I grew up across the bridge in Novato. One of my fondest food memories is of eating fresh cooked crab with the family. My dad would pick them up on his way home from work. Moms and I would cover the kitchen table with newspapers in preparation for the impending mess. We’d whip out the nutcrackers and, of course, those tiny little two-pronged forks for a most efficient massacre.
I’m lookin’ to revive those days of yore, but this time within San Francisco. At the time I began this story, it was a few months into California’s Dungeness crab season and I wanted to take full advantage of the delicious bounty. As local chefs often infuse crab into their menus, I set out to cook up a few mouthwatering dishes alongside the pros.
And a quick note for all the locavores out there: Most of the Bay Area catch is best by winter’s end in mid-March. An Alaskan harvest is brought down from March to June, when the jig’s officially up.
I decide to begin my journey into the crab-infested restaurant waters with Maverick’s Baltimore Crab Fluff. In scoping out crab cakes in our 7 x 7 lay of the land, I found the fluff to have topped the cake in flavor and overall glamour. A twist on the conventional version, fluff is an East Coast dish involving a crab mixture dipped into batter and fried.
At Maverick, I meet with prep cook Roberto Hernandez who will be showing me how to set up the fluff. I am led into the small, sterile prep room behind the kitchen and given an apron and plastic gloves. Roberto gets all of our ingredients ready as sous chefs run by us, busily preparing for tonight’s dinner. Standing opposite Roberto and me is prep cook number two, Joe McColgan, who is stationed at the sink with the seemingly singular task of cleaning vegetables.
Once I’m properly outfitted, Roberto begins by opening containers of lump crabmeat sourced from Maine. (Because Maverick’s fluff is on the menu year round, the chefs look to Maine for consistent quality without having to switch purveyors after California’s season is up.) We squeeze the excess water out of the crab to prevent the fluff from falling apart, and to further stabilize the ingredients, Roberto cracks eggs and adds only the yolks, along with a large spoonful of Dijon mustard. Old Bay seasoning is lightly sprinkled all over to cover the surface of the mound of meat. The ingredients are mixed and then rolled into balls using a small ice cream scoop.
I go back to the kitchen and watch sous chef Josh dip the crab filling into the tempura-esque batter. In a traditional fluff, the crabby balls are dipped in a beer batter and fried. However, Maverick uses seltzer water to keep the batter light, with a consistency almost like tempura. He lets 'em fry to a deep golden brown.
Josh creates a rémoulade to serve with the fluff, and finishes the dish with a classy touch: winter chicory, frisée, endive, parsley, and celery leaf top the fluff, and a slice of pickled cucumber, delicately curled into itself, is set at its side. Upon tasting, the fluff is crunchy on the outside and crabby on the inside. The sweet and tangy rémoulade is addicting as I keep swiping the forkfuls of fluff across the plate. Success.
My next stop is with Valerie Luu of Little Knock, a regular food vendor at the Underground Market put on by forageSF. I first had her Crab Sautéed Glass Noodles on Vietnamese New Year, when Valerie and Katie Kwan launched a pop-up café called Rice Paper Scissors. The flavor of the dish was so rich and dynamic that I had to come back for the recipe.
Valerie works out of a commercial kitchen space in the Mission. When I meet her there, a radio is blasting heartfelt Spanish ballads from the speakers and the smell of freshly baked cookies envelops the kitchen. We’re sharing the space with a slew of street and underground food entrepreneurs, preparing for their own weekend ventures.
We put on our aprons and start by hesitantly picking up and throwing live crabs into a giant vat of boiling water. It’s a dangerous game – the crabs are already mad from being piled together in a plastic grocery bag. Tongs prove unsuccessful on the slippery hard shells so bare fingers have to suffice. It takes only moments in the bubbling bath before the feisty crabs are no longer intimidating, 20 before they’re completely cooked. In that time, we chop a few pounds of onions and cry insurmountable amounts of salty liquid punishment over the mass slaughter.
As the crabs boil, Valerie tells me about the origins of this recipe. It’s a longtime family favorite, and Valerie’s grandma last served it to the family for Christmas. Valerie started Little Knock because she wants to introduce people to the traditional dishes that she grew up eating. When most people think of Vietnamese food, they tend to think of pho and stick only with it – but there’s so much more out there. Valerie also likes that she gets to hang out with her grandma while learning recipes and preserving that part of her identity through language and food. She’s also been inspired by her visits to Saigon, where street food vendors are a huge part of the food culture. Valerie recalls seeing an old lady in her pajamas, cooking up food in an alley with motorbikes buzzing by. No fear.
Twenty minutes pass – the crabs are ready. Valerie and I fish the bright red crustaceans out with tongs and cool ’em under cold water so they don’t overcook. We move them to the prep station where Valerie breaks down the process of efficient crab cracking.
First, with the back of the crab facing you, separate the top shell from the body with your two thumbs. Pour the liquid and fluffy white crab brains, also called crab butter, into a container for later use (for the Secret Sauce). Leave the yellow stuff, that’s the crab’s digestive system. Some consider it a delicacy but it does contain chemical contaminants so I don’t suggest eating it. Once the top shell is off, you will see some thin and white loosely attached gills that you need to remove and also discard. Then twist off the legs at the joints that are connected to the body. Take the body and break it in half with the triangular-shaped belly flap facing you. Finally, use a nutcracker and the point of a crab claw to fish out the meaty parts.
Now that the crab is prepped, we move on to the noodles. Valerie presoaks the glass noodles (made from mung bean starch) in warm water for 30 minutes before she starts cooking. The noodles themselves are bland, but they act as a blank canvas to absorb the flavors of the dish.
Valerie fires up a wok and begins boiling chicken broth, into which she adds the presoaked glass noodles. In a separate pan, she sautés yellow onions, garlic, mushrooms, and crab. When the noodles absorb the chicken broth, she adds the Secret Sauce. (Not to worry. The ingredients are listed at the end of this article, so the secret can be yours, too.) When the noodles and sauce are a dark caramel color, she mixes in the sautéed crab along with other ingredients into the wok.
The tasting sesh proved that a squeeze of lime and dash of Sriracha perfectly balance the sweetness of the crab and caramelized veggies. I love the depth and complexity of the overall dish and would take it over my grandma’s frostbitten hot dogs any day.
Which brings me back to my family, who started this whole crab journey. When it comes to crab, the Silvoys gets right down to business. Crack, dip in butter, eat. I still love the simplicity of those childhood crab fests and will continue the tradition, but I’ve also come to appreciate crab in its many forms. It’s always fun to learn other folks’ recipes. Tasting them is even better.
Get a taste of Maine with the Crab Fluff at Maverick. Or make it yourself, using the recipe below. Rice Paper Scissors will be popping up once month in to-be-determined San Francisco sidewalks and alleys. Find updates on Twitter @littleknock and @kitchensidecar. In between Little Knock pop-ups, try making Valerie’s Crab Sautéed Glass Noodles with the ingredients listed below.