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Krabbe & kransekake

If K’s are funny, Norwegian is hilarious.

In all seriousness, it’s been a month of crab and kransekake. Crab because I wrote a story about going crabbing for Edible San Francisco, so I had to go crabbing to write it because the whole angle of the assignment was that 1) I love crab and 2) I’d never caught one before. Rough seas and crab fishermen strikes seemed like they were going to thwart my best efforts, but I finally found myself on Baker Beach at the ass crack of dawn with my My Very Tall Cousin Sam, a two-person kayak, a crab pot, and a professional photographer. My dad, who was visiting from Minneapolis, came along to see the show. You can read the full story in the Winter 2013 issue.

Kransekake because two different friends had occasions to celebrate and for both of them I made a kransekake. The one above was for our friend and neighbor. In place of the tiny paper Norwegian flags that traditionally decorate this wedding/birthdayChristmas cake, my son and I made flags with pictures of the man of honor on them. It was, to put it simply, a hit. I was thinking of baking kransekake for Christmas Eve, but the entire household agrees that two kransekakes in one month is sufficient.*

These kransekake-marked celebrations were both for people I admire a great deal. They are both smart, creative professional artists who are completely unpretentious and always up for fun. They remind me what I love about San Francisco.

And as much as I love my adopted city, there are times when I hate it. One of my younger cousins was in town and we met for lunch. Being the younger brother of the cousin I went crabbing with, he had heard about our adventure and was asking about it. As we talked, a woman eating several tables over came to our table and said “Excuse me, but I’m a vegetarian. I’m trying to eat my lunch and your discussion of crabs is disgusting.” She proceeded to use the word “disgusting” two more times and to have the unmitigated gall to ask us, in the most righteous, entitled way imaginable, to stop talking about what we were talking about.

I won’t get into how I laughed and asked if she was kidding, or how my cousin recognized that getting into it with such a person was a waste of time and told her sure, whatever. I won’t go into detail about how our discussion was not “disgusting” by any common definition or how we weren’t talking about killing, eating, or cleaning crabs, just going out in boats on cold water with traps. I won’t drone on about how her reward was getting to listen to us talk about how bat-shit crazy she was and trying to come up with scenarios where we would ever feel we had the right to tell someone else what to talk about (we only came up with examples that would first and foremost involve a call to the police).

I will, however, tell you my New Year’s wish: May all the grown-ups stop telling each other what to do.

I will eat my crab and bake my kransekake, as my adopted city and my homeland dictate, respectively, for this time of year. You can eat your bananas (disgusting!) or join a drum circle (my own personal nightmare!) and I promise I won’t get in your way.

* If you haven’t made any kraneskakes yet, here’s how: Whirl 1 pound blanched almonds (I use slivered almonds to avoid having to boil and peel all those nuts individually) in a food processor until they are ground to a fine meal. Stir in 1 pound powdered sugar to combine them well before stirring in 3 egg whites. If your kitchen is warm, you may be able to proceed as is, but I find the dough is easier to work with if I warm it in a double-boiler (or a metal bowl set over simmering water). Once the dough is malleable, transfer it to a pastry bag or large plastic bag with a snip of one of the corners cut off (I like this method because of the insanely easy throw-it-away clean-up). Pipe out thin rings into well-greased kransekake molds (you can get the Norpro Nonstick Kransekake Forms I use here) or, draw concentric circles on pieces of parchment paper and semi-free-hand it – a bold but workable move.

Bake the circles at 300°F for 30 minutes, remembering to rotate the pans or sheets about half-way through the baking time to avoid over- or under-done specimens. Let them cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then remove them and let cool on cooling racks.

If they break coming out of the molds, don’t stress – you can glue them back together easily enough when building the tower. While they cool, make a royal icing of about 1 cup powdered sugar, either a drop or two of vaniall extract or 1/2 tsp. lemon juice,  and enough milk to make an icing that is at once spread-able and drip-able. Stack the cooled rings, from largest to smallest, using the icing to glue each ring to the one underneath in. Decorate with drips of icing around the outside and any tiny flags you like.

My son dreams of the day I will let him add sprinkles to the whole thing. Serve the kransekake by letting people simply rip off pieces (in my experience, people need a bit of prodding to do this). Like all Norwegian desserts, it’s truly fabulous with coffee.

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Thanksgiving crabs

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I am no blind California-phile. I am not a San Franciscan cheerleader. I see plenty wrong with this state (many of which start with the word “prop” – 13 and 8 you know I’m talking about you) and even with this beautiful city (I would not at all mind a food market of some sort where I could go and, without parking or tourist hassle, just get all my groceries), but one bandwagon I can hop on with glee is the Northern California tradition of Dungeness crab at Thanksgiving. That’s right, the locals here eat crab at Thanksgiving – usually before but sometimes alongside the bird. Some families have it the night before, some the day after, but crab is *often* part of the feast. Brilliant.

I had my crab early this year. My Very Tall Cousin and his Viking Goddess Girlfriend called on Sunday offering to bring crab, fresh off the boats in Half Moon Bay, over for dinner. The answer, of course, was yes please.

