With its ungainly claws, the stone crab was definitely no looker, and its low-profile lifestyle amidst mud and rocks did nothing for its reputation, either. In fact, until Miami Beach restaurateur Joe Weiss decided to cook a few claws and see how they tasted-or so the story goes-the stone crab was considered a nuisance crustacean, the country cousin of the posh lobster or sexy Alaskan snow crab.
But as soon as Weiss took a bite of the snowy-white flesh of those claws, he realized that the lowly stone crab could make culinary history. That was back in the 1920s; and Weiss' landmark Joe's Stone Crab restaurant is still going strong, as visitors from all over the world line up to savor what's become one of Florida's most famous homegrown treasures. Over the past few years, stone crabs have begun to appear on upscale menus in other parts of the country, too, thanks to overnight delivery that deposits fresh claws plucked in the early-morning waters of the Gulf at the back doors of trendy Manhattan eateries just in time for dinner. Another sure sign of culinary arrival: the stone crab now has its own gourmet festival, the Stone Crab and Seafood Festival in October at the Colony Resort on Longboat Key. Serious foodies from all over pay as much as $1,200 for the weekend event, which features world-class vintners and chefs creating new ways to serve and enjoy the Florida crustacean.
It's perhaps debatable-though you'll never win that argument around here-that stone crabs anywhere, from North Carolina to Texas, taste just as good as the ones from Florida waters. Impossible, locals will say. In fact, they disagree that they're even talking about the same species.
Ask Alan Moore. A third-generation crabber who helps run his family's 36-year-old stone crab eatery, Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant, Moore can tell anyone anything they might want to know about crabs; fishing, cooking and serving them has been his family's business for three generations now.
Stone crab, Moore explains, is a renewable resource. You don't catch the whole crab; you just take it out of the trap, twist off the claws and toss the crab back into the water. As gruesome as that sounds, the old claw starts to heal within a week, and in less than two years, a new claw will have fully grown in the old one's place. Another good thing about stone crabs is that diners don't have to work for their food; a meal of blue crabs, for example, calls for some dedicated thumping and scraping to ease out tantalizing slivers of meat. With a stone crab claw, one good crack elicits a large, firm chunk; and, with just a little more effort, you can extract more meat from the "knuckles."
And who can argue with the taste? So sweet and delicate that it leaves little aftertaste, the meat is flavorful and tender, moist and nicely flaky. It comes out of the hard case in chunks just the right size to grasp and dip into a bowl of hot butter or tangy mustard sauce.
Mike O'Leary, one of the half dozen local fishermen who has supplied Moore's Stone Crab Restaurant for years, is usually out on his boat by 7 a.m. from Oct. 15 to May 15, which is official stone crabbing season. The rest of the year, these fishermen turn their attention to fish, blue crabs and Florida lobster.
But it's all about stone crabs on a perfect January morning when, as the sun rises over Sarasota Bay, O'Leary's boat glides out over glass-still water between the tiny, densely wooded islands of Jewfish Key and Sisters Key into the placid expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. His task for the day is to head out to his traps, located anywhere from about 100 yards to about 10 miles from shore. Each trapper has his own color and tags on his buoys. Nowadays, the traps are usually plastic, though some crabbers still use wooden ones. About a foot-and-a-half square, the traps are weighed down with a layer of concrete and lock on top with sliding switches. Attracted by the bait of mullet head or pig's feet, the crabs scramble up the slatted sides and fall in the hole on top of the trap.
Stone crabs love sandy, rocky sea floors, where they feed on plankton and dead fish and clams, sweeping the food toward their mouth with their claws. "From the moment a crab hatches, it starts eating," Moore says.
Once the first trap is reached, it's a blur of activity. O'Leary and any helpers who accompany him wind up the trap with a winch, empty it and rebait it in the time it takes to reach the next one in line, which can take from less than a minute to about three minutes. This means sifting through the crabs (most fishermen have learned from experience to tell at a glance which ones have claws below the two and three-quarter-inch legal limit) and other sea creatures irritably cooped up in the trap.
In one quick move, hands encased in nothing tougher than a pair of bright red knit gloves, O'Leary grasps the crab by its back legs and twists off the front claws then tosses the denuded crab back into the water.
Quicksilver fingers are not just desirable; they're a necessity. Those claws can bruise or even break a finger. Because the crab's insides consist of a jelly-like fluid, the entire organism operates like a hydraulic machine, putting immense pressure on those claws when they snap shut, easily crushing clams and oysters.
Moore insists-and scientists at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory confirm-that the crabs manage just fine with or without those ferocious, yet so delicious, pincers. And plenty of rules govern their capture: A crab has to be released where it was caught, and fishermen can't harvest claws from a female with an egg sac (crabs lay their eggs in the summer), Not just anyone can become a crabber, either. Applicants for stone crab licenses must work on a crabber's boat for a few years before even applying for a license. Then, if his (there are few women in the field) name comes up on a state lottery, he is awarded a license. Retiring crabbers must return licenses to the state.
"Sometimes you hit the mother lode," Moore says, with traps coming up swarming with crabs, with several even hanging onto the outside. "Sometimes, nothing."
And sometimes, a fisherman will lift up a crab to find it light as a feather; that's when you know one of the crab's deadliest enemies has struck: the octopus. "Octopus are the bane of stone crabbers," Moore says. "They're like eight-month-old pit bulls."
Back in the 1920s, Papa Jack Moore, Alan's grandfather and the family patriarch, moved south from Boston, lured by warm weather and tales of enormous catches. An avid fisherman who loved to walk the flats with a tickle stick to poke out the crabs, Papa Jack ended up in the little fishing village of Cortez. Soon he married Sally Fulford, one of the nine daughters of a local founding family, and began fishing and crabbing in earnest.
