Red King Crab

It was a calm June day in Southeast Alaska. We were setting 200-lb, 7-ft base diameter conical crab pots to survey the red king crab grounds for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. As our own research vessel was overbooked this June, we were working on a chartered commercial vessel. We zigzagged through the area setting pots in preselected locations. Setting pots on a survey is different from commercial fishing as the pot locations are randomly predetermined (within areas of known crab habitat based upon historical survey catch distribution) so that the catch will be representative of the area and year, not of the skipper’s skill and knowledge. However, when chartering with a commercial skipper we habitually set additional ‘skippers choice,’ ‘prospecting’ pots using his knowledge of the area to expand our own.

I was having a hard time making myself useful. The deckhand wasn’t big, but commanded the deck with lithe, fluid movements. Grab the bait jars, throw them in the pot, snap them onto the webbing, using the hydraulic boom, lift the pot onto the launcher, throw the buoy and line over, launch the pot on the skippers’ quiet command over the deck speaker. Having performed these tasks as part of a team of three, I could see that there wasn’t any wasted movement here. The sparse, purposeful motion reminded me of the Japanese tea ceremony. As a biologist, field work is a welcome break from sitting at a computer analyzing data and writing reports; and it is a joy to work physically on the deck of a boat, so I did my best to contribute.

Several hours later we were done setting pots. We entered data into the computer as the boat rocked gently at anchor, then ate a simple tasty dinner, watched the sun set, and hit the sack.

The next morning, 18 hours later, we started pulling pots. Another nice day, not too sunny to dry out the crabs and make the bait smelly, but not too blowy or rough either, and the horse flies hadn’t hatched out yet as they would later in July. The pots came aboard as smoothly as they had gone over. Throw the hook to grapple the buoy, hand over hand the buoy aboard, wrap the crab block, and with a whine of the hydraulics, the pot surfaces. Hook the pot with the boom hook and pull it over the deck, unhook the purse line that holds the pot bottom closed, and release the crab onto the sorting table. Sort and measure the crab. There were big beautiful legal males, most with shiny clean shells, a few barnacle-studded and scratched; the females all have abdomens bulging with new purple-brown egg clutches, and the juveniles are spiny and quick. After we measure them, crabs are released gently overboard; they swim away, dreamlike into the depths. It is satisfying, rewarding work.

Back in the office our biometrician was waiting impatiently for this data, as the time between data collection, analysis, and management decisions is tight. He estimates the red king crab population size through mathematical modeling techniques. This information is used to set harvest levels for the commercial and sport fisheries in the area.

While fun to know how crabs get to our table, the biggest consideration for cooks is what recipe to use! In all honesty, I like king crab best sectioned, boiled in lightly salted water and dipped in butter. However, if you are lucky enough to have an abundance of this delicacy, then I can heartily recommend this recipe.

 

Thai Red King Crab Legs

Tools:

Cooking shears

Cutting board

Knife

Hand juicer

Large fry pan or wok with lid

 

Ingredients:

1 lb shell-on, uncooked red or golden king crab legs

3 T grape seed oil or canola oil

2 large shallots

1 clove garlic

1 ½ T ginger, julienned

2 T Thai fish sauce

1 t red pepper flakes

½ c dry white wine

Juice of 1 lime

½ lb green beans

1 c cooked short-grain white rice

 

Instructions:

  • Cut king crab legs in sections and then halve lengthwise with kitchen shears.
  • Slice shallots and garlic thinly and julienne ginger.
  • Cut green beans in bite-size lengths, remove stems.
  • Put grape seed oil in wok and heat until sizzling, add shallots, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes, cook until shallots are translucent.
  • Add shell-on king crab leg sections, green beans, fish sauce, chicken stock, and white wine to shallot mixture.*
  • Cover and cook for 6 minutes.
  • Serve over boiled short-grain white rice.
  • This recipe feeds 2 people.

 

* If crab leg sections are cooked, add them at about minute 4 of the 6-minute cooking time.

Spot Prawns

I had first encountered Alaskan spot prawns in the 1980s as a graduate student in Japan: raw, whole, and sliced exquisitely on platters of sashimi that I squeamishly tasted but was too much a neophyte to truly appreciate. Now, in 1997, I found myself sorting and boxing glistening spot prawns at 1:00 a.m. on a chartered commercial fishing vessel. It had seemed so reasonable on my spreadsheet in the office, we would pay for the stock assessment survey by selling prawns, which would be unlikely to survive the trip to the surface and measuring and other biological examinations anyway. Brad, the captain and I had figured that our measuring would slow the pot pulling down a bit and adjusted accordingly but he had never worked with biologists on a charter and I had never pulled shrimp pots before. Oh, and then there was the tug and log barge towing a string of our pot gear that we had had to chase down. So there we were, laughing slap happily at Matt’s jokes as we helped Brad and Debbie box the day’s catch. Six days and not much sleep later, we rounded Cape Chacon, and arrived in Ketchikan richer in: data, a freezer hold full of prawns, and the wisdom shared by a master fisherman—and several pounds heavier with hastily consumed spot prawns.

