Crab Macaroni Gratin
My mid-December birthday marks the start of Dungeness crab season in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps I’m biased, but in my opinion, Dungeness is the tastiest crab there is, and worth celebrating in and of itself. Several years ago, I started inviting friends over under the guise of a birthday party, but really, it’s a celebration of the season, the past year, and, yes, the fresh catch of the best crab on the planet.My guest list includes too many friends to fit around my dining table, so we’re packed like sardines, snug in the candlelit room with magnums of Champagne and piles of steaming whole crabs to be cracked and dipped in melted butter. It’s messy and a bit chaotic, but fancy at the same time. I’d have it no other way.I like to choose a theme for the annual menu, usually inspired by a travel experience I had that year. Last year I visited one of my favorite cities, New Orleans, not once but twice, so it seemed fitting to laissez les bons temps rouler come December. The crab was cooked with Creole seasonings in the boil, classic and delicious, but the surprise hit was this macaroni au gratin served with it.To make it, I channeled iconic restaurants like Galatoire’s, Clancy’s, and Brigtsen’s—some of my favorites to visit when I’m in the Big Easy. A glorious amount of crabmeat baked with shell-shaped pasta in a three-cheese cream sauce —tangy white Cheddar, nutty Gruyère, and sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano—is no-joke delicious, and trés riche. That’s where the Champagne comes in. The tingly bubbles give your palate an ultrasonic scrub between each creamy, cheesy, blissful bite. Blanc de blancs, or Chardonnay-based Champagnes, are particularly good here. They can be saline like shellfish, complex like great cheeses, and bring enough acidity to play counterpoint to both.This recipe is not cheap, but it is easy. Once you shred the cheese, the rest is simple assembly. I buy the crabmeat picked, because, as I’m told by my fishmonger, it averages out to be about the same price as cooking whole crabs and picking the meat yourself, and it saves precious time. If you don’t have access to Dungeness, try this with your local variety, or whatever type of crab you can get your hands on.