Notes From the Island Fishmonger

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Welcome to Softshell Crab 101

By Scott Dolan

One of the sweetest, tender and mouthwatering foods in the world is the white succulent meat from a crab. Sometimes you’ve got work for it but a mouth full of butter-dipped crab meat can be one of the better things in life.
As of May 1, us Floridians said goodbye to our beloved stone crabs and in July we say hello to the southern softshell crab. The end of a good crab season is always disappointing but it is not the end of the world. When one crab season ends, another begins. On the west coast from Seattle to Vancouver, the Dungeness crab season is now open. In Alaska, snow crab and king crab are king.
As the stone crab traps come to shore, they will be replaced by the buoy of the blue crab traps that will be strategically placed in our waters. Unlike in Maryland, these swimming crabs are a tough catch in Florida as blue crabs are not overly abundant to this area. It’s estimated that one-third of the nation’s catch of blue crabs comes from the Chesapeake Bay area.
One thing we have learned at the Big Water Fish Market is that a discussion that compares crab cakes with Maryland folk is a losing battle.

I have spent many afternoons or evenings picking away at blue crabs. If you have ever picked through the calcified shell of a blue crab in search of tender meat, you know that it’s hard work but it’s fun and worth it. That’s why I get excited when the weather warms up and the southern cities like Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, and Gulfport deliver a bumper crop of floppy softshell crabs that are my favorite.
Now, the softshell crab is a meal. You eat the whole crab and every bite explodes with crab juiciness. Softshell crabs are blue crabs harvested right after they shed their exoskeletons; once they have busted out of their old shells, replacements begin to grow. And the new shell will begin to harden within hours. The trick to harvesting soft shells is catch them in the transitional stage. Fishermen typically capture the crabs before they molt and hold them in cages in the sea or salter tanks instead of scouring the ocean. As soon as the crabs drop their shells they are removed from the water, which stops a new skeleton from hardening.
All softshell crabs will come from your local retail fish counter, either fresh or frozen. Most soft shells are frozen within minutes after being removed from the water and cleaned. If you’re lucky enough to find actual fresh, live softshell crabs, that’s the way to go. Live crabs should still be moving and smell like an ocean breeze. Any good fish monger can clean your fresh crabs for you in a matter of minutes. A few snips with a pair of scissors and your crab will be ready for this delicious southern fried softshell crab recipe:

  • Dip your cleaned softshell crabs in an egg wash.
  • Then dip and coat with breaded mixture of flour, creole seasoning and salt and pepper.
  • Pour oil an inch deep into a heavy frying pan. Heat to 350 degrees.
  • Fry the breaded crab for 4 to5 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 135 degrees.
  • Remove from oil and place on a plate lined with paper towel to dry.
  • Sprinkle with creole seasoning, salt and pepper to taste.
    • Serve over grits, salad, veggies, or create the oh-so-popular softshell crab sandwich.
      These crabs are a low-calorie, low-fat source of clean protein. On average they contain about 500mg of Omega-3 fatty acids per 3.5 ounces of meat, making them a delicious and healthy option for seafood lovers.
      It is a fact that Alaskan snow crab legs are cooked at sea where they are caught to protect their flavor, then flash frozen and shipped all around the world. For those of you that don’t consider frozen crab legs fresh, maybe you should check out the process of flash freezing online and see how it preserves the crab better than any other method.
      Crabs are one of, if not the, most sustainable sources of seafood in Florida due to the way they are harvested. There’s nothing that brings familia together anywhere in the world more than a good ol’ crab boil. Whether it’s snow crab, king crab, or Dungeness from the Pacific northwest, or our local Florida stone crab, people have a craving for crabs and it will tantalize our taste-buds for an eternity.
      Henceforth, forget the opinion that no crab legs in the area are fresh just because they’re brought in frozen. Any crab is still one of the richest in flavor and most succulent delicacies of the sea.
      Live well and eat crab!


Scott Dolan
Author: Scott Dolan

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