Friday, January 27, 2012

How to prepare and cook Dungeness crab

Paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) is a health concern with symptoms of numbness or tingling of the face, arms, and legs, dizziness, nausea, and, in severe cases, death. It's pretty prevalent in Southeast Alaska and you can get it from eating clams and mussels that have bioaccumulated neurotoxins produced by the microalgae Alexandrium sp. The neurotoxins don't lose potency just from freezing the meat or cooking it.

incidents of PSP, showing why people stick to the
'R' months when harvesting bivalves

Neurotoxins are also accumulated in crabs, although they're only found in crab viscera ("innards") and not the meat. This is why it's important to know how to properly prepare your Dungies before cooking and eating them. (Read more about PSP in Dungeness crabs Metacarcinus magister here.)

a lovely Dungeness crab complete with barnacle accessory!

The basic steps to properly, quickly, and safely killing and cleaning your Dungeness crabs are to:

1. Crack off the top of their carapace quickly. You can even see a depiction of this step by famed Alaskan artist Rie Muñoz here.

2. Clean out their internal organs - this is what kills them almost instantly because it quickly removes their heart and nerves (remember learning about crustacean nervous systems from this post?), and by removing their hepatopancreas and other innards you are removing your risk of PSP!

3. Crack the dead crab in half, leaving one claw and four legs on each half. Now you're ready to boil 'em for 5 -7 minutes!

perfectly cleaned, halved, and cooked

For a video, you can click on this link. It's a bit crude, but it shows how the guy can get the job done quickly. The crabs' legs twitch a bit after the fact, but that's just like how human bodies will twitch after they're dead sometimes, so even though in the comments section someone is complaining about the crab being alive after being gutted and halved, that's just not true.

ready to crack into!

I've seen videos and articles on boiling the crabs whole, and even heard a rant from Gordon Ramsay (on MasterChef) on the "inhumane" way of killing crabs by quickly splitting them in half rather than boiling them alive, but this is the best way to do it if you don't want to risk getting PSP.

don't worry, Gordon, I'm still a fan

Luckily for us, researchers are working on a PSP monitoring program to detect the two main players in Alaska, Alexandrium fundyense and A. ostenfeldii, by developing a quantitative molecular assay which can tell not only presence or absence, but also level of toxicity (I learned about it at the 2012 Alaska Marine Science Symposium). 

If you're not into killing your own crabs, no worries - canned crab is just fine, especially if it's not Dungie season in your area. Just promise me you won't use fake krab meat for anything other than a California roll. Remember, that stuff is surimi (mostly ground pollock).

OK, OK, even after observing pollock offloads at the 
Alyeska Plant in Dutch Harbor, I'll still eat this stuff!

So, now that you have your crab meat ready, have fun cooking any of these recipes:

Amalga crab cakes
Crab apple salad
Creamy crab and pepper spread

I'm going to post a couple recipes next week in preparation for Super Bowl Sunday, so keep an eye out for that too!

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