season was turned on its head. In November 2015, a persistent bloom of toxic algae placed the fishery off-limits to all crabbers, commercial and recreational, until late March of 2016. Through the food chain and their environment, the crabs were found to have accumulated high levels of domoic acid, a naturally occurring neurotoxin that’s dangerous when consumed by humans.

This season the crabs are healthy and plentiful, with hard shells and big bodies. Bodega Bay fisherman hauled their early catch from waters south of Point Reyes, which opened mid-November. By Dec. 3, they were able to sink their pots off the Sonoma Coast, which opened as far north as Salt Point.

Bottom line: Despite some early-season jitters, crab is back. And that means a steady supply of Metacarcinus magister to feed family and friends during New Year’s Day parties and other wintry celebrations, where locals love to gather around a bucket of cracked crab and dig in with both hands.

“You can eat a three-and-a-half pounder yourself easily,” says Jeff Reilly, executive chef at Drakes Sonoma Coast Kitchen at the Bodega Bay Lodge. “I get it from the Tides and take it home and crack it, light a fire and open a bottle of wine.”

Here in Wine Country, many of the region’s best chefs grew up on other shores enjoying other tasty crustaceans. But once they taste the meaty Dungeness, caught in the chilly waters off Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, they’re hooked.

“I grew up on the North Shore of Boston, and I had lobster traps,” Reilly says. “I like the Dungeness crab because it’s not as rich or heavy as lobster … and it’s easier to cook.”

Justin Wangler, executive chef of Jackson Family Wines in Santa Rosa, grew up eating the blue crabs and soft-shell crabs that thrive off the coast of the Carolinas, but converted after moving to California.

“Out here, you learn how to cook the huge Dungeness crabs,” Wangler says. “You get more meat, and I think it may be sweeter.”

Every January, Wangler cooks up a few crab-and-Chardonnay dinners at the winery, featuring the holy trinity of cracked crab, Caesar salad and sourdough. The winery’s Chardonnay is a perfect foil for the richness of the crab and its buttery accompaniments.

“Crab is kind of rich and sweet, and people are putting butter or aioli on it,” Wangler says of the pairing. “Chardonnay has a rich, luscious, buttery texture as well.”

At Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, Executive Chef Jesse Mallgren serves the delicate Dungeness each winter in an elegant salad with winter chicories like radicchio and frisée and mandarin oranges.
“The crab is so nice this time of year,” says the Sonoma County native. “It’s hard to pass up.”

Lisa Lavagetto, chef at Ramekins Culinary School in Sonoma, grew up in the Midwest and first fell in love with Dungeness when she came to California with her husband, Lawrence, in the late 1960s.

“His aunt, Mary Lavagetto, was a phenomenal cook,” Lavagetto says. “She introduced me to the Dungeness crab, and I learned how to make her wonderful crab cakes and hot crab dip along with the crab Benedict. She taught me how to clean them and break them down and how to use all the different parts.”

Manuel Azevedo, chef/owner of LaSalette and Tasca Tasca restaurants in Sonoma, emigrated with his family from the Azores islands of Portugal. After the family landed on the West Coast, his mom decided to make a crab dish that paid homage to the flavors of her native cuisine, like onions and piri piri spice.

“Who doesn’t fall in love with the crabs off the coast here?” Azevedo asks. “Most folks just steam them, but my mom thought, ‘Let’s make a stew.’”

LaSalette’s Crab Stew has been the centerpiece of the family’s New Year’s table ever since. This month, after revamping the menu at LaSalette, Azevedo will be serving his mother’s crab stew at LaSalette as well as at Café Lucia in Healdsburg, which he owns with his sister.

“I’m going to have all the crab and shell beautifully laid out,” he says. “I love that dish so much.

