When it comes to crabs, I am provincial. Because I reside in Maryland, home of the blue crab, I have a hard time working up interest in "outsider" crabs, the ones that hail from beyond the Chesapeake Bay region. Life is good here, I tell myself; why look beyond the borders for pleasure?
Yet, recently, I found myself enjoying the company of strangers - crabs from Alaska, Florida and Oregon. I did this during eating adventures in two Baltimore restaurants, the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Harbor East and McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant at Pier 5 in the Inner Harbor. Chefs at these establishments told me that even though the season for Maryland blues ended months ago, crabs from other parts of the nation are being pulled from distant waters. Who knew?
My horizons were widened and my taste buds were pleased as I sampled these alien species.
The king crab that Benjamin Erjavec, executive chef of the Oceanaire, has shipped in from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, was certainly larger and meatier than any "Jimmy" pulled from the Chesapeake Bay. In Alaska, the king crabs are pulled from the bottom of the ocean during rough winter weather. The catch is regulated by quota, he said. When the catch reaches a certain number of pounds, harvesting stops.
When one of these king crabs - which can weigh 8 pounds and have a leg span of 36 inches - shows up in the dining room, it makes quite an impression, Erjavec said. Earlier this year, he kept a few of these gigantic crabs alive in a tank in the restaurant's kitchen. They didn't move much, he said, until a few shrimp were tossed in the tank. Then those shrimp disappeared faster than hors d'oeuvres at happy hour.
Most of the meat of the king crab is in the legs and while the shell of the king crab is thinner than that of the blue crab, it can, I discovered, be treacherous. Parts of the crab's shell are razor-sharp, and have to be avoided by crab pickers.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that the taste of king crab legs dipped in drawn butter is superior to that of the Maryland blue. Hey, I gotta live here. But I would allow that in the array of crustacean delights, the king crab lives up to its name.
I also am not about to go on record saying that the claws of the stone crab, which Erjavec shipped in from Florida, taste better than the claw meat of a Maryland blue. There is no denying that the stone crab's claws are much heavier than our local appendages. They also have a distinct nutty flavor, and when dipped in a Key lime aioli or mustard mayonnaise, they do brighten up a dull winter day.
The Dungeness crab from the Pacific Northwest is loaded with sweetness and moisture, said Tony Marcello, the top chef for the McCormick & Schmick's restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington region. Now is the start of Dungeness season, he said, adding that only the male crabs are harvested.
Steamed and cooled, the meat of the Dungeness made a terrific crab salad. Marcello's colleague, executive chef William McKinley, praised the Dungeness, saying it had enough heartiness to swim in the restaurant's San Francisco stew - a spicy mix of onions, garlic, peppers, herbs, mussels and clams - and not get overwhelmed.
As for the snow crab, which hails from Alaska, McKinley said its spongelike meat has such subtle flavor that he and Marcello had considering making ice cream with it. "Crab-flavored ice cream might be too much," for local sensibilities, Marcello said.
Try as I might to be welcoming to these nonnative crabs, I found I had a deep-seated feeling of loyalty, a need to be true to the blue.
McKinley laughed when I told him this. He said he had encountered this reluctance among Marylanders to sample competing crabs.
"They need a little coaxing," said McKinley, a native of Baton Rouge, La. "But I understand it. Until I came here, I didn't get what the big deal was about Maryland blue crabs. Then I had some from the Wye River. Man, you don't find crabs that heavy in Louisiana."
See Rob Kasper each Wednesday on ABC2/WMAR-TV's News at Noon.