As a biologist, cook, and hunter-gatherer, shrimp are one of my favorite foods. However, I find myself being annoyed recently by the lack of distinction made between cold water northern (Pandalids) and warm water southern (mostly Penaeids) shrimp species. Cooks especially need to understand this distinction as it has recipe choice considerations. Among those differences, Pandalids are protandric hermaphrodites (starting as male and later transitioning to female); after mating, females extrude and carry eggs on their abdomen during the fall and winter months, when most fisheries occur. In contrast, Penaeids are either male or female and broadcast their eggs and sperm into the water column so you never encounter one carrying eggs. It is unnecessary to devein cold water shrimp, but some people like to remove the dorsal abdominal tract (also known as deveining) of warm water shrimp as it often contains grit or can contribute an off flavor or contamination.

Commonly harvested northern, cold water shrimp species include spot prawn (scientific name Pandalus platyceros), coonstripe (P. hypsinotus), sidestripe (Pandalopsis dispar), northern (P. borealis), Alaskan (P. eous), and pink (P. jordani). The wild capture fisheries in Alaska and British Columbia employ shrimp pots to target spots and coons, while Alaskan bottom beam trawl fisheries target Alaskan and sidestripe shrimp. In Maine and throughout the North Atlantic, trawl fisheries target northern shrimp. In Oregon, a midwater trawl fishery targets pink shrimp.

The larger spot prawns, coonstripe, and sidestripe shrimp are sold fresh-frozen, shell-on, raw, whole, or tailed and sometimes live. The smaller Alaskan, pink, and northern shrimp, along with small sidestripe shrimp are generally sold as shelled tails, which are sometimes pre-cooked as salad shrimp.

So how do we use northern cold water shrimps to best advantage? They can be used in any dish currently starring their warm-water cousin (curry, gumbo, tempura), but in my opinion, they are better used in subtle dishes that highlight their firm texture and delicately sweet flavor. Smaller northern salad shrimp excel in nori-maki sushi, macaroni salad, as salad toppings, in shrimp cocktail, quiche, risotto or Fettucine Alfredo.

More leisurely culinary exploration has yielded these recipes:

Mom’s Shrimp Macaroni Salad

Ingredients

2 lbs cooked northern wild salad shrimp

2 large shallots

1 clove garlic

4 hard-boiled eggs

3 medium dill pickles

1 lemon

6 T any good mayonnaise, not lowfat

2 T apple cider vinegar

2 t Worcestershire sauce

1 t fresh ground black pepper

1 t powdered mustard

1 t sea salt

2 T chopped fresh parsley

½ t red pepper flakes

paprika

1 16-oz bag macaroni noodles

Instructions

  • finely mince shallots and garlic
  • chop hard-boiled eggs and dill pickles
  • juice lemon, mix with mayonnaise, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce
  • add shallots, garlic, and dry ingredients
  • boil macaroni to ‘al dente’ stage per package instructions and drain
  • toss shrimp, eggs, pickles, and macaroni with lemon juice/spice/herb mixture
  • sprinkle salad with paprika and garnish with additional fresh parsley to beautify

This salad is best made a day in advance and stored in the refrigerator to allow flavors to meld.

Northern wild prawns are delicious any way they are cooked and can be eaten raw as sashimi, or in ceviche, or nigiri-sushi; or cooked in paella, risotto, Asian noodle dishes like Pad Thai, and grilled, pan-fried, steamed or boiled. The shell may be used to extract additional shrimp flavor to a broth. Egged shrimp are available seasonally and the eggs are delicious. Lest you be concerned about eating egged shrimp, be aware that all large cold water shrimp are carrying eggs at some stage of development, either externally, on the tail, or inside the head region before they are extruded. Finally, before you read on, gentle reader, I admonish you DO NOT OVERCOOK THESE SHRIMP; steam, boil, grill, or pan fry for no longer than it takes to turn their flesh opaque, in general about 3 to 5 minutes, but this varies with prawn size so pay attention.

Here is one of my favorite recipes:

Pan-fried Northern Wild Prawns

 Ingredients

1 lb shell-on wild spot prawns, coonstripe shrimp, or sidestripe shrimp, preferably with eggs

2 T extra virgin olive oil

6 large shallots or a medium-sized yellow onion

1 t grated fresh ginger

1 clove garlic

½ tsp fresh ground black pepper

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1 T sugar

2 T soy sauce (preferably Kikkoman)

½ cup of any decent white wine

Instructions

This recipe serves four people.

  • finely slice shallots, grate ginger, peel and mince garlic
  • heat olive oil and sauté shallots and garlic to translucent
  • add spot prawns, grated ginger, sugar, black pepper, and red pepper flakes, sauté about 2 minutes
  • add soy sauce, and white wine and sauté until prawns go from translucent to opaque, 2-3 more minutes
  • remove prawns
  • top white rice with prawns, then spoon onions and deglazing sauce over to taste