Thursday, February 24, 2011

Having a Crabby Day - Wish You Were Here!

Half Moon Bay State Beach, February 6, 2011. 70 degrees & loving it!
While most of America was preparing for the annual bacchanalia known as Super Bowl Sunday on February 6, Bill and I took advantage of the unseasonably clear, warm weather and drove over the hill to explore Coastside, one of our favorite destinations. We had no real plan in mind except that we wanted to walk along the ocean and eat some good food. We got to the intersection of Highways 92 and 1 in Half Moon Bay and did a figurative coin toss – which direction shall we turn? Remembering that a cable installer, of all people, had told me about a great local spot in the Pillar Point Marina , we opted to turn north. We’d grab a bite to eat and then set out for a coastal perambulation from the marina.

The beauty of the day did not disappoint and we were among many non-football fans enjoying the 70 degree weather. Though the waves were pretty small and blown out, there were several dozen wetsuit-clad figures bobbing in the water along Half Moon Bay State Beach, and even more wishful surfers contemplating conditions, or rather the lack there of, from the road. Mavericks had been up a couple weeks ago, but any hope today of a killer wave had gone with tides. One rider did get a less than big wave experience, though.

The Ketch Joanne
There was plenty more action in the marina and by the crowd assembled at The Ketch Joanne & Harbor Bar we’d hit the right place to enjoy some local seafood. Bill’s Manhattan Clam Chowder was a flavorful alternative to the excellent New England version we savor at the The Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City, our fav inland stop for really authentic lobster rolls, fish ‘n chips, and chowda (the Portola Valley location is opening soon!). My crab cioppino had the perfect balance of heat, tomato, celery and essence of the sea, but boy, did I have to work it! Crab is not easy to eat! And for my taste buds, the deliciously sweet crab meat got lost in the flavorful spicy broth. As good as it was, in the future, I’ll pass on cioppino and go for a steamed crab, straight up with a butter chaser!

The Cricket, owned by Bill & Penny Webb
Leaving the Ketch, the Johnson Pier beckoned and we chose it over the coastal trail. The crab fleet was in port after their weekly trawling, and though it was late in the day, a few captains were still selling lives crabs from their decks. One boat caught our eye, wonder why?

We started down the companionway to check out The Cricket & Bill's Crabby Crab, as Admiral Penny, the captain’s wife, was coming up. “Do you have any crabs left?” we asked meekly. One simple question and we were delighted with Penny’s tale of all things crabby. No, they were sold out but were holding five good ones for a return customer who had called in their order earlier in the week. We learned that we needed to do this in the future to ensure any of The Cricket’s catch. “So, who should we get our crab from today, if there’s any left?” This opened a Pandora’s Box.

The Pillar Point Fleet
Though they are all basically competitors, crab fishermen are a tight knot clan filled with respect for one another, their craft and their product. But, according to Penny, they do not suffer those who flaunt the rules of seamanship (i.e., pinching others’ crab pots), cheat customers (i.e., selling sub par product at high prices) and do not follow the unwritten etiquette of the waters (i.e., rogues). And don’t get her started on those huge, out of state commercial vessels that come to Northern California’s Dungeness-rich waters! Alaska, Washington and Oregon all have state-mandated limits on the crab poundage they can bring in every season. California does not. Once those northern fisheries have been crabbed, ginormous boats (we’re talking 90+ footers) make their way south and begin dropping upwards to 1000 crab pots per boat, week over week. They take the lion’s share of crabs, load it all in a multitude of refrigerated 18-wheelers that fill the loading area at Johnson Pier and take their catch back to points north, not even selling any of it in California. 

Captain Bill with a friend
The 2010 crab catch was estimated to be among the best in recent memory but our own local crab men were out-fished by the larger out-of-state commercial boats. I have only Penny and Bill’s word on all this, but the lobbying on behalf of San Mateo County and Northern California fisherman in Sacramento during the previous administration fell on deaf ears. According to Penny, our previous governor was photographed with an official from those very out-of-state fishing companies who plunder Nor Cal waters during crab season. The Pillar Point fishermen are looking to the new administration to bring some realistic (and profitable) sense to the management of the fisheries that provide them their livelihood. They are hopeful that things will change. Enough politics, let’s get back to the day on Johnson Pier…

Margie with Capt Bill & Admiral Penny

Bill overseeing his crab selection
After our lively conversation with Captain Bill and Admiral Penny of The Cricket (with Cricket, the Jack Russell Terrier, the namesake dog, in tow),  Bill the Negotiator chose to peruse the wares at the several other boats that still had live creatures for sale. I chose to take photos of the marina. What Bill came away with, five large crabs for $30, and what I captured on a flash card, encapsulate a day of amazing beauty, new-found knowledge and just plain culinary delight. 

