During the winter along the Northern California coast we typically do not have a “snow season,” but we do have an incredible Dungeness crab season.
The delicate and slightly sweet meat in Dungeness crabs – one of the meatiest crabs available – can be found in the legs, claws and body. Purchased either live (steam for 15-18 minutes or boil for 10 minutes) or pre-cooked, tools from a crab cracker to a mallet to bare hands are used to dig out and enjoy the delicious meat. Typically dipped in melted butter or cocktail sauce, my favorite way to enjoy Dungeness crab during the winter season is in cioppino.
So what is cioppino, you ask? Cioppino is typically a hearty tomato-based seafood stew that has been a staple of California cuisine since the arrival of the first Portuguese and Italian immigrant fisherman more than a hundred years ago. Back in the 19th-century, California fisherman would make their cioppino with whatever fresh fish and shellfish they had on hand, add tomatoes, red wine, onions, garlic and parsley – and out came a delicious (and nutritious) “catch of the day” stew.
The tradition of making cioppino in California is alive and strong – and Crab Cioppino feeds are a very popular annual fundraising event for local CA Portuguese halls. Every year I look forward to the annual Crab Cioppino feed at the Portuguese Hall in my husband’s hometown of Hollister, CA. My in-laws, who are active members of the SDES Portuguese Hall, always alert us months in advance of when the tickets will go on sale for the January feed (tickets typically sell-out by December!). The $40 ticket includes all-you-can-eat Crab Cioppino, salad, garlic bread, wine and ice cream. Similar to the original 19th-century fisherman recipe that features tomato-based sauce with plenty of onion, garlic and parsley, this cioppino highlights the in-season Dungeness crabs and shrimp (no additional fish or shellfish included). Seated in a crowded dining hall with approx. 350 people wearing bibs (it gets messy!), everyone digs in to the cioppino with whatever tool they’d like – the most common tools being bare hands. Can’t get enough Dungeness crab at the feed? You can keep asking for more until the kitchen is all out!
This festive, hands-on California dining experience is one not to miss. If you live in California or are ever out here for work or pleasure during the winter months, do some research on when the local Portuguese hall (traditionally held in cities along the Central Coast, in the Central Valley and Northern Coast regions) will be hosting their Crab Cioppino feed. Remember – use your claws to snatch up tickets well in advance. Bom apetite!