Mendocino Goes Crabless for Big Festival

This year’s 16th annual Crab, Wine & Beer Festival in Mendocino County was missing a main ingredient, Dungeness crab, but organizers, chefs, judges, attendees didn’t let that get them down.


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A festival without crabs is still worth holding with the Pacific's bounty of seafood.

Crab photo by Dana-CC; bad photo illustration by Stephen Buel

When the universe gives you crab, make crab cakes. That’s what chefs on the north coast have been doing since time immemorial, and in competition with one another every January for the past 15 years. Then domoic acid—an algae-borne neurotoxin potentially deadly to humans—started showing up in California’s beloved Dungeness crab, and the 2015-2016 crab-fishing season was suspended indefinitely. Suddenly, Mendocino County officials were faced with the question, when the universe takes away your crab, what do you do about your plans for the 16th annual Crab, Wine & Beer Festival, a pivotal fundraiser for the Mendocino Coast Clinics?

Their answer? You forge ahead, take advantage of the Pacific Ocean’s bounty of other seafood, and invite cooks and vintners from Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Little River, Ukiah, Willits, Booneville, Philo, Navarro, and other communities throughout the sprawling county to take part in an Anything But Crab Cake Cook-Off & Wine Tasting Competition.

Invited for the second time in recent years to be a judge for the competitions, I can vouch that although the uniquely sweet and luscious flavor of our state’s favorite crustacean was missed, the 11 competing chefs, as well as Chris Smiley and his volunteer crew in the kitchen for the annual benefit cioppino dinner, had no trouble coming up tasty solutions to their conundrum of crablessness. Most made their cakes using salmon, shrimp, or rockfish in various combinations, and adjusted their herbs, spices, and breading accordingly, aiming not to wholly imitate the platonic ideal but rather to achieve tastes and textures that would impress the judges and please the public attendees who vote the “people’s choice” awards.

Some judges were ready to give first place to pastry chef Brittney Harris of Fort Bragg’s A Sweet Affair bakery for her gorgeous and complex bite-size chocolate cakes. After all, the rules simply called for cakes made from anything but crab. But in the end, fishier heads prevailed. So did chef Benjamin Canul, representing Mayan Fusion restaurant in Noyo Harbor. His panko-coated, Yucatan-inspired mixture of rock cod, Mexican white prawns, and rock shrimp was spiced with achiote, cumin, and a Mayan black paste made from multiple sun-dried and roasted chilies; a dollop of habanero-sweet pepper salsa provided the finishing touch. Runner-up Andrew Wells made rockfish cakes using panko breadcrumbs, parsley, aioli, and seeded mustard from Mendocino Jams & Preserves, whom Wells represented; he topped them with spicy Meyer lemon-orange marmalade, and sprinkled them with toasted coconut. Chef Marc Dym earned third place with a smoked-salmon variation of the famed crab cake he serves at the Little River Inn—don’t miss the Benedict version at Sunday brunch—with a complex mixture of cornbread crumbs, crème fraîche, sour cream, citrus juices and zest, red pepper, onion, herbs, spices, and, to help bind, scallops puréed with egg. In an interesting twist, the top three favorites of the professional judges and festival attendees coincided exactly.

Incidentally, when the universe denies you crab, it also creates new challenges for wine pairing. There’s certainly no consensus about what to drink with Dungeness—many like to match its buttery richness with that of an oaked Chardonnay; I prefer the slight acidic contrast of a Sauvignon Blanc or the complexities added by a Viognier or a dry Riesling. This year, we judges were taking bites of fairly neutral shrimp instead of crab, and it was the 2014 Family Chardonnay from Booneville’s Seebass Family Wines that won out, while the People’s Choice went to Yorkville’s Maple Creek Winery, which poured its 2012 Estate Chardonnay, 2014 Estate Flora, our 2010 Estate Symphony. Winners aside, everyone who tasted enough at the festival came away feeling anything but crabby.

The 17th annual Crab, Wine & Beer Festival takes place Jan. 20–29, 2017, www.VisitMendocino.com.

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