This was before the days of the outboard motor, when crab trapping expeditions meant rowing up from the southern tip of Longboat Key to the northern tip of Anna Maria Island, sleeping overnight on the beach, and rowing back the next morning, hauling up crab traps each way. Alan Moore can remember his grandfather talking to his two mynah birds all day long as he painstakingly made wooden crab traps by hand. An educated, inquisitive man, Papa Jack would take his grandsons with him on his trips around the state in a refrigerated truck, delivering crabs from Tarpon Springs to Miami and back up to Ybor City, where he'd stop by the factories to barter some claws for a couple of hand-rolled cigars.
Papa Jack spent the rest of his life catching and trading crabs, scallops and whatever other seafood was in season. In 1967, sons John "Pete" Moore-Alan's father, who worked for the telephone company-and his brother Hugh, a postman, took the family business a step further and built a tiny wooden building across the road from their red cottage. They put up a counter that seated 10, enough tables to seat about 35 and started serving stone crab claws.
"That first night, half the telephone company and half the post office was here," Alan recalls.
As condominiums started sprouting on Longboat Key and more and more seasonal visitors came to stay, the little yellow-and-blue building's regulars started to increase. Now, the restaurant seats about 175 people and includes a spacious dock outside for boats to park. More expansion plans, perhaps even a second restaurant, are under consideration, Alan says.
Alan handles the front of the restaurant; and Robert Hicks, their third partner and "adopted brother," takes care of the cooking. Paul runs their newest venture, Everglades Fish Company in Everglades City, where he catches pompano, grouper, snapper, Florida lobster, frog legs, and of course, about 2,500 pounds of stone crabs daily. The company ships crabs all over the country-one Honolulu customer has some delivered twice a month-and sells wholesale to suppliers, cruise ships and casinos. It also sends Alan supplies to reinforce the catch from local crabbers.
"We use more crabs than local guys can catch for us," Alan says. "This allows us to control our own destiny."
Back in the kitchen area of Moore's the processing of the stone crabs takes place, a delicate operation which, if done right, can guarantee the claws stay fresh for up to eight days.
Moore will only take "green claws," ones that have not yet been cooked, so he can ensure they're prepared correctly. Crabbers check their traps every three days and pull all day long. Almost every night during the season, a boat or a truckload of claws from a Cortez boatyard arrives at Moore's to unload.
As soon as the claws arrive, they're thrown into baskets that are lowered by winch into giant stainless steel steamers and cooked for about 10 to 15 minutes. Then they're removed and plunged into ice-cold water to stop the cooking process and ensure the meat pulls away from the shell. After chilling, they're graded according to size and labeled with the date they were caught and the name of the trapper who caught them. The claws are stored in a refrigerated room to maintain their freshness. Every day, they have to be taken out and washed and the container washed and reloaded, a process that takes a couple of hours each day. If just one claw goes bad, it can ruin the whole lot, Moore says.
There's only one way Alan Moore will eat his stone crab: cold, with a side of mustard sauce made from dry mustard, mayonnaise, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and lemon.
"That's how the locals eat 'em," he says.
Tommy Klauber, chef at Longboat Key's trendy Pattigeorge's Restaurant, and the founder of The Colony's Stone Crab and Seafood Festival, which for the past 12 years has attracted the crème de la crème of gourmet chefs to sample and create stone crab recipes, has to agree.
"I love my stone crab just cracked, cold and served with mustard sauce," Klauber admits. "That's how I crave it all the time."
That doesn't mean the award-winning chef can't think of a dozen other ways to use the meat of the stone crab. He likes to toss chunks of it in a torn salad with spinach and key lime dressing, or to coat the meat with vegetable chips in a buttermilk mixture and flash it in oil, or even cook it in a delicate Thai coconut curry. Stone crab claws also makes an excellent garnish, Klauber says; he often places just one claw atop fresh local flounder, sautéed with capers and lemons.
"Around the globe, cooks get creative with things indigenous to the area," he said. "Everybody likes variety."
But until the advent of overnight delivery, many big city chefs wouldn't consider the meat, which had a short shelf life. Now, stone crabs are being served all over the country. "I think that maybe for all the years when stone crabs were only in Florida, people were craving them at home," says Klauber.
Tommy Klauber's Stone Crab in Crisp Vegetable Chips with Absolut Citron Pink Peppercorn Sauce
6 large stone crab (shells removed)
1 c. flour
1 c. fresh spinach, julienne
1/4 c. basil in strips
1/4 c. Bermuda onion
350? frying oil
1 t. pink peppercorns
Dust the stone crab chunks with flour. Dip in egg and cover with spinach, basil and Bermuda onion julienne. Fry in 350? fat fryer till the spinach is crisp. Dry on paper towels and arrange with Absolut citron sauce on appetizer plates.
Absolut Citron Sauce:
1 c. mayonnaise
1 oz. half & half cream
1 T. dry mustard
1 oz. A-1 Steak Sauce
Juice of 1 lemon
1 T. honey
1 t. white vinegar
3/4 oz. Absolut citron vodka
Alan Moore's mustard sauce recipe
1 T. spicy mustard
1 c. mayonnaise
2 t. Worcestershire sauce
1 t. A-1 steak sauce
2 T. heavy cream
2 T. milk
Dash of lemon
Dash of tabasco sauce
Whisk all the ingredients together and serve with chilled, cracked stone crab claws. Recipe makes enough for one cup of mustard sauce.