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New Year’s 2013 — A Crab Feast and New Beginnings


Although I’ve lived in Southern California for almost 30 years,  the Pacific Northwest — particularly Seattle and more specifically, Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula — has a hold on me I can’t explain.  I think it tugs at my native Pennsylvanian sense memory — it’s verdant with cedar, fir, rhododendron; brisk from breaking water and crisp winter air.  It gives me a reason to wear wool and eat soups.  It’s a climate that breeds characters that I feel at home with — people that work hard and play hard, who hike, fish and forage and then cook, eat and laugh.  It’s all food for a starving soul, so it felt right to ring in this newest year here.



I arrived with great plans but also with a horror of a sinus infection, but my plan was feed the hell out of this cold and after two weeks here, at least be well-insulated, if not well-healed. I was not about to opt out of the trip, because, while I’ve been to this lost corner of the state over a dozen times, I’ve not yet managed to make a visit during the holiest time of year – Dungeness crab season.

Crab season is a nebulous (!) time, when the locals wait with a hushed expectancy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to declare the males of the crab population large enough to be harvestable. Normally open in early December, as of my arrival, it was still not  a “go.”

New Year’s Eve morning found me and my partner in crime (and writing), Hilary, starting our two-plus hour drive south from Olympia in an uncommon but not unheard-of snowstorm. We were both well-swaddled in Smart Wool base layers and Columbia everything else. The quiet and uneventful drive through frosty fog through smaller and smaller towns led us to the view that shimmers often in my mind’s eye, Willapa Bay.


We’re staying at the bay front home of Hilary’s Aunt Dorothy while she winters with her children in Seattle. It’s a dream to be able to live for a few weeks in this great ship of a house, berthed among three acres of trees, with herons and eagles gliding past our view.


 

Each morning the sun rises above the Willapa Hills, the fog softening it to a diffuse glow through my bedroom window.  Squadrons of geese honk south, ducks gather in the tide ponds, Stellars jays flash blue in the blackberry thickets, and the salty soil colors the hydrangeas an aquatic teal.


 

We planned to ring out 2012 with a party at a local restaurant, but as with most New Year’s Eve celebrations, there is a pre-game warmup. After a quick catchup over homemade wild blackberry vodka with our companion for the evening, Oysterman Dan from Oysterville Sea Farms (everyone should be friends with an oyster farmer) we headed to the weekend cabin of his friends Lynn & Bill.  Lynn &  Bill clam, hunt, fish, forage and most importantly, cook.  We arrived to a pitcher of margaritas and a platter of hot, honey-dipped fried razor clams.


 

Pacific Northwesterners are rightfully picky about their fresh seafood, and are particularly passionate about their razor clams, turning out in ungodly conditions to plunge shovels and clam guns into wet, frigid sand to retrieve their daily limits of sweet, buttery bivalves. I tried clamming once and had to throw away my shoes and pants (not to mention that I didn’t actually find any clams). I’m perfectly satisfied to let others shower their bounty on me.  The appetizers were rounded out with a plate of Bill’s smoked sturgeon, teriyaki duck and duck jerky.

Slaked and sated, we headed south to the party proper, at the Pickled Fish, a freshly-christened local eatery that’s part of the Adrift Hotel in Long Beach.  The owners and chef have thoughtfully conceived of a locavore menu in a fresh, modern nautical setting.  There was a blues band, Mason jars of vodka and cranberry juice, trays of champagne and plates of freshly shucked oysters with a bloody mary granita.


We festively rang in 2013 with a warm and cozy view of the midnight beach fireworks show.  But the lights we were happiest to see were from the boats bobbing on the horizon.  Crab season was finally open.


 

NEW YEAR’S DAY

I’ve long-dreamed of waking to this view – even if it was after only a few hours of champagne-soaked sleep.


A pot of Long Beach Coffee Roasters brew warmed me for a stroll through the frosty grass to chase ducks, and brought me back inside to prep an early lunch — a nourishing pot of Ina Garten’s Lentil-Sausage Stew (from her Barefoot In Paris Cookbook — everything in this book will make your friends believe you are a genius in the kitchen).


 

Post my post-lunch nap (it was a late night!), it was time again for food prep — New Year’s Dinner —  a “lucky” cider-braised pork loin with fennel and black-eyed peas with Swiss chard and bacon.


We have invited Oyster Man, who is always good company with good stories (some of which we’re now in). It’s our good fortune that he also tends to show up with these:


Plucked by hand that morning, expertly shucked as we awaited with glasses of cold Oyster Blanc, a bowl of lemons and a bottle of hot sauce. Sweet, plump, nectar. Heaven on the half-shell indeed. Oysterman Dan’s credo (one of them, anyway), is “No bottle unopened, no glass unbroken.”  So far, so good.


Eggs of the sea



 

The next day, I still felt like general crap, but was down to my last round of antibiotics and only two doses a day of Sudafed. We were readying for the arrival of Hilary’s REI gang from Olympia, and the plan was the long-awaited crab feast. We headed south to Ilwaco, one of the top ports in Washington for crab, to our go-to venue, 

Ole (pronounced Oh-lee) Bob’s Seafood Market. But although crab season was open, Ole Bob’s is closed on Wednesdays. They still sold us a pound of shelled for our crab cakes, and we ventured up-river to Chinook, Bell & Buoy in our sights. It was looking promising.


 

Commercial only.  Back up the road four blocks to, yes:


…where we finally found our red-faced, fat-bellied crustaceans.