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THE RECIPES

Justin Wangler, Executive Chef at Jackson Family Wines, makes this recipe for boiled, cracked crab at home, alongside a chili sauce and the traditional melted butter. “It’s just a nice, Sonoma County wintertime meal,” he says. “Sharing it with friends spreads the work around, and you can all crack it together and drink wine and have fun.” The sweetness of the crab, especially when dipped in butter, goes perfectly with the rich texture of the Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay. “That’s a no-brainer,” he says. Wangler prefers to start with live crab — the fresher the better.

“You want to make sure they are feisty and moving around,” he says. “You don’t want one that’s slow.” When serving the crab, he uses Joyce Chenscissors to cut through the shells, for easier eating.

Kendall-Jackson Cracked Dungeness Crab
Makes 4 servings

2½ gallons water
4 stalks celery, large dice
2 carrots, large dice
1 onion, large dice
1 fennel bulb
1 bay leaf ¼ bunch parsley
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 cups white wine
2 lemons, halved
1 cup white vinegar
3 (1½-pound) Dungeness crabs In a large stock pot, add water, vegetables, bay leaf, parsley and salt and bring to a rolling boil; reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.

Add the wine, lemons and white vinegar; cook for 10 minutes. Add the crabs, return to a boil and cook for 13-15 minutes. Carefully remove the crabs from the stock pot and shock in an ice water bath. If serving the crabs warm, skip the ice water bath and serve with melted butter.

Josh Silvers of Jackson’s Bar & Oven in Santa Rosa makes a homemade chili sauce for dipping crab that can also be upcycled into a Crab Louie Salad dressing. “For the salad, you get butter lettuce and build it up with tomatoes, hard-cooked egg and crab meat,” he says. “Then just spoon the dressing over it.”

Chili Sauce
Makes 1 cup

1 14.5-ounce can whole tomatoes
2-inch piece of horseradish, peeled and grated ⅓ cup sugar ⅓ cup champagne vinegar
Pinch of salt
Juice of 1 lemon

Put the first five ingredients in a heavy-bottom pan and reduce until thick. Add the lemon juice and blend together.

Josh’s Crab Louie Dressing
Makes 3 cups

¼ cup sweet pickle relish
1 cup mayonnaise 1 cup homemade chili sauce (see above)
1 cup heavy cream ½ ounce brandy
Handful of chopped parsley Salt and pepper to taste

Mix relish, mayonnaise and chili sauce in a bowl.
Whip cream with brandy until it forms soft peaks.
Combine whipped cream with the mayonnaise mixture, chopped parsley and salt and pepper.

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Chef Manuel Azevedo of LaSalette in Sonoma makes a savory crab stew. (Mark Aronoff)

For as long as Manuel Azevedo, chef/owner of Sonoma’s LaSalette, can remember, his mother (also named LaSalette) has been making this dish on New Year’s Day. Although she always lays out a veritable smorgasbord, he opts for a simple bowl of crab stew accompanied by a glass or two of red wine, a romaine salad, a bowl of garlic-buttered penne pasta and some garlic bread. “We set a big table and roll up our sleeves,” Azevedo says. “I figure my hands are going to be a mess, and there’s a point where it’s useless to grab a fork.”

LaSalette’s Crab Stew
Makes about 4 servings

3 large Dungeness crabs, totaling 6 pounds
1½ cups onion compote (see recipe below)
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons Portuguese spice blend (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons Hungarian paprika ½ piri piri pepper, chopped, or pinch of red pepper flakes
3 bay leaves 1½ cups dry white wine
½ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

If the crab is purchased live, bring a large pot with enough water to cover the crab to a boil. Using large tongs, carefully place the crab in the pot and boil for 15 minutes. Pull them out of the pot and place in an ice water bath to cool quickly.

Once cooled, twist off the legs and claws and then pull away the apron (the underbelly). Now separate the carapace (the main shell of the body) from the body to reveal the spongy gills and crab butter — the innards of the crab including the fat attached to the carapace. Remove and discard the gills.

Scoop out and save the crab butter. This is essential, as this butter imparts a rich crab flavor to the stew. Squeeze the collected crab butter through a fine-meshed strainer. Clean each crab body under running water and cut it into 6 pieces.

