As with different kinds of salmon, Alaskans love to debate the best kind of crab. Whether it’s nostalgia, or that perfect texture and slight sweetness, I’m a Dungeness girl myself. A few years ago a fellow Juneauite and I went out to dinner at a fancy Seattle restaurant and ordered a whole wood-fire-roasted Dungeness. They delivered the crab with moist towelettes, so we both assumed that this was just business as usual, and between the two of us went to town cracking and pulling the meat apart with our hands. Within five minutes we had completely destroyed the crab, and our table was covered in the standard mess, bits of shell and crab butter everywhere. After we were both done, and wiping down our table and hands with satisfaction, we became aware that the table of eight hoity-toity people next to us had been watching our display in silent shock the whole time. We gave them a smile, a shrug, and explained “we’re Alaskans.” Which to me was the same thing as saying “we know how to have a good time and aren’t afraid to eat crab how it’s meant to be eaten — with gusto.”
At dinner the other night a friend asked me if there was any shortcut to shelling Dungeness crab. “Nope. As far as I know there’s only one way to shell Dungeness crab, with love.” And if you’re serving homemade Dungeness crab cakes to fellow Alaskans, they’ll know it too. It takes time, but it’s worth it. I would never make crab cakes with king crab, it’s too rich, too expensive, and there’s something about the texture that makes it just a little too rubbery for cakes. Snow crab works fine, but doesn’t have the depth of flavor of Dungeness.
The richness of crabcakes pairs perfectly with a lightly dressed salad and there is no salad that I like better this time of year than one of twisted stalk. Twisted stalk is one of the other names for what most of us here in Southeast Alaska refer to as watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius). The young twisted stalk is a delicate plant best eaten raw and is sometimes referred to as “wild cucumber” for its slightly bitter, slightly sweet cucumber-y taste. It loves to grow in the same place as fiddleheads and devil’s club, so I’m often grabbing handfuls of twisted stalk while picking those other treats. You can use fresh twisted stalk in the same way you would use spring green salad mix — or just eat it as a trail snack!
Twisted stalk is best picked when it’s between 6 and 18 inches tall, before you see flower buds forming, and often I’ll only pinch off the top four or five inches of the plant so that I’m picking the most tender leaves and stalk. The easiest way for my eye to catch twisted stalk is to look for the way that the stalk “kinks” and zig-zags at each place a leaf joins the stalk. The leaves are oval, with a pointed end, and have very light parallel lines running down their length. When you pick it you’ll immediately smell that light cucumber scent. I’ve read that sometimes false hellebore, a very poisonous plant, can be confused for twisted stalk, but I’ve been baffled by this. False hellebore has very distinct deeply grooved leaves which grow in a nested pattern. Just Google the two plants and you’ll see what I mean. Of course, if twisted stalk is new to you, consult resources and make certain you know how to identify this plant before you eat it. My favorite book for learning plants is Jana Schofield’s “Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest” and for in-person help you can’t beat our local UAF Cooperative Extension.
Dungeness Crab Cakes & Twisted Stalk Salad
Prep: 30 minutes active, 60 minutes total
Dungeness Crab Cakes
2 Dungeness crabs, cooked, shelled and meat flaked
2 green onions, finely diced
½ red bell pepper, finely diced
1 tsp mustard
1 Tbsp mayo
1 tsp lemon zest
½ tsp salt
Ground black pepper
1 ½ panko bread crumbs, divided
2 Tbsp frying oil, vegetable or avocado oil
½ cup mayo
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp smoked paprika
Twisted Stalk Salad
4 cups twisted stalk, rough chopped (or substitute spring greens)
½ container sprouts
1 carrot, julienned or shredded
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt & pepper to taste
Dungeness Crab Cakes
Mix together until evenly distributed: crab meat, green onions, bell pepper, mustard, 1 Tbsp mayo, eggs, lemon zest, black pepper, salt and ½ cup panko bread crumbs. Form into cakes and coat with the remaining panko bread crumbs, it should be about 8 cakes using about ⅓ cup each of the mixture. Put cakes on a plate and refrigerate for at least half an hour to firm up before frying. Fry in two batches over medium heat until browned, about 2-3 minutes each side. Drain on paper towels.
Mix together until smooth ½ cup mayo, garlic, lemon juice and paprika and set aside.
Twisted Stalk Salad
Wash twisted stalk, picking out any debris. Spin dry and pat with paper towels if needed to get off excess water. Rough chop twisted stalk and toss with sprouts and julienned carrots. Whisk together olive oil, white-wine vinegar and salt and pepper and toss with the salad.
Serve the salad with two crab cakes and a big dollop of aioli on the side.
Note: If you have to cook and clean your crab, this will obviously take longer. For live crab, I like to break them apart before I cook. Firmly grab the crab by the legs belly-side down (leave the claws free, but watch them closely — it’s no fun getting pinched!) and quickly crack over a sharp corner or a fence post, lining up the breaking edge with the center of the soft arch on the crab’s belly — aka the crabs abs. I use the side of my porch, sometimes it takes two blows. Be quick and humane. Then pull off the top shell, break the crab in half, scoop out the innards and steam for about eight minutes or until the meat is opaque. To pick out the meat use a strong fork to crack through the shell by wedging the tine under the edge and levering up, then use the tip of the crab’s leg as a pick. Watching a stupid TV show while shelling is highly recommended. Depending on how focused I am (i.e. not gabbing away and drinking a glass of wine while working), after cool enough to handle, it takes me about 10-15 minutes to fully shell one crab.
• Erin Anais Heist is a food blogger in Juneau. Readers can contact her at foodabe.com, or on Instagram or Twitter at @erinanais. “Eating Wild” recipes publish every other week.