I had a big, significant birthday this week. One present I had to open on the spot because it came straight from the fridge. Inside was one of my favorite foods ever......crab claws.
These blue crabs were just caught in pots baited with mullet and thrown over their dock at the mouth of the White Oak River outside of Swansboro, NC. Norva boiled up a mess of them for a magnificent crab dip for her dinner party, and Mike got the job of "picking" the backs, saving the claws for another event - my Birthday Gift! What a great present for this foodie!
Bring out the newspaper and the cocktail sauce and crab crackers and forget the damned candles, the number of which could burn the house down! What a treat!
TIS THE SEASON
When the waters start to warm, the crabs crawl out from the mucky muck of the sounds and creeks where they've spent the winter. Folks all up and down the Carolina coast start baiting their crab pots and throwing them into their favorite spots usually sometime around Tax Day, April 15th, or earlier.
This year, the crabs were on the move a bit earlier. On April 8th, I was down in Southern Pines with THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK to "advise" participants on the Sandhills Farm to Table Co-op about what to do with the wonderful bounty supplied by Core Sound Seafood, a wonderful CSF or community supported fishery that delivers all over the state. Eddie and Alison Willis of Harkers Island brought some very active jimmies, male crabs, along with flounder and scallops for co-op members.
Eddie is the fourth generation to fish from Harkers Island. He and Alison tend to crab pots, hunt down clams in the wild (rather than farm), and tend to soft shells 24-7 during the season.
There's an old saying that the soft shells crabs start coming in at the first full moon in May. That would be May 17th, but already the soft shells have headed north from Core Sound toward the Pamlico and Albermarle Sounds. Just this past weekend I stopped in to see the Willis's soft shell operation at Mr. Big's Seafood, to find them gone like the soft shells, in search of more peelers.
PEELERS PEEL OUT
"Peelers," what those in the know call crabs ready to shed or peel their coats, have had a very early season.
But the hard crabs are out there and are filling up baskets headed to markets here and further north in the Chesapeake.
There's nothing finer than spending an evening after boiling up a mess of crabs doused with Old Bay, or as the old timers do, with onions and potatoes and sometimes corn. Spread newspapers on the table, melt some butter and dish up some cocktail sauce, then sit, pick and enjoy while sipping on a cold beer.
DO YOUR OWN CRAB BOIL
adapted from THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK: Recipes & Traditions from NC's Barrier Islands by Elizabeth Wiegand, Globe Pequot Press, 2008.
Boil up a big pot of live crabs, spread them on newspapers and provide pliers, lobster crackers, small hammers, and plenty of towels to extract the marvelous meat from the bellies and claws. A meal will take hours and dozens of crabs, so make sure you’ve got some good conversations going.
And picking crabs yourself will earn newfound respect for the art and hard labor required for providing cleaned, cracked crabmeat in one-pound containers. Just decades ago, the older women in outlying communities of the real Down East, like Smyrna and Atlantic, spent hours each day, sitting and chatting and carrying on while cracking crab for commercial distributors. Now, women from the Yucatan in Mexico come up by the busload to spend each season standing for hours at huge metal tables, cracking and extracting crabmeat.
Big pot 2/3 full of hot water
3 Tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper
12 live crabs
1. Bring water to boil. Add Old Bay and crushed red pepper. Stir. Add crabs, reduce heat to medium. Cover and boil for five to 10 minutes. Drain crabs into sink or pluck from water and place in extra large bowl.
2. On the table, have lots of small knives, forks, pliers, lobster crackers or small hammers and a roll of paper towels. Have small bowls of melted butter and cocktail sauce within easy reach of each person.
3. Place crabs directly on the newspaper. Let guests have at it, let conversations roll, and hope no screaming babies demand attention, for you’ll have to wash up first.
Serves 4 to 6