CLEARWATER BEACH — In sync with the southern migration of the snowbirds who visit each winter, stone crabs are starting to arrive at an eatery near you. Tuesday marked the official beginning of Florida’s stone crab season, a cause for celebration among those who’ve craved the crustacean since its five-month hiatus began May 15.
But last year’s harvest was a bleak one for the state’s commercial fishing industry. Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said lingering red tide and a higher than usual population of octopuses, a predator of stone crabs, caused the supply to dwindle and prices to rise to $18 to $20 per pound. The total take amounted to about 2 million pounds last year. A good season yields 3 million pounds.
Even so, Clearwater Beach will usher in the new season with renewed optimism and festivities as it has for decades. For those who are stone crab novices, here are a few pointers:
- You’ll be served the claws, not the whole crab. And don’t feel sorry for the creatures. They’re probably still alive in the sea, regenerating replacements for the very claws on your plate. The claw is carefully harvested keeping the joint intact to ensure its regrowth. Moreover, harvesters are encouraged to leave the crab with one appendage to defend itself against predators during its recovery. The claw usually takes about a year to regrow. How’s that for a renewable resource?
- “Hot or cold?” is the question you must answer. After collection, stone crabs are thrown into boiling water, then cooled in ice water and kept refrigerated. Cold will taste the freshest, and hot will be steamed or sautéed for about three minutes.
- Now for the tricky part — getting to the meat of the matter. A seafood utensil (like a nutcracker) usually is supplied but is awkward to use. The shell can break into tiny bits and maybe take flight over to the next table, causing some embarrassment. Experts suggest placing the claw over a napkin in the palm of your hand and smacking gently with the back of a spoon or knife. The shell should crack cleanly. Pick off the outer shell with your fingers.
- After all that, you may be tempted to taste the sweet and firm white meat as is. But don’t forget the dipping sauce. Usually, two choices are offered: melted butter or a mustard sauce prepared with sour cream and Worcestershire sauce. Aioli, a concoction of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and egg yolks, is a flavorful alternative.
Gain more stone crab expertise at these Clearwater Beach events marking the season’s opening:
- Frenchy’s Original Café, 41 Baymont St., will host its 29th annual Stone Crab Weekend with a block party on Oct. 26 and 27. For more information, visit www.frenchysonline.com.
- Cooters Restaurant & Bar, 423 Poinsettia Ave., will host its 20th annual crab festival Oct. 24 to 27. Visit www.cooters.com for details.
Discounted prices on stone crabs will be offered at both locations.