Delectable ways to enjoy crab, from Chef John Ash

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I’ll never forget my first taste of crab. I was a very small kid on my first visit to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, and there were giant steaming kettles everywhere filled with fresh Dungeness crab.

We sat at a big picnic table covered with newspaper and spent the next couple of hours picking out the meat, sucking on the shells and eating it simply with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Those kinds of shared times around the table are unforgettable.

There are estimated to be at least 4,500 different crab species in the world, according to the “Oxford Companion to Food.” They range in size from the tiny pea crab which, as the name suggests, is about the size of a pea, all the way up to the giant Japanese Spider crab, which can measure as much as 12 feet from claw tip to claw tip.

In the U.S., the four best-known crabs are blue crab, a species found on the Atlantic coast down to the Gulf of Mexico; stone crabs from around Florida and the southeast; king crab made famous by the TV series “Deadliest Catch”; and Dungeness crab from the Pacific Northwest.

Since I live in Northern California my favorite crab is, of course, Dungeness. Beginning in November, which is the opening of crab season, I look forward to reliving those gustatory memories of that little kid on Fisherman’s Wharf. If you are intimidated by cooking or cleaning crab, there are lots of online tutorials. A good starting place is

Dungeness crab is found on the Pacific Coast from Southern California up to Alaska. It gets its name from the village of Dungeness on the strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington state. They are larger than blues and yield succulent sweet meat from both the body and the legs and claws. When cooked simply in boiling seawater, the shell turns a bright red.

Here are some of my favorite crab recipes. You can use whatever crab meat is available to you, but of course it must be Dungeness!


Fresh mussels, clams and shrimp can also be added to the mix and you are on your way to your own cioppino. Julia Child loved vermouth to make sauces and broths, so get a good one. They aren’t expensive. Serve with a big stack of napkins and lots of crusty French bread.

Dungeness Crab in Wine & Vermouth

Makes 2 servings as a main course or 4 as an appetizer

1 large (21/2 pounds or so) cooked, fresh Dungeness crab

1/4 pound unsalted butter

2/3 cup dry, white vermouth

1/2 cup dry white wine

11/2 cups chicken stock

3 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or a combination of parsley and chives

— Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Clean, crack and separate crab into sections and set aside.

Place remaining ingredients, except parsley and pepper, together in a sauce pan and simmer covered for 5 minutes or so. Add crab, parsley and pepper and warm crab through.

Divide into large bowls with the broth and serve immediately.


The whole idea with crab cakes is to minimize the bread crumbs and maximize the crab. Cakes should just hold together when gently squeezed.

Dungeness Crab Cakes with Tarragon Aioli

Makes 6 servings as a first course

1 pound fresh cooked Dungeness crab meat, picked over to remove any shell

1 egg, beaten

5 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 tablespoon minced green onion

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, white preferred

— Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

— Drops of hot sauce to taste

1/2 cup (or so) coarse dry bread crumbs (such as Panko)

— Clarified butter or olive oil for sautéing

— Tarragon aioli (recipe follows)

— Tarragon sprigs

2 ounces fresh salmon caviar, rinsed in cold water (optional)

Gently squeeze the crab to get rid of any excess moisture and combine with next 7 ingredients. Stir in ½ cup of the bread crumbs. Don’t over mix. You want the cakes to just hold together and be delicate in texture. Mix in additional crumbs if mixture is too moist. (Fry a tester to make sure).

Form into 6 cakes. Lightly dust both sides with additional bread crumbs and sauté in clarified butter or oil until lightly browned on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Serve with a little dollop of aioli on top with the tarragon sprigs and the optional salmon caviar.


Tarragon Aioli

Makes about 3/4 cup

3 large blanched garlic cloves

1 tablespoon or so olive oil

3/4 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

— Drops of lemon juice to taste

Add all ingredients to a mini food processor and pulse until smooth. Store refrigerated for at least one hour to allow flavors to blend before using.


