One of the nicest things about buying live crabs instead of lump crab meat is that you get the whole measure of the animal—not only its succulent flesh, but also its creamy innards and the sweet, briny juices that pool in the curve of the shell. My usual procedure is to steam the crab with beer and call it a day. The innards, if you can catch them before they fully congeal, are very good to eat straight from the shell.
For a change I decided to focus primarily on the innards and see what other preparations could be done with the crab's internal organs and, when in season, the eggs. Like the crab meat itself, the taste of what is inside varies depending on the type of crab. On blue claws the innards taste somewhat like caviar; on Dungeness, they are more abundant and custardy in texture, with a sweetness that reminds me of sea urchin.
In order to isolate the crab innards and use them as a raw ingredient, I needed to take them apart while they were still alive, which, depending on how you feel about such tasks, is either really interesting or somewhat cruel. It was no trouble at all to take apart the half-dozen blue claws: from point to point they were only five or so inches wide and as I stood over them, they wriggled like large insects underneath the force of my oyster knife and a set of kitchen shears.
It was only when I started taking apart the Dungeness that I felt a pang of something—pity, if only for a second—when I jammed my knife underneath the rim of the shell and watched as the legs began flail wildly from the violation. Upturned on its back, the crab kicked its legs and clawed at its underside where I had my knife jammed in, as if attempting to free itself from my hold. With the same twisting motion used for opening oysters, I wriggled my knife back and forth to loosen the crab's body from its shell and in doing so, put an end to its frantic movements. I was careful to save all of the liquids from inside—sweet oceanic nectar, what I'd been after all along. Most of its innards still clinging to the edges inside the shell.
As I had read about from accounts of the Japanese preparation of "crab miso" or kani miso, I placed the shell directly over the stove burner and turned the heat to low. I poured a bit of sake into the shell. The greyish green contents bubbled vigorously over the small flame. I cooked the parts until they were just heated through. Soft and rich, with a taste not unlike liver, the kani miso was a delight to eat right out the shell, though I saved a portion of it to have on toast and yet another to have with rice.
Though I finished with the innards of the Dungeness, those of the blue claws were delicious scrambled with eggs and folded into stir-fried rice at the last moment. Like an egg, the innards enriched the rice, making the whole dish richer and more complex in taste. Though such dishes are too rich for everyday eating, as an occasional treat they're well worth the effort.
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.