Crack the legs enough to create a little space for the sauce to penetrate the shell. Collect the body, legs, claws and butter and set aside. Discard the carapace and strained-out material. Heat the onion compote, sea salt, Portuguese spice blend, paprika, piri piri, bay leaves, wine and parsley in a medium pot with a lid. Add the cooked crab, including the strained crab butter, and steam in the covered pot for about 5 minutes to heat through, gently stirring often.

If the stirring is too vigorous, the crab tends to fall apart and look messy. Turn off the heat and allow the pot to sit covered for at least 30 minutes before serving, to ensure the crab absorbs all the flavors. Give the stew a gentle stir every 15 minutes to coat the legs and claws with the other ingredients.

Onion Compote
Makes 1½ cups

4 cups yellow onions (about 3 whole onions), diced into ¼-inch pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced Pinch freshly ground white pepper
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

Sauté all the ingredients in a medium pan over low heat until the onions are a light golden color, sweet and void of pungent onion flavor — approximately 1 hour. Store up to five days in the refrigerator.

Portugese Spice Blend
Makes 1¾ cups

6 tablespoons cumin seeds
4 tablespoons allspice berries
1 tablespoon whole cloves
3 Ceylon cinnamon sticks, broken into ½-inch pieces
¾ cup Hungarian paprika ½ nutmeg seed, freshly grated

Place the cumin, allspice and cloves in a sauté pan over medium heat and cook, stirring, until fragrant and lightly smoking — about 5 minutes. Allow to cool, and grind in a spice grinder.
Add the cinnamon and grind again. Combine the ground spices with the paprika and grated nutmeg, mix well and store in an airtight container for up to six months.

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Dungeness Crab salad at Madrona Manor. (Charlie Gesell)

Every holiday season, Madrona Manor Executive Chef Jesse Mallgren celebrates 18 days of Christmas with a popular series of Dickens Dinners featuring a traditional English menu of Beef Wellington and Christmas Pudding. Mallgren also provides a taste of the Sonoma Coast with an elegant Dungeness Crab Salad made with winter greens like frisée and radicchio, plus mandarin oranges grown in the Healdsburg inn’s garden. The crab is gently napped with Green Goddess dressing, which adds an herbal flavor, while the greens are dressed in a fresh orange vinaigrette.

Dungeness Crab Salad
Makes 8 servings

For Vinaigrette
1 cup fresh orange juice, reduced over heat to ½ cup
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
Salt to taste
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

For Green Goddess Dressing
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon chopped fresh chervil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)

For Crab Salad
1 pound cleaned Dungeness crab meat
1 head frisée lettuce, sliced (white leaves removed)
¼ head radicchio, chiffonaded
½ cup mandarin orange segments
¼ cup toasted sliced almonds for garnish

FOR ORANGE VINAIGRETTE: Whisk reduced orange juice, vinegar and salt until salt is incorporated. Slowly whisk in the olive oil.

FOR GREEN GODDESS DRESSING: Whisk together the mayonnaise, herbs and vinegar.

FOR CRAB SALAD: Mix the crab meat with the Green Goddess dressing and divide on 8 plates. Toss the frisée, the radicchio and the orange segments with 2 tablespoons of the orange vinaigrette and place on top of crab. Sprinkle toasted almonds on top. taste

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Crab Eggs Benedict at Ramekings Culinary School. (Beth Schlanker)

Chef Lisa Lavagetto of Ramekins Culinary School always makes Crab Eggs Benedict during Dungeness season for brunch for family and friends. As a shortcut, she learned how to make a hollandaise sauce in a blender, which helps streamline this labor-intensive dish and get it to the table with less stress.