This is a rich soup. Don’t be scared by the length of the ingredient list. It’s really pretty straight forward. You can use frozen corn kernels, but you won’t have the cobs to make the flavorful stock.

Crab and Corn Chowder with Bacon and Wild Mushrooms

Makes 6 to 8 servings

6 medium ears of fresh sweet corn

2 cups or so chicken stock

4 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons olive oil

6 ounces slab bacon cut into 1/4-inch dice

11/2 cups finely diced onion

11/2 cups finely diced leeks, including some of the tender green part

3/4 cup diced celery

1 teaspoon whole fennel seed

3 cups peeled and diced waxy potatoes

2 tablespoons butter

3 cups (6 ounces) cleaned wild mushrooms such as chanterelle or oyster, thickly sliced

— Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)

3 tablespoons dry or medium dry sherry, or to taste

1 pound crab meat, picked over to remove any shell

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Cut corn from the cob and set aside (you should have 5 cups or so). Add the cobs to a deep sauce pan along with the stock and cream and bring to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and set aside.

Add the oil to a heavy soup pot and over moderately high heat, sauté the bacon until browned and crisp. Remove bacon and set aside to drain on paper towels. Discard all but 3 tablespoons of fat from the pot and stir in the onion, leeks, celery and fennel seed and sauté until vegetables are crisp-tender. Add potatoes and stir.

Remove and discard the cobs from the cream mixture and strain into pot with the vegetables. Bring to a simmer and cook until potatoes are barely tender, about 10 minutes. Add the corn and simmer for a couple of minutes more.

In the meantime, melt butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Sauté the mushrooms until tender and season with salt, pepper and thyme leaves. Add mushrooms to soup along with sherry. Correct seasoning to your taste. Thin if desired with additional stock or cream.

Gently warm the crab in the mushroom skillet and divide among warm soup plates along with the reserved bacon and parsley. Ladle the soup over and serve immediately.


Vietnamese in origin, these salad rolls are easy to make and a fun alternative for a DIY party with friends and family. You’ll need to make a visit to one of the many local Asian markets in the area for some of the ingredients.

Crab Rice Paper Rolls

Makes 12 rolls

2 ounces thin rice stick noodles (often labeled vermicelli)

1 medium cucumber

2 firm ripe avocados

12 8- to 9-inch rice paper rounds, softened (see method below)

3/4 pound fresh cooked crab meat, picked over to remove any shell fragments

3 tablespoons or so drained, sweet pickled ginger

1/4 cup finely sliced green onion or garlic chives

1/3 cup loosely packed mint or cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons lightly toasted sesame seeds

— Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)

Soften rice stick noodles in hot water for 10 minutes, then cook until tender in boiling water for a minute or so. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside, covered loosely with plastic wrap.

Peel and seed the cucumber and cut into thin 4-inch long strips either with a mandolin or by hand. Peel the avocado, discard pit and cut into long slices.

Softening rice papers: Dip the dry rice paper into a bowl of hot tap water for 20 to 30 seconds or until they just begin to soften. Lay them out on a clean, dry, hard surface and they will soften further as you lay the filling on. You can do 2 or 3 at a time.

For each roll, lay out a softened rice paper on a clean surface and place a tablespoon or so of the softened rice stick across the bottom third of the round. Top with some cucumber, crab, pickled ginger, green onion and a couple of mint leaves. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Roll the bottom of the paper up over the filling and then roll it up gently but firmly, folding in the sides as you go. The paper will seal by sticking to itself. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. Serve the rolls cut in half with dipping sauce on the side.


Spicy Dipping Sauce

Makes about 13/4 cup

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

5 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

2 teaspoons minced red jalapeno or bird’s eye chili, or to taste

2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

5 tablespoons sugar or to taste

1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Combine all ingredients and stir until sugar is dissolved. Let stand at least 30 minutes before serving for flavors to develop.

John Ash is a Santa Rosa chef, teacher, James Beard award-winning cookbook, author and radio host of the KSRO “Good Food Hour,” airing at 11 a.m. Saturday. He can be reached through his website,

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