I recently came across a photo that must have been taken when I was eight, maybe nine (heck, maybe seven); I am guessing my age judged by the outfit I was wearing which included, mis-matched plaid, an orange down vest, given to me for Christmas and a pair of black waders, striped on top with the standard maroon ring. Did I mention this was Alaska? I was standing on the deck of a boat next to my brother Scott, looking a little scrappy and somewhat tomboy-like (to do with the hair and the outfit but most importantly, the twinkle in my eye as if to say, “I have conquered the world”) holding the legs of a freshly caught king crab. Admittedly, I don’t remember doing this and am not sure where in Alaska we were at the time (although geography lessons did give me a clue, but I’m gonna keep you guessing).
We were always traveling somewhere around the state; sometimes in a Winnebago (probably haven’t heard that word in a while) borrowed from my then orthodontist, Dr. Mirrors, who traded braces for me and my brother’s teeth in exchange for law services from our father. I didn’t much like this set of wheels because the inside seemed a little grungy (only to me), and orange (it was the seventies), but I was given the upper bunk over the cab which was a great place to escape and read my books. Dad, a closet photographer, yet actually big-time lawyer, was in awe of Alaska’s beauty and would constantly nag us to look out the window at the scenery (something Tom does to me now, come to think of it). I wish I had done more of that then because in the earlier days, the enormity of the land was quite spectacular, and the things I probably missed are things that can’t really ever be seen again; in the same way, that is. Mom collected wildflower along the way, leaving them to dry in between the pages of a book, while Dad took way too long trying to capture the perfect photo, and Scott and I secretly enjoyed paling around the outdoors, skipping rocks and hiking through the trails (we left the bickering at home on those journeys).
I digress though, as I am really here to talk to you about king crab (and spot prawns). As I mentioned in my previous post, the end of one thing leaves way for the start of something new. Halibut will leave us soon to appear again next Spring, but fresh king crab and spot prawns are here to ease the pain; momentarily anyways. Tonight, last week, and perhaps one more time this year (I said perhaps, and then knocked on wood) there will be fresh king crab! For those that are going to be around Seattle for Thanksgiving, rumor has it that Gemini is bringing in more fresh king crab for the holiday. As for us, the beach is calling and our fresh catch will be tropical.
I might have mentioned, but can’t recall, that seafood was not something that had me running to the table (or camp site) as a kid. I partly blame this on the fact that Dad didn’t much care for salmon, Mom usually over-cooked it (and I won’t even mention the salmon patties…), plus there was a Tasty-Freeze around the corner from where we lived. Oh, and don’t forget, I did have my fried chicken.
Dad also used to have a client that owned a seafood plant. This client would gift him large quantities of Alaskan king crab legs every year. Now this likely was the real deal, but I was too young to know fresh from frozen. I do however, remember it was succulent and delicious; when we got this, it was always very special and fell easily into melted butter, followed shortly by my mouth.
My most recent memories of this client’s generosity come from my late teens, yet mostly from my early twenties. My Dad and Step-Mom, Linda, would always host Big Dinners. When I came home at the holidays, I looked forward to the solitude of reading full novels (not just a page or two), skating on the lake behind our house, spending time with family and friends (often seated around a table at The Lucky Wishbone) but with anticipation, I looked forward to the Big Dinners that Linda would prepare.
Beyond the paella, Peking duck (Linda’s tradition for her friend and Dad’s ex-law partner Flint), grilled leg of lamb (grilled outside, caught between the indoor fire and several feet of snow), and whatever epiphany or disaster ensued, there was the king crab feed, which often extended to include spot prawns as well.
Newsprint spread across the vast mahogany table, candles filling the large room with flickering light and lucky diners accounted for, a casual tradition would unfold, becoming festive in its’ lavish humbleness. The simple act of peeling away the thorny armor, digging it out (intact and in large chunks) from its’ protective shell, to be bathed in a hot vat of butter or swirled dreamily through a creamy whip of garlic, egg and olive oil, married the simplicity with the splendor.
There were the implements, such as crab-crackers, scissors, and tiny forks. Other sauces such as cocktail, horseradish, and hot, garlicky butter. There was music (Bing Crosby, Frank and Peggy Lee), pre-dinner appetizers, cocktails and wine. Sometimes there were artichoke hearts, whose leaves could peel away and share a dip in both the butter, and the aioli that was set out for the seafood. If I had known Tom back then, he might have asked to marry sooner, but he definitely would have chosen butter for his crab; for me it was aioli. Gotta have the aioli.