Crab Eggs Benedict
Makes 6 servings

12 large eggs
Hollandaise sauce (recipe follows)
Large sprig dill weed
6 English muffins
6 tablespoons cream cheese
4 ounces smoked salmon, chopped
2 large tomatoes, thinly sliced into 12 slices
2 fresh lemons (1 for garnish, sliced into 6 wedges)
1 pound crab meat tossed with juice of a half lemon
12 spears of asparagus for garnish, stemmed and blanched until tender

Poach a dozen eggs in advance in a segmented poaching pan to a hard-white/soft-yolk stage and place them in a cool water bath in fridge; you’ll reheat them before serving (instructions below).Prepare the hollandaise sauce and add about 1 tablespoon of the fresh dill, chopped finely. Set aside. Preheat the oven to broil. Halve the English muffins, place them on a baking sheet and lightly toast them under the broiler. Remove muffins and reduce heat to 350 degrees.
Place the cooled eggs in the 350-degree oven to heat them through (about 10 minutes).

Meanwhile, mix the cream cheese with the smoked salmon and then spread the mixture over all 12 muffin halves evenly. Top with a thin slice of tomato and a 12th of the drained crab meat and place the baking sheet in the oven for about 5 minutes to heat through only (not cook) as the eggs finish heating. When all are warmed through, top the muffins with a poached egg and spoon hollandaise sauce over the top. Garnish with the asparagus.

Blender Hollandaise Sauce
Makes 8 servings

6 egg yolks
½ teaspoon salt
Dash of cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 pound unsalted butter, melted until bubbly but not brown
2 tablespoons lemon juice or white wine vinegar

Place egg yolks, salt, pepper and cream in blender and blend for a few seconds at high speed until you have a smooth, frothy mixture. Still going at high speed, start adding hot butter in a thin, steady stream, not too slowly. As you add butter, the sauce will thicken. When half the butter has been added, add the lemon juice or vinegar. Then continue blending until the rest of the butter has been added.

Crab cakes at Drakes (Christopher Chung)
Crab cakes at Drakes Sonoma Coast Kitchen. (Christopher Chung)

Executive Chef Jeff Reilly at Drakes Sonoma Coast Kitchen serves all kinds of dishes showcasing the sweet, fresh Dungeness crab pulled from the waters just a stone’s throw from his restaurant kitchen at the Bodega Bay Lodge. Those dishes come and go, but his Crab Cakes with Tomato Ginger Chutney are so popular it’s impossible to take them off the menu. “That’s one dish that people have learned to love,” he says. His secret? Use very little filler, and let the fresh crab speak for itself.

Dungeness Crab Cakes
Serves 12 as appetizer (36 1-ounce crab cakes)

2½ pounds fresh picked Dungeness crab meat, squeezed dry
1 rib celery, diced fine ½ red onion, diced fine ½ red bell pepper, diced fine ½ poblano chile, diced fine
1 lime, zested and juiced
1 lemon, zested and juiced
5 egg yolks (pasteurized, if possible)
1½ cups mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
2 squirts Tabasco sauce
1 dash cumin seed, freshly toasted and ground
4 cups panko breadcrumbs (1 for the mix and 3 for coating the crab cakes).
Quality oil, for frying.

Thoroughly mix all ingredients in a large bowl (reserving 3 cups of panko for coating.) Using a 1-ounce scoop, scoop the mixture into portions and form cakes with your hands. Coat the cake lightly with panko. Brown one side in pan on medium-high heat with the oil. Flip over and finish in the oven for 4 minutes at 375 degrees. Serve immediately with the chutney.

Tomato Ginger Chutney
Makes 2 quarts

2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes, drained
1½ tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
¾ tablespoon garlic, minced
½ teaspoon chile flakes (crushed red pepper)
¾ teaspoon cumin, ground ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt (kosher)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
¼ bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

Simmer tomatoes, ginger, garlic, chile flakes and cumin for 10 minutes. Add sugar, salt and vinegar. Simmer slowly until mixture thickens, stirring regularly. Add cilantro and simmer for five more minutes. Cool and reserve in the refrigerator.

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