Spaghetti with Crab Sauce

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A bowl of spaghetti with crab sauce
Photos by Holly A. Heyser

Crab and tomato go together like cats and random things tossed onto the floor. That is to say that crab and any form of tomato play well together, from a simple salad with freshly chopped tomatoes to this spaghetti with crab sauce.

I first had a version of this dish several years ago; my brother-in-law Mark made it with lobster while I was visiting them in Massachusetts.

It is a sauce of two parents: Italians and thrifty Yankees. Mark being both, he made the sauce using just the legs and bodies of the lobsters, parts many people throw away. But Mark knows that plenty of meat lurks within lobster bodies, and he’d patiently pick it out before making this sauce.

As he did so, it occurred to me that there would be no reason why it would not work with crabs, too. After all, crabs and lobsters are cousins.

(I also have a recipe for lobster fra diavolo, which is similar and an Italian American classic.)

So when I returned home to California all those years ago, the first time I brought back some crabs from Bodega Bay I made my own rendition of Mark’s lobster sauce. I’ve made it many times since then, and a version of it appears in my book.

But as with any recipe you do over and over and over again, I’ve tinkered with the original, and, I think, have managed to streamline the recipe even more. In the old version, I had trouble getting all the shell out of the sauce. I’ve fixed that here.

This sauce is insanely good. Good in the way only years of tinkering can do. Sharp, sweet, garlicky, just a little spicy with a strong hit of anise flavor from fennel and ouzo.

It may look like just a regular tomato sauce with bits of crab in it, but it’s not. I assure you. Do yourself a favor and make some shrimp or scallop scampi as an appetizer for this. You won’t be sad you did.

A bowl of spaghetti with crab sauce
4.93 from 13 votes

Spaghetti with Crab Sauce

This recipe is a two-step process: Making the sauce base and then the sauce itself. You can make the base a day ahead if you'd like. Any crab will do here, but I use a combination of red crabs, rock crabs and Dungeness crabs. The only tricky ingredient here is ouzo, which is a Greek anise-flavored liquor. Most liquor stores have it, but you can sub in sambuca, raki, Pastis, Pernod or any other anise-flavored liqueur. Still can't find it? Go with brandy; that's what my brother-in-law does.
Course: Main Course, Pasta
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 6 people
Author: Hank Shaw
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Ingredients 

SAUCE BASE

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • Shells from 2 or 3 Dungeness crabs or 4 to 6 large rock crabs, or 8 blue crabs
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • Tops from 1 fennel bulb, chopped
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • 1/2 cup ouzo

FINISHED SAUCE

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped fennel bulb
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup ouzo
  • A 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups of the crab sauce base
  • Tabasco garlic-pepper sauce to taste, or other hot sauce
  • 1 cup cooked crabmeat
  • 1-2 pounds dried spaghetti
  • Chives, green onions or parsley to garnish

Instructions 

  • To make the sauce base, put the onions and olive oil in a stockpot and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add the crab shells and the garlic and stir to combine. Use a potato masher to smash the crab shells into small pieces. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes.
  • Add the bay leaves, the tops from the fennel bulb, ouzo and a healthy pinch of salt. Add enough water to cover everything by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. Turn off the heat and pick out as much of the solids as possible, making sure you save the liquid. Strain the liquid through a paper towel set in a colander. Reserve.
  • To finish the sauce, heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large, wide pot over medium-high heat. Saute the onions and chopped fennel until they are soft and translucent, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
  • Mix in the tomato paste and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until it darkens and turns the color of brick. Add the ouzo, the tomatoes and 2 cups of the crab sauce base. Stir well and bring to a simmer. Taste for salt and add the Tabasco to taste. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.
  • Boil your pasta. Once the pasta is ready, add the crabmeat to the sauce and stir gently. Mix the pasta with a little of the sauce, then portion it out. Top with more sauce, and garnish with chives or parsley.

Notes

Once you make this sauce, it will last up to 3 days in the fridge before it starts to get funky.

Nutrition

Calories: 494kcal | Carbohydrates: 62g | Protein: 15g | Fat: 13g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Cholesterol: 22mg | Sodium: 101mg | Potassium: 321mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 10IU | Vitamin C: 5mg | Calcium: 54mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe? Tag me today!Mention @huntgathercook or tag #hankshaw!

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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31 Comments

  1. This was absolutely delicious. My husband and i devoured it. We used brandy instead of the ouzo. Cant wait to go crabbing again soon to make it again!

  2. Couldn’t you use just crabmeat instead of crushing shells etc like use 6oz of crab why crush shells etc

  3. just cooked it today, man was it good…using the brown rock crab from Doran beach…no not the jetty, just the rocks near the parking lot 😉

    Also curious if other herbs (oregano, basil, capers) go well with crab. Like a substitute for fennel.

    Great post and hope to catch more crab!

  4. Simply gorgeous.
    I should make this for my hubby’s birthday.
    He just might marry me all over again!

  5. An Italian chef once said that simple cooking is the best cooking. Why all of these ingredients?Crabs and Spaghetti is a very old recipe, simple ,easy ,and delicious.

  6. Hank,thanks for this recipe! You describe the process perfectly. Crab season just opened here in Washington State. I just made this and it came out great.

  7. Wow, I will definitely remember this for next year when crab season comes around. Kind of a take on cioppino but with only the best part of the seafood (if you ask me it is all about the crab)and no messy shells!

  8. For the crab shells, are you using the smaller leg pieces you don’t want to spend the time to pick or are you using empty picked shells?

  9. Looks good. What do you mean by crab “shells”? Just the main body without the legs but leaving the green stuff and lung like stuff on the sides? Thanks forthe recipe!

  10. Canal Cook: I don’t see why not. My brother-in-law uses brandy AND ouzo, so it will work. Just fish out the star anise before you serve!

  11. This looks like a fantastic recipe with lots of flavour. I wonder if you could use a mix of brandy and dried star anise in place of ouzo?

  12. Hot Sauce and OregonCoast: Yep, they are red rock crabs, not Dungeness. “Wee little crabs?” Dude, you are SO West Coast – they are nice, big healthy crabs if you are an East Coast transplant like me… 😉

  13. Thanks Hank, guess I need to make time to hit the beach with my crab traps. Interesting that your Dungeness in CA are so dark red cooked; on the Oregon coast they cook up with more of a salmon-pink-red color. Is it their diet?

    The addition of anise flavor to this recipe reminds me of an oyster bisque I made years ago with my brother in WA state with local oysters; it included bulb fennel and anise liquor too– amazing flavor, we couldn’t stop eating it. Think we found the recipe originally in Sunset magazine.