Hilary’s rule of thumb for Dungeness is “nothing under two pounds” — not worth the work and mostly shell. But at $4.99/lb. and just off the boat and cooked that morning, we weren’t going to go home empty-handed. Hil selected five blushing beauties in the 1.75 range, and we were back up the Peninsula with an icy bag of sweet meat in our trunk, and a new crab venue in our contacts folder.

As Hilary assembled crab cakes and I tossed together a simple tomato-potato-cheese soup (our friend Julia Johnson’s recipe), the Olympia crew arrived with more coolers, bowls, tins and bottles — a week’s worth of food and drink to be consumed within the next two days.

The ringleader, Lisa, was formerly a professional pastry chef, and in addition to her Vidalia onion dip, puff-pastry mushroom turnovers and more of her husband Dave’s homemade wild blackberry vodka, there was sweet-potato pecan pie, oatmeal Gianduja sandwich cookies, and her specialty, vanilla cheesecake. Dan arrived with pickled herring and habanero smoked oysters, which we set out to accompany out a platter of crab legs with butter, cocktail sauce, and a roasted red-pepper aioli. Beers were opened, shells flew, manners were forgotten.


 

After a brief rest *moreblackberryvodka*, we sat down to a dinner of crab cakes and tomato-potato cheese soup. Oh yeah, salad. Whatever.


 


Julia’s Potato-Tomato-Cheese Soup

  1. 1 stalk celery, finely chopped

  2. 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped

  3. 1 TB. Butter

  4. 1 medium russet potato, peeled & diced

  5. 1 can chicken broth

  6. 1 16 oz. can chopped, peeled tomatoes

  7. 1 pint whipping cream

  8. 4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

  9. Salt & white pepper to taste

  10. In a large stockpot, saute celery and onion in butter until soft. Add diced potato with can of broth. Simmer over low flame 10 minutes or so, until potatoes are soft.

  11. Add the can of tomatoes with their juice, and cream, and bring to just a simmer. When hot, remove from heat and add cheese, a handful at a time, stiffing until melted and blended. Season to taste with salt and white pepper.

 

Lisa. She’s a nice girl, but she’s Italian, and apparently that means she can’t stop feeding people.

The next morning, she was feeling a bit under it, but she sent Dave and Dirk with fixings for Pannetone Baked French Toast — a crispy, eggy bread pudding studded with candied fruits and topped with cinnamon sugar.

I diced up some Aidell’s Habanero sausages and boiled potatoes and fried them up with some green onions and Hilary scrambled eggs and cheese with a sprinkling of fresh dill. Renee’s simple platter of cantaloupe and grapes rounded out the feast.

We realized our mealtime conversations had all eventually turned to planning our next meals, and over breakfast we planned our Farewell Dinner  — Cioppino with razor clams and Dave’s fresh-caught Halibut. Hilary went out later that afternoon to Jimella and Nanci’s Market Cafe for supplemental seafood —  plump scallops and meaty prawns. Renee brought loaves of Jalapeño Cheese bread from The Cottage Bakery, Dan brought more fresh oysters, Sandy brought a salad and her homemade blackberry cobbler and ice cream, we finally sliced into the cheesecake and we finished off the blackberry vodka, this time splashed with Prosecco. It was hard to top any of our previous meals, but this one came pretty close.


 

My first week of 2013 has been about resting and nesting, allowing myself to nurture and be nurtured. My brain is less foggy but I still can’t hear much other than the sound of my own voice in my clogged head.  Not good if, as a friend suggested, the voice in your head is annoying. But thus far, my inner voice hasn’t steered me wrong. I’m resolving not to resolve, and sticking with my routine of allowing myself to enjoy being. Even if I have to size up my jeans AGAIN, my life will go on.


The gustatory gang



 

This week I will actually “work” — a night’s stay at the the beachy chic Inn at Discovery Coast, and a visit to the spa at Astoria’s Cannery Pier Hotel. Eventually the fridge will be emptied and we’ll have to buy more food, and it will probably be salads and oatmeal. But today, it’s onion dip and cold crab cakes for breakfast, and the last of the cheesecake topped with the last of the blackberry cobbler for dinner.

If there’s any resolution to be made, it’s to continue as I’ve begun this year — with no bottle unopened, no glass unbroken — and no shells uncracked.


 

MENUS

NEW YEAR’S EVE 

  1. Fried razor clams with honey

  2. Smoked sturgeon, teriyaki duck breast, duck jerky

  3. Fresh oysters with bloody mary granita

  4. Wild Blackberry vodka

 

NEW YEAR’S LUNCH

  1. Ina Garten’s Lentil-Sausage stew

  2. Bev’s homemade rye bread

 

NEW YEAR’S DINNER

  1. Raw oysters with lemon & hot sauce

  2. Cider-braised pork loin with fennel

  3. Black-eyed peas with Swiss Chard and bacon

 

CRAB FEED 

  1. Fresh Dungeness crab legs with butter and cocktail sauce

  2. Smoked and Habanero oysters and Pickled Herring

  3. Vidalia Onion Dip

  4. Hilary’s crab cakes with roasted red pepper aioli

  5. Tomato-potato cheese soup

  6. Puff-pastry mushroom turnovers

  7. Sweet-potato pecan pie

  8. Oatmeal Gianduja sandwich cookies

 

REI-COVERY BRUNCH

  1. Panettone baked French Toast

  2. Home fried potatoes with green onions

  3. Sauteed Habanero sausages

  4. Scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese & dill

  5. Canteloupe & grapes

 

FAREWELL DINNER

  1. Cioppino with halibut, razor clams, prawns and scallops

  2. Jalapeño cheese bread

  3. Sandy’s Blackberry cobbler

  4. Lisa’s cheesecake

  5. Blackberry Prosecco MMMMimosas

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