For as long as Manuel Azevedo, chef/owner of Sonoma’s LaSalette, can remember, his mother (also named LaSalette) has been making this dish on New Year’s Day. Although she always lays out a veritable smorgasbord, he opts for a simple bowl of crab stew accompanied by a glass or two of red wine, a romaine salad, a bowl of garlic-buttered penne pasta and some garlic bread. “We set a big table and roll up our sleeves,” Azevedo says. “I figure my hands are going to be a mess, and there’s a point where it’s useless to grab a fork.”
LaSalette’s Crab Stew
Makes about 4 servings
3 large Dungeness crabs, totaling 6 pounds
1½ cups onion compote (see recipe below)
1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons Portuguese spice blend (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons Hungarian paprika ½ piri piri pepper, chopped, or pinch of red pepper flakes
3 bay leaves 1½ cups dry white wine
½ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
If the crab is purchased live, bring a large pot with enough water to cover the crab to a boil. Using large tongs, carefully place the crab in the pot and boil for 15 minutes. Pull them out of the pot and place in an ice water bath to cool quickly.
Once cooled, twist off the legs and claws and then pull away the apron (the underbelly). Now separate the carapace (the main shell of the body) from the body to reveal the spongy gills and crab butter — the innards of the crab including the fat attached to the carapace. Remove and discard the gills.
Scoop out and save the crab butter. This is essential, as this butter imparts a rich crab flavor to the stew. Squeeze the collected crab butter through a fine-meshed strainer. Clean each crab body under running water and cut it into 6 pieces.
Crack the legs enough to create a little space for the sauce to penetrate the shell. Collect the body, legs, claws and butter and set aside. Discard the carapace and strained-out material. Heat the onion compote, sea salt, Portuguese spice blend, paprika, piri piri, bay leaves, wine and parsley in a medium pot with a lid. Add the cooked crab, including the strained crab butter, and steam in the covered pot for about 5 minutes to heat through, gently stirring often.
If the stirring is too vigorous, the crab tends to fall apart and look messy. Turn off the heat and allow the pot to sit covered for at least 30 minutes before serving, to ensure the crab absorbs all the flavors. Give the stew a gentle stir every 15 minutes to coat the legs and claws with the other ingredients.
Makes 1½ cups
4 cups yellow onions (about 3 whole onions), diced into ¼-inch pieces
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced Pinch freshly ground white pepper
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
Sauté all the ingredients in a medium pan over low heat until the onions are a light golden color, sweet and void of pungent onion flavor — approximately 1 hour. Store up to five days in the refrigerator.
Portugese Spice Blend
Makes 1¾ cups
6 tablespoons cumin seeds
4 tablespoons allspice berries
1 tablespoon whole cloves
3 Ceylon cinnamon sticks, broken into ½-inch pieces
¾ cup Hungarian paprika ½ nutmeg seed, freshly grated
Place the cumin, allspice and cloves in a sauté pan over medium heat and cook, stirring, until fragrant and lightly smoking — about 5 minutes. Allow to cool, and grind in a spice grinder.
Add the cinnamon and grind again. Combine the ground spices with the paprika and grated nutmeg, mix well and store in an airtight container for up to six months.