This time of year (at least this year) in the Pacific Northwest, I cook up a two-person-plus-two-pup kind of feast. Music plays, but it always plays; jazzy tunes, old classics, blues, or that chill kind of stuff that Tom is into. I am dressed up in my pj’s rather than to my nines, but nobody’s going to judge me – tonight. Crab will be cracked, spot prawns peeled, and a messy feast will be had (in really, a not so Whoville kind of way).
For the crab, you can steam it, eat it room temperature or eat it chilled, but however you choose to do it, eat it fresh – or not at all. For the spot prawns, I usually like to cook them in my wok over high heat, shells and all but tonight, sticking to tradition, I decided to boil them the way Linda taught me, in water, ale and Old Bay Seasoning.
This is a versatile condiment that can be enjoyed in numerous ways. There are thousands of recipes out there, but like a good martini, it is more about proportion, quality and technique rather than a recipe. I asked Linda how she does hers and this is what she said (I can attest to it’s deliciousness):
“Into a blender jar, place 3-4 cloves of garlic, a whole egg, an egg yolk, 1/4 tsp Dijon mustard, 1 tsp salt and 2 tbsp of lemon juice. Blend for a few seconds, then with the motor running, very gradually add 1 cup of good olive oil. Continue blending until thick and silky. Check for taste and add more lemon juice if warranted. Makes about 1 1/4″ cups. I have made this many times and know the oil must be added very gradually, particularly at first.”
STACEY’S COCKTAIL SAUCE
I am a big fan of cocktail sauce (Tom is a big fan of my cocktail sauce); I make it with a bit of a twist. Once when I was working at Etta’s, one of the cooks came from behind the line and took a scoop of the espresso grounds and added them to her bowl. Curious, I asked what she was doing, and was told that espresso grounds got added to the cocktail sauce. Back at home, I began adding it to my own recipe and have never looked back. It adds marvelous depth and complexity.
In a medium bowl, mix together 1/2 cup ketchup, 1/4 cup chili sauce, 1 heaping tsp prepared horseradish, 1 TB Worcestershire sauce, 1 TB lemon juice, 1 TB chopped shallot, 1 TB used coffee grounds, 2 TB fresh chopped cilantro. Add Tabasco sauce to taste and the adjust seasoning as needed. Simple Simon, quick and easy (to make it even easier, I never ever measure the ingredients – I just adjust as I go).
TOM’S GARLICKY BUTTER
The traditionalist that he is, Tom likes his crab dipped in butter. Quite honestly, with crab this good, no sauce is required but I make this for him every time nonetheless (although he dips into it fewer times than he used too).
Combine, in a small saucepan, approximately half a stick of butter, 1 clove chopped garlic, juice from 1 slice of lemon, and 2TB white wine. Keep it over medium heat, stirring, until the butter has melted. To serve, divide among individual ramekins set over a flame. I use this for up to four of us, easily could be doubled though.
To make individually, simply put a TB of butter, a little chopped garlic, and a few dribbles white wine in each ramekin. Melt this in the microwave and squeeze in a little lemon juice. I usually add some fresh chopped tarragon to mine but Tom prefers his without (and he would assure you, this is damn fine).
Linda Brown said:
Ah, spot prawns! The mere mention of these tasty crustaceans sends shivers of rapture through my growling stomach. No Alaskan’s life is complete without a regular serving of spot prawns. While technically a shrimp, these guys are big enough to fight for the title.
While they also come from the waters of California and the Pacific Northwest, they’re a bit smaller than their Alaskan brethren. And speaking of brethren, all spot prawns start life as males, and finish up as females. Ummmmm……
Stacey’s post is evocative of the many Big Dinners we’ve shared and sometimes these small succulents played a role.
My mother squeezed off their little heads and removed the vein, then boiled them in a mixture of half beer, half water, just to cover, and a good hit of Old Bay seasoning. I still prepare them this way, bringing the brew to a boil, adding the prawns (or shrimp), bringing back to simmer then taking off the heat for 10 minutes. They must go into a chilled water bath immediately. I also freeze their heads to use later for stock. Consider risotto. Or paella. And like revenge, they are best served cold boiled this way, with a standard red cocktail sauce or better, the garlicy, lemony homemade aioli Stacey posted..
Best of all, though, think late afternoon; backyard; a tray of these little lobsterlike morsels, briefly marinated, quickly grilled and served hot to one’s most loving (and appreciative) friends and family. Memories are made of this.
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