One of the best things about life in Alaska is the crab. Sometimes it seems to fall from the sky. A neighbor pulls a full pot and rings your doorbell with a wriggling crustacean in hand; a sign in the boat harbor advertises live crab at a fraction of the retail price - too good to pass up; or you sit down at a friend's house for dinner and next to the fork, knife and spoon sits the familiar pair of crab crackers and a mini crab fork.
As far as I'm concerned, there are two kinds of people in Alaska: King crab people and Dungeness crab people. If you're like me, you belong to the former group. Dungeness is great too - I think it makes a superior crab cake and is much easier to catch around here - but nothing can compare to sweet, rich, Alaskan red king crab.
Just thinking about it makes me long for melted butter to drip down my chin. Come to think of it, that's the only way I had ever eaten it, until now.
A couple weeks ago, I heard someone mention that they had dined on lobster mac 'n' cheese at Capital Grille in Seattle, and a giant, king crab-shaped light bulb lit up in my head. I could not rest until I had tried and tested this irresistible combination - both high-brow and down-home, comforting and thrilling, all at once.
I pulled from my experience as a cheese monger (read: addict) to pinpoint a cheese blend with just the right amount of complexity to accompany king crab. The result? We had a saying for this kind of deliciousness in culinary school: this king crab mac 'n' cheese is "stupid good."
King crab mac 'n' cheese
(makes 8 side-dish servings)
You'll be the king and/or queen of the potluck with this decadent dish of Alaskan comfort food. Wine recommendations include Pouilly-Fuissé, a fruity Chardonnay or a dry Riesling.
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1¼ cup milk
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¼ teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
3 ounces Swiss Raclette or Gruyere cheese, grated
3 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 ounces Romano cheese, grated
4 ounces cream cheese, cubed
8 ounces dried macaroni pasta (or similar shape)
½ pound king crab meat*, torn into bite-size pieces
½ cup panko bread crumbs
2 teaspoons butter
1. First, make the sauce. In a medium sauce pan melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, 3 minutes. Gradually add the milk, stirring vigorously to prevent lumps from forming. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, Old Bay, garlic, and lemon zest. Cook, stirring frequently until sauce has thickened. Reduce heat to medium low, and add cheeses, stirring until cheese has melted and sauce is smooth. Turn the burner off, and cover pan to keep warm.
2. Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 3-quart baking dish. Cook pasta to al dente (about a minute less than the package instructs). Drain, and return to cooking pot. Add cheese sauce and stir to combine. Gently fold in the crab meat. It might look like there's too much cheese sauce, but it will absorb into the pasta as it bakes. Pour into greased baking dish. Melt 2 teaspoons butter and toss with panko bread crumbs. Sprinkle evenly atop the pasta.
3. Place in oven and bake 40 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling, and topping is golden brown (you may wish to broil it for a minute or two).
*1 pound of king crab legs yields about ½ pound of meat.
Ginny Mahar is a trained chef and food writer who works at Rainbow Foods. She writes about all things "food" in Juneau, from cooking with local ingredients to restaurant news and food events. View more of her food writing at ginnymahar.blogspot.com.