The Princeton Seafood Company  cleaned, steamed and cracked our pier-purchased crabs for $2.00 per crab, ready to take home. A better $40 was never spent!

Go Steelers! Oops, Go Green Bay!
While we waited for our dockside treasure to be prepped, we moseyed back into the Harbor Bar. The Super Bowl was in full swing and the bar, though not overcrowded, contained a lively group of fans for both competing teams. Our original intention was to ignore the Big Game all together, but we found ourselves drawn to the camaraderie that the day created and the crowd celebrating in the bar. We left at halftime, feeling we had done our duty as true Americans by watching at least a portion of Super Bowl XLV.

Once home, I began shelling our haul. I know now why cooked and shelled crab meat sells for $24 per pound! It is labor intensive, but the adventure we had acquiring it was worth the hour long process. The fresh crab melts we had for dinner were the topper to an extraordinary day!
Margie with crab pots on a beautiful Nor Cal day!

Make your own crab melts.
Take freshly cleaned, steamed and cracked crab and remove the sweet flesh from the shells. A labor of love, but well worth it!

Weigh the fruits of your labor. A pound shoudld be sufficient.

Mix in your favorite flavorings - mayo, lemon juice, diced red bell peppers - or not.
A virgin melt is just fine.

Top with sharp cheddar cheese - Cabot is a good choice. Avocados are a delicious addition!

Broil until the cheese is melted and golden brown. Then...
(Guess who ate the melt with avocado?)

Visit Pillar Point Marina and Capt Bill's Crabby Crabs. Enjoy a bit of local aquaculture, some great food and a few fish stories, too! Yes, that's a beached fishing boat tilting in the background!

Thanks to Bill & Penny Webb, The Ketch Joanne & Harbor Bar, Princeton Seafood Company and the weather gods for such a perfect day!
All photos taken by Margie or Bill MacKenzie

Friday, February 4, 2011

Got Arvocardos?

After nearly 24 years of marriage, the dietary predilections of my spouse continue to amaze me. Don’t get me wrong – Bill has an excellent palate, loves good food (especially mine) and has become an active participant in my business, not only acting as Sous-Sherpa (his self-description) but actually helping me in the kitchen, slicing, dicing and saucing. The cheeky guy even wants his own chef’s coat!

For the most part, Bill and I are on the same culinary wavelength, but there is one particular foodstuff, which I consider a masterpiece of Mother Nature, where Bill’s food frequency is way out of whack. The man will simply not eat avocados; not only that, he can’t pronounce the name correctly, inserting an “r” or two in between the “a’s” and “o’s”. Being a California girl who grew up in the heart of avocado country, and even in the same town where the Haas variety originated, I’ve taken Bill’s ‘cado aversion personally. But then I remind myself that he’s a New Yawker, born and raised, who grew up with limited access to any fruit or vegetable remotely exotic and with a mother whose Catholic Friday night fish dinners can only be described as shoe leather. It’s a miracle he’s as discerning as he is!

So…can this marriage be saved? Of course! We have agreed to disagree on the virtues of Persea Americana. Like any evangelist, I hope to one day convert my loving husband into an avocado aficionado. With all the nutritional benefits, variety of uses and simple ease of eating this divine, if somewhat ugly, fruit, it shouldn’t be too hard to win him over, despite two decades of battle, right?

 Avocados are an ancient fruit that originated in Mexico, dating back millennium before being domestically cultivated. Introduced to California by Santa Barbara resident J.B. Ord in 1871, the fruit's virtues were recognized by growers and commercial production of avocados began in earnest by the 1900's.

As I wrote earlier, I grew up in Avocado Central – Whittier, California. Now known as the hometown of a certain former president, Whittier was in the 1920’s a small agricultural center 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles. According to the California Avocado Commission, “A.R. Rideout of Whittier, an innovator and pioneer in avocados, was always searching for new varieties and tended to plant whatever seeds he could find, often along streets or in neighbors' yards.

