The time has come, crab lovers. Local Dungeness has finally landed, after yet another delayed season. And of all the delicious ways to dig in, from garlicky cioppino to gooey crab melts, the Bay Area has an obsession with an outrageously messy crab boil. A big pot teeming with crustaceans, potatoes and veggies, swimming in a luxurious bath of butter and herbs. We like our crab legs practically crawling out of full bowls. We love shell shrapnel and juicy splats all over the table.
While several East Bay restaurants do it well, it’s also fun and easy to boil crab at home, simply tossing ingredients into a pot. Especially if you follow the advice of star chef Nelson German the seafood boil king of the East Bay.
“They’re just fun,” German said. “Eating with your hands, there’s this primal instinct that comes out. Things just taste better.”
German owns Alamar seafood restaurant and Sobre Mesa cocktail lounge in Oakland, and you’ve seen him on TV, as a past contestant on “Top Chef.” Growing up in Washington Heights in New York City, his Dominican mom simmered camarones with lots of butter, garlic, sazon and lime. He says that it wasn’t until he moved to the Bay Area that he fell in love with the seafood boil party scene.
That’s the whole concept for Alamar, which serves seafood boils year round, teeming with shrimp, mussels, clams, crawfish and lobster. But when Dungeness lands, that’s when the fans really flood in.
German is all about the sauces, layering in diverse flavors: The Vietnamese-Cajun mashup that’s beloved in the Bay. Touches of his culinary travels through Spain and Italy. And tastes of his own Afro-Caribbean roots.
“It’s definitely a hodgepodge of who I am,” German said. The selection has grown over the years, so diners pick and choose different sauces, heat levels (from mild to “hella spicy”), and sides (from garlic noodles to yellow rice).
During the pandemic, Alamar actually offered crab boil kits with hunks of precooked crab. But in season, German strongly recommends using live crab, and has complete confidence East Bay locals can tackle crustaceans. The sweet news is prices just dipped a couple of bucks. Even if you don’t want to go down to the docks, he recommends ordering through a high-quality seafood vendor like Four Star.
To many people, a seafood boil specifically includes potatoes and corn. But during winter, German also recommends a variation with Meyer lemons, wild fennel and a truly breathtaking quantity of garlic and butter. The fennel teases that licorice sweet flavor from the Mediterranean, layered in several ways: the fresh vegetable, the seeds flecked through the sausage and if you have it, a splash of Pernod liqueur in the sauce.
Once you have a couple of crab buddies chilling in the fridge, it’s a straightforward plan of attack. While some boils jumble together in one pot, German does recommend pulling out two: A big pasta pot to boil the seasoned water, plus a trusty Dutch oven to get the sauce going alongside. Then chop all the veggies, because once the crab plunges in, things will simmer along quickly.
German has two signature tricks, to turn any crab boil into a true flavor bomb. He saves the seasoned water, treating it “almost like a stock.” And he pops open the crabs, and scrapes out the “crab butter,” that golden goo which some fools throw away! But he sinks it right down into the sauce. “It adds so much great flavor,” he insisted.
So much sauce calls for dunking. Which does he prefer, sourdough or rice? “You gotta have both,” German said. “I’m Dominican, we love our rice. But there’s something about grilled bread in that sauce that’s out of this world.”
Alamar Dungeness Crab Boil with Wild Fennel and Meyer Lemon
Alamar simmers all kinds of flavorful sauces for their seafood boils. This version stars a Mediterranean mix of fennel sausages, wild fennel and Meyer lemons, all sunk into butter.
Wild fennel tends to be smaller and stronger, but if you don’t spot it at the farmers’ market, regular fennel is just fine. A splash of Pernod heightens the anise flavor, but if you don’t have a bottle, feel free to skip.
Finally, German believes in a serious amount of garlic, but no need to mince, he likes it chopped (and you can always reach for a mini chopper, if you don’t want to get your hands dirty).
- ¾ cup Old Bay seasoning
- 12 small Yukon gold potatoes (about 1 lb), cut in half
- 2 whole live Dungeness crabs
- 2 Italian mild sausages, cut into ½ inch pieces
- 2 heads garlic, chopped
- ½ bulb wild fennel, cored and sliced (see note above)
- ⅓ cup white wine
- ¼ cup anise liqueur, such as Pernod (optional; see note above)
- ½ lb unsalted butter, cut into large cubes
- ½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- Zest and juice of 2 Meyer lemons
- ¼ cup fresh dill fronds
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add ½ cup of the Old Bay seasoning. Add the potatoes and cook until tender when pierced with a fork, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Return the pot of seasoned water to a boil. Add the live crabs and simmer until bright red, 8 minutes. Remove with tongs, place upside down and let cool slightly. Reserve the seasoned water.
When the crabs are cool enough to handle, take off the crab head gently, letting the “crab butter” fall into the head. Remove and discard the frilly lungs and bitter jaws. Set the shells filled with “crab butter” to the side. Take the crab bodies and crack lightly with the back of a knife or seafood mallet. This is to help the sauce seep into the crab during the next step.
To make the sauce, warm a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the sausages and sear until they start to render and brown, stirring once or twice, about 5 minutes. Remove the sausages and set aside.
Return the pan to the heat, add the garlic and fennel, and stir until fragrant, 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and anise liqueur, if using, and stir, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add 3 cups of the reserved seasoned water and bring to a boil. Add the butter, the remaining ¼ cup Old Bay seasoning, and the cayenne. Whisk until the sauce comes together.
Add the Meyer lemon zest and juice, and the crab butter, pouring it out of the shells, and whisk gently to combine. Add the crab shells, crab bodies, potatoes and sausages and turn to coat.
Cover the pan with a lid and let steam until the sauce seeps into the crab and all of the ingredients are warmed through and fragrant, 2 minutes.
Transfer the crabs to large serving bowls, and line up the potatoes and sausages alongside. Pour the sauce over everything and sprinkle generously with the dill.
Serve warm, with steamed rice and crusty bread on the side, for mixing and dunking into the sauce. Roll up your sleeves, grab your crab crackers, and dig in.
Makes 2 servings.