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Monday, January 19, 2009

A Real San Francisco Treat

Maybe you remember those awful commercials with the cable car advertising a "San Francisco treat"? Well, wipe the memory of that macaroni-rice-in-a-box product right out of your mind. I'll tell you what a true San Francisco treat is: Dungeness crab.

As luck would have it, I was befriended last year, by a true "local" -- a San Franciscan with a superb palate and a lifetime of cooking and eating in this town. My friend, K., has recommended so many memorable San Francisco dining experiences that I can't believe the extraordinary good fortune that led us to cross paths. Every person new to a city should be so lucky.

With the holidays around the corner, we were discussing traditions one day and she pointed out that Dungeness season is in full swing and one of the things her family likes to do on Christmas Eve is have a cracked crab dinner.

The whole crab thing is a bit subculture if you ask this Midwestern girl. My husband's family is from Oxford, Maryland... a town on the Chesapeake Bay. Now that's blue crab country, and any member of the family will tell you that blue crabs are the best. They'll go on and on about them and how no other crab compares, but I have them to thank for introducing me to one of the greatest things I've ever eaten: soft-shelled crab. So, I just listen and nod when the crab trash talk starts up. (This reminds me...some day, I'll have to post video of a recent soft-shell crab dinner in our kitchen, in which you can clearly hear my voice saying "Now, stop that!" as I use a wooden spoon to smack at a still-live-and-kickin' crab objecting to being thrown in a hot pan of sizzling butter.)

Now that we are on the West Coast, it seemed appropriate to give Dungeness a try. So one evening a couple days before Christmas, K. and I stopped and picked up a trio of crabs. The fish market guy had them cooked and he prepared them for us by doing most of the cracking with a big mallet.

According to K. a cracked crab feast should include some fine sourdough bread (check!), your choice of melted butter or mayonnaise-worcestershire sauce dip (check!), and a salad...(hmmm, a salad, she says.) There was a salad K. had once at one of our most beloved city dining establishments--Delfina, and she suggested we recreate it, as a starter, for our dinner. We'd follow it with the giant platter of crab pieces for dipping.

The Salad is similar to one I came across in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (yet another favorite restaurant here) and so using that for guidance, and based on what we found in the produce section, we came up with a gorgeous salad--a bed of escarole, mixed with ruby grapefruit chunks, slices of avocado and a scattering of chives, tossed with a champagne vinaigrette--which beautifully showcased the delicate, sweet "Dungie". It was a glorious combination.

My brother-in-law joined us for dinner that night and he shook his head as he quietly ate the Dungeness. "It's pretty good".
K. looked over at my husband who set his fork down and announced, "it's not good... it's fantastic! I'm converted! Here's to Dungie!"
The Local beamed and picked up her glass -- "cheers!"

Crab Salad
(serves 4)

meat from 1 Dungeness crab, shelled * (They're big, people! No will do nicely for a salad for four)
1 ruby grapefruit, supremed and then cut into chunks
1 avocado, sliced
1 handful of chives, minced
1 head escarole, or butter lettuce

Champagne Vinaigrette
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil*
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3-4 teaspoons Champagne vinegar
salt and white pepper to taste
1 small shallot, finely minced

*I had some lemon olive oil from a local producer here in California, so I used 1 tablespoon of the lemon olive oil and 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil.

Prepare the vinaigrette:
Mix mustard, vinegar, shallot and salt together.
Whisk in oil.
Taste for and adjust seasoning and add white pepper to taste.

Dress the crab with several tablespoons of vinaigrette.

Arrange on plates: a handful of escarole, some grapefruit chunks, avocado slices and top with several spoonfuls of crab.

Drizzle salad with vinaigrette and sprinkle with chives.