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They brought not just the crabs, but crab-sexing knowledge, expert crab-cleaning skills (My Very Tall Cousin was raised in Dungeness, Washington – yes, like the crabs), and the traditional Norwegian accompaniments of garlic-y herb mayonnaise, red onion, and fresh baked bread. I did not even have to melt butter. I boiled some water for them, opened the wine, and watched.

My son got pretty into the crabs – learning how to pick them up, moving them around, claiming one was his “pet” – but also had no trouble when they all got lowered into the pot. They were relatively cooperative. We had the pot really hot, so I like to think their demise was swift. The banging was minimal and there were no escapees. (I bring an inch or two of salted water to a violent boil in a very large pot, add the crabs, cover, and cook for just under twenty minutes – pull the crabs out and get them in very icy water to stop the cooking and chill them at least slightly for eating. The sharp edges are enough of an eating hazard, no one needs to get burned too.)

My Very Tall Cousin iced them down and cleaned them. My dashing husband helped, querying about the edibility of various parts along the way (that man will eat anything inside a shell – even the weird bitter gross parts I’ll run across a room to pull out of his gaping jaw to throw away).

Then we brought everything to the table and started picking. Picking the crab meat is, of course, one of the great appeals of crab eating – it extends the meal, gives you an obvious conversation topic if you find yourself wanting, and forces you not just to touch, but actually to play with your food.

Everyone has their own crab-picking style. My son picks and eats, picks and eats. My dashing husband, Very Tall Cousin, and I all had the patience to pick for a bit to build up enough crab to try it Norwegian-style, piled on the fresh baked bread with a slather of the yummy mayo, before devolving back to pick-and-eat-and-suck on the shells, extracting every bit of crab and crab-flavored juice.

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The Norwegian at the table was the most impressive, however. Calm and civilized, she picked an entire half a crab, acquiring a mound of crab meat on her plate, before assembling her sandwich and eating it at leisure. The rest of us were like wild dogs in comparison, slurping and grabbing at our food, bending fork tines with our desperate need to get into those shells fast enough.

No matter our crab style, though, we all agreed that the first crab of the season (crab season here starts in November – hence the Thanksgiving tradition – and runs into May) are always the sweetest and meatiest. These fine creatures were excellent examples of their kind.

I have much to be thankful for this year, I hope you do too.

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Live crabs and steamed clams

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No, I didn’t eat the crab live. But I did eat Dungeness crabs that, upon my request, were pulled live from a tank of seawater next to the ocean in which they once scavenged before being tied into a mesh bag, steamed over boiling seawater in a giant cinder-block stove, cleaned and cracked, and brought (still warm!) to a picnic table overlooking the water at which I sat with with friends who have known me since before I could legally drink alcohol. We got some steamed clams too.

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The shells on the left are filled with “crab butter” – a mixture of the crab’s natural fat and seawater that comes out as the crab is cleaned. I’ve eaten a lot of Dungeness crab in my day. I don’t want to start any fights or anything, but I like crab more than lobster. A lot more. A bite or two of lobster and I’m all set. But crab? I could eat it all the live-long day. I had never had “crab butter” though. I am now fluctuating between joy at having discovered it and rage at all the crab I ate without it.

These crabs and clams and friends and beers were all enjoyed in the clear, bright sunshine of a glorious stretch of summer weather on the Oregon coast. As I tried to pick crab with a plastic fork and a toothpick (FYI, in my experience the best crab-picking utensil is a chopstick) and cut my fingers on the shells and got spritzed with crab juice whenever someone cracked a claw by pounding it with a beer bottle, I felt lucky.

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As the sign near the tables stated: “This is not a restaurant. Clean up after yourself.”

Sure, they cook food for you which you eat there, but the sign is right: it isn’t a restaurant. It is a boat launch/marina with a stand where you could clean your catch and/or buy crabs, clams, and oysters to take home live or steamed. There are picnic tables next to the stand. Inside the little store is the usual assortment of convenience store items (including soft drinks, beer and wine), as well as paper cups with 4 tablespoons of butter in them in the fridge, a microwave, lemons, a cutting board next to the microwave, and a wide array of pirate- and crab-themed hats hanging from the ceiling.

If you want to melt some butter in the microwave and cut up a lemon and eat your steamed shellfish there, no one is going to stop you. But it’s not a restaurant.

We went twice. Feeling pretty clever the second time at having figured out the system. Feeling pretty clever until a couple arranged themselves at the table next to us with a rice cooker, a pan of some sort of kim chi-looking dish, plates, cloth napkins, and a full spectrum of seafood-eating utensils including, yes, chopsticks.

We were instantaneously turned into a humbling combination of amateurs (for not having brought the right stuff) and barbarians (for being forced to do things like crack the crab claws by banging on them with our beer bottles).

And with that we threw our shells, as the signs instructed, back into the water from which they came and headed home. Summer, for me at least, was officially over. I’m already making plans to go back to the Oregon coast; this time donned in old clothes, with a shell cracker and side dishes in hand.

