Stone crabs. Ay yi yi. Delicious, delectable, irresistible. And as of October 15th, us devotees can pig out like there’s no tomorrow until the season closes on May 15th – seven months of gastric gratitude.
Introducing neophytes to stone crabs is a seduction of great pleasure. Chris Batin, a pal from Talkeetna, Alaska, had never dined on stone crabs. He went on and on about how he doubted anything can top king crabs or dungeness crabs, a common staple in The Last Frontier. Well, you know what’s coming, right? Kelly and I treated him to a stone crab feast at Cooters on Clearwater Beach.
“We’re going back there tomorrow night,” said Batin after dispatching a plate of crabs. He’s now a total convert and even while thousands of miles away in Alaska says he still drools thinking about that wonderfully unique stone crab flavor.
Sorry Chris, but we’re residents of Clearwater year-round, and visions of stone crabs dance in our heads come each October. To say the least, we’re making it an ironclad commitment to haunt local seafood eateries to munch out to our hearts content. And, a number of restaurants are featuring upcoming stone crab festivals, including Cooters and Frenchy’s on Clearwater Beach.
Stone crabs are most commonly caught in commercial traps. The traps are dunked to the bottom in saltwater, and each trap has a buoy at the surface. A buoy is retrieved and the trap pulled up by hand or by pulley, and each crab is sized before deciding whether to keep it or toss it back. The size of a stone crab claw is the length of the larger, immovable part of the claw. Legal-sized claws are at least 2 3/4 inches. Male claws are usually larger than female claws and can measure up to 5 3/4 inches. The legal-size claws are sorted as small, medium, large or jumbo, and generally placed in cases of 50 or 100.
A pound of medium stone crabs equals six to eight claws, with an order of large claws featuring four to six and jumbo two or three. I opt for jumbo when available and Kel goes for large. When ordering, you’re given a choice of having them served warm or cold. We like warm. The crabs usually arrive to your table pre-cracked from the kitchen, but if not, a wooden mallet or seafood cracker can break the dense shells.
Cracking a claw so the meat comes out intact isn’t hard to master. To get at meat in small crannies below the claw, a small cocktail fork helps. Some diners like to get all the work out of the way first by extracting all the meat and eating it later; others such as myself with less self-control plunk each charming chunk into drawn butter the moment it’s shell free.
If the restaurant provides plastic bibs, go for it. This is going to be a messy affair. However, in stone crab country no one will disdain you for walking about with stains and stone crab juice wafting off your shirt. In fact, you’ll be envied.
While a plate of stone crabs is the prized object of affection, don’t be shy about a nice precursor such as raw oysters, she-crab chowder or a yummy smoked fish spread. After dinner, loosen your belt and go for a slice of key lime pie. And worry not that your gluttony is a spectacle, because fellow diners will be just as guilty.
Is a stone crab dinner pricey? You better believe it. Expect to shell out (pardon the pun) well over 20 bucks for a plate of medium claws and into the high 20s and even 30s for large and jumbo claws. Is it worth it? Ask any veteran stoner just how each forkful bursts with glorious flavor, and there’s your answer.
If you’ve never sampled the delicate texture and distinctive flavor of stone crabs, there’s no time like now to quit denying yourself. And if you’re an old-time muncher like me, admit it – your mouth is watering right now.
Check out Frenchy’s 35th Annual Stone Crab Weekend Block Party on October 25 – 26, 2019 from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Cooters 26th Annual Crabfest on October 26, 2019 from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.