In the late 1920s, Mr. Rudolph Hass, a postman, purchased the seedling tree from Rideout, and planted it in his new orchard. He planned to graft another variety on it, but when repeated grafts didn't take he planned to cut the tree down. Fortunately for avocado lovers everywhere, Hass's children talked him out of it. They preferred the taste of the tree's fruit to that of the Fuerte, the predominant variety and industry standard in those days.”

Mr. Hass’s tree, planted not far from Whittier in La Habra Heights, was the mother of all the Hass trees that now populate the orchards of over 6,000 growers in California. Though lovingly tended for 76 years, she succumbed to root rot in 2002. Growing up, a block from Avocado Crest Drive, no less, I had the good fortune of being able to ramble through the Heights with my siblings and friends, plucking avocados from the bountiful trees of benevolent neighbors. We brought home future bowls of guacamole, or a chunky additive to a morning’s omelet or a simply savored pitted half served with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt - my mother’s favorite lunchtime treat! Knowing that our treasure would have to spend several days ripening in a paper bag - avocados do not ripen on the tree - only made our haul all the more special. We waited in anticipation for the day when the pebbly, dark green giant teardrops would be ready to eat!  

From Aztec times, the alligator pear, as it was once known, has been a staple crop in tropic and sub-tropic climes; in the US, 43% of all households purchase the fruit (why didn’t Bill eat them in NYC, for cryin’ out loud?!) . The Golden State now produces 90% of the nation’s crop, with San Diego County accounting for a whopping 60% (there goes some of good ole La Habra Heights’ claim to fame!). With Cinco de Mayo now a truly American celebration, avocado consumption rises precipitously in early May; Early February is a close second with that certain major sporting event coming up very soon.

Though guacamole is ubiquitous this time of year – it’s Super Bowl time after all and right in the middle of the avocado season - there are many unique and flavorful ways to incorporate the luscious, buttery, green-yellow flesh of Persea Americana into every day dining enjoyment. With the following recipes, I’m hoping to win an Avocado Convert or two, perhaps even my dear husband. If not, all the more for me to eat!

Pineapple Chipotle Mango Guacamole
2010 California Avocado Best Guacamole Contest Winner –
Most Original/ Creative Category, Trisha Krus
Photo compliments of the
California Avocado Commission

4 ripe California avocados, seeded peeled and diced

½ medium sweet onion, minced

2 chipotle peppers in Adobo sauce, finely minced

½ teas salt

2 TBS chopped cilantro

½ cup crushed pineapple, drained, juice reserved

2 TBS reserved pineapple juice

1 medium ripe mango, seed peeled and diced

Place diced avocado in a medium bowl and coarsely mash.

Add onion along with chipotle peppers, salt, cilantro and pineapple juice.

Gently mix in mango and pineapple.
Serve with tortilla chips or use as a topping on grilled fish.

Chinese Black Rice, Orange and Avocado Salad
From Whole Grains Every Day by Lorna Sass, James Beard award winner

Lorna is one of my favorite cookbook authors. I've served this at several catered events to rave reviews. The black rice and the avocado lend an exotic taste and texture to a simple yet captivating salad.

Photo by Jen, from

Forbidden Rice
3 cups Chinese black rice - follow package instructions.

Available in specialty stores as Forbidden Black Rice by Lotus Foods

3 cups diced peeled oranges

3/8 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

3/8 cup unsalted pumpkin seeds, toasted. I substituted pine nuts with success, though almost any nut would be fine. Or leave them out completely, but you'll miss some extra crunch.

2 ¼ teaspoons grated orange zest

3/8 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon ground chipotle

1 ½ ripe Hass avocado, peeled, pitted and diced

Peeled orange slices for garnish

In a bowl, combine the cooked black rice, oranges, orange juice, pumpkin seeds, orange zest, salt and chipotle. Gently mix in the avocado. Add more salt if needed.
For individual plating, place a lettuce cup on each plate and spoon the salad onto the lettuce. For a larger service, line a serving platter with lettuce leaves - butter of red/green leaf - and spoon salad over the leaves. Garnish with orange segments.
Wehani or wild rice can also be used in this recipe.

I don't think our marriage is threatened by avocado aversion. Bill just doesn't know what he's missing so, all the more for me!
Thanks to The California Avocado Commission  where you can explore more avocado recipes and James Beard Award Winner Lorna Sass