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Spicy crab & grits

I did not leave the house before dinner time thinking I would be having spicy crab and grits. I thought I’d be having pizza. Then I thought I’d be having Good Frickin’ Chicken. Then, for just a moment, it looked like a new Peruvian place on Mission was the answer. But, in the end, between what was open and what we wanted (or, rather, all agreed) to try… we ended up at The Front Porch. It claims to be “rocking” and it was! (Not literally, which is a bit of a shame.) I had spicy crab and grits (with plenty of sweet corn and scallions thrown in for good measure) and it was awesome.  I don’t know how those grits were so creamy (um, wait, yes I do; I’m pretty sure it was heavy cream), but the leftovers are going to make the best Monday morning breakfast I’ve had in quite some time.Ernie downed a plate of fried chicken with glee (it was difficult for the lad to let go of the GFC dream for the sake of his parents wanting to try something “new”).My dashing husband ordered the special which involved “platain risotto” and gypsy peppers and I don’t know what else. It sounded dreadful to me when the server described it and I was shocked when that order came out of his mouth. He was the less happy member of our crew.  I offered up my uneaten spicy crab and grits, but it was too late. The place was spoiled for him. Funny how that happens, huh? 

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Here’s a tip…

when eating dinner with a large group of strangers, try not to order a labor-intensive dish. I’m in Tofino, British Columbia (that’s Canada, baby!) and Dungeness crab is maybe my favorite food so how was I supposed to not order the local Dungeness crab? And yet, there I was, picking my crab, sucking the juice from the legs, crunching the thin shells within the body, pulling the joints apart with the necessary gusto, generally making a spectacle of myself while also taking about three times as long to eat my main course as everyone else.

One day I will finally learn to follow my own excellent advice.

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Last dance

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My New Orleans adventure came to an end last night. After a bowl of seafood gumbo and a plate of “shrimp remmy,” as our server affectionately referred to shrimp rémoulade, I was off to the airport. I believe some might argue that technically my dinner last night was actually a pre-made turkey sandwich I grabbed as all the food stands were closing at my connecting airport and then snarfed down on the plane. But I prefer to remember it as that gumbo, earthy and rich, and remmy, sweet and fresh and spicy.

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Galatoire’s

I have a new love. And it is Galatoire’s. I love old-school restaurants–even if they’re not as good/delicious/worthy as they used to be. I love the style of service that is professional, where the waiter knows more about the food than I do and we both accept and work with that fact. I love the mix of high and low, regulars and tourists, stylish and tacky that frequent such places. Galatoire’s reminds me of La Coupole in Paris: if you embrace its method and its madness you will experience its charm and have the night of your life.

Last night I dipped deep-fried eggplant in béarnaise and powdered sugar and happily did it again. I then worked with the special recommendation of our waiter and mixed tabasco with powdered sugar and dragged the eggplant through it. Happily again.

The shrimp rémoulade was unlike any rémoulade I’ve ever had or read about–more like cocktail sauce with a dash of mayonnaise in it than any classic preparation. But toss some sweet Gulf shrimp in that bright red mess and spoon it over lettuce and you have a mighty fine dish.

Following the recommendation of our waiter, we downed drum (a white fish “you could say is meatier than trout or you could say trout is softer than drum” according to our waiter) “sautéed” (I would call it pan-fried which, by the way, is hands-down the best way to cook white-fleshed fish) and doused with “crabmeat yvonne” a topping of crab, mushrooms, and artichokes tossed in plenty of browned butter and sautéed soft-shell crabs. The crabs were okay. The drum was fabulous.

I’m glad to learn that the line down Bourbon Street isn’t just for the atmosphere. The kitchen may not be revolutionizing créole cuisine, but it knows what they hell it’s doing.

Full and sated we ordered bread pudding anyway. I’m glad we did. It was topped with bananas, which is just plain wrong (what with the very smell of bananas being nausea-inducing), but if, like me, you managed to get a corner untainted by banana, you were rewarded with a custardy pudding and smooth caramel sauce that put the right sweet finish on a meal not gotten anywhere else. The historian in me loves the long line from which this meal descends. The anthropologist adores the crowd. The food lover smacks her lips and says “more please.”

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Damn, food in New Orleans is good

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Not news to you? It’s not news to me either, but I’d never experienced it first-hand. This shit is good. Dinner last night at Lüke, where “lump crab meat” appeared to be a condiment (for $10 they add it to everything from shrimp to jägerschnitzel). Highlights included a much-needed sazerac (I’m not a “good” flier, no matter how much I do it), a butter lettuce salad tossed with a buttermilk dressing so think and unctuous I half-believe my dinner companion’s assertion that there is such a thing as “full-fat buttermilk” in the South (isn’t buttermilk the milk left over after the butter has been made, which should mean all the fat is gone? anyone? explain?) served over sliced beets and grated carrots, and a red fish amandine that was so crispy and browned and meltingly tender that I fell in love with fish all over again when I wasn’t busy protecting the butter-braised baby turnips and carrots from my thieving companion.
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Can you see all the butter? Soaking into the cells of each food item? Coating every morsel to make it more delicious? See the white flakes on top? That’s my crab topping. When in Rome….

While I’m here does anyone have any NOLA recommendations for me? I’m told Parkway Tavern has the best po’ boys in town. I plan to test that claim.

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