Menippe Mercenaria: Menippe-Greek, meaning force or courage and Mercinaria-Latin, something of value
Formerly known as “Morro crabs of Cuba”, stone crabs delight the gourmet’s palate and strain his or her wallet. Weighing in at nearly twelve dollars a pound for the larger size, stone crabs are not to be taken lightly. Don’t waste that exquisite white flesh in crab cakes or crab casseroles. The only way to eat these long-lived crabs (they live 8-10 years) is straight out of the shell. Only then can the true meaning of “recycled” be understood: the crabs are divested of one of their claws and then thrown back, only to be divested of a “retreaded” claw 18 -24 months later and so on. Claws must measure a minimum of two-and-three-quarter inches in length for “harvesting.” And female stone crabs rich with eggs must not be touched. Fishermen take care to return the crabs to their watery home in good condition – minus the pincher claw – because in 2004, the stone crab business brought in a whopping 26 million dollars. Each crab can regenerate its large claw three or four times. Fishermen, not environmentalists, spearheaded the drive to conserve this valuable natural resource.
Years ago, I first ate stone crab claws in Cedar Key, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico, where one of the three or four ocean-side restaurant served huge platters of these succulent claws, which went for thirty cents a pound wholesale in 1963. Sitting at a plastic-covered table, watching the pelicans flying low over the rippling tides, we spoke little and ate much, cracking claws with nutcrackers and dipping the claws in melted butter. And then, scraping the tender white ambrosial flesh off the claw with our front teeth, like eating artichoke leaves, we noticed the sun setting to the west as the seagulls screeched and the heavy-bellied big-billed pelicans scooped up fish innards and heads discarded out the backdoor of the restaurant, their loose jaw pouches swinging like my old cat’s fat stomach when she lurches after a snake in the woods near my house today.
According to Nicolaas Mink, in his detailed article, “Selling the Storied Stone Crab (Gastronomica, Fall 2006),” eating stone crabs in Florida took on the aura of a creation myth, a veritable legend surrounding the appearance in Miami Beach in 1921 of a near-penniless Hungarian immigrant named Joseph Weiss, of Joe’s Stone Crab fame. Of course, people had been eating this feisty crab for years, and not just in Florida. The crab’s range extends from the Carolinas to the Yucatan.
No matter whether you eat the original claw or the regenerated “retreads” (the “retreads” are never as large as the original claws), you will likely be eating pre-cooked claws. Fishermen cook the claws on board fishing boats or in the fish houses before the claws are presented to the consumer. If raw claws are frozen, the meat tends to stick in shreds to the inside of the shells. Precooking is necessary, therefore, before freezing. Frozen stone crab claws can be stored, still frozen, for up to three months without deterioration.
Lovers of stone crabs may yearn for the days of Mr. Jack Moore, who in those long ago days of 1928 in Manatee County, started the first commercial distributorship of these succulent crabs. At 19 cents a pound, the crabs arrived alive at various Florida restaurants and Mr. Moore was required by his clients to personally twist off the claws. Let’s hope Mr. Moore took the crabs home afterward. “Fresh” meant fresh in those days, squeamish or not.
Fresh is still fresh. The only packaging on claws is the stony shell that shatters all over your neighboring eater as you wrestle with the critters and gouge out the sweet crabby flesh. Dunk the claws into drawn butter and be traditional. Or try different dipping sauces from the far-flung curves of the world.
Note: You have until May 15 to enjoy stone crab claws. After that, the crabs are no longer required to make any sacrifices until October 15, when the cycle begins anew.
MUSTARD DIPPING SAUCE
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 t. dry mustard
1 t. Worcestershire sauce
Lemon juice and salt to taste
Mix all ingredients together until well-blended. Serve chilled with chilled stone crabs claws.
HONEY MUSTARD SAUCE
½ cup honey
½ cup Dijon-style mustard
½ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
2 t. Tabasco sauce
1 t. salt
1 T. chopped parsley
Mix all ingredients together except for parsley. Bring to a boil and boil for 3 minutes. Cool. Stir in parsley and chill sauce. Serve with chilled stone crab claws.
ASIAN DIPPING SAUCE
2 garlic cloves, mashed
1 t. dried red pepper flakes
2 t. granulated sugar
1/8 fresh lime, pulp and juice reserved
¼ cup soy sauce
1-2 T. water
Mash the garlic, sugar, and lime into a paste. Pour in the soy sauce. Thin with water as desired. Serve with warmed stone crab claws.
PARSLEY DIPPING SAUCE
½ cup olive oil
4 T. red wine vinegar
2 T. grated onion
2 cloves garlic, mashed
1 t. freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fresh chopped parsley leaves
2 drops Tabasco sauce
1 t. salt (or to taste)
Whirl all ingredients in a blender or a food processor for 20 seconds. Pour sauce into a glass serving utensil and serve with warm stone crab claws.
CURRY DIPPING SAUCE
1 ½ t. curry powder
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup cream or milk
½ t. salt or to taste
1 t. (or to taste) fresh lemon juice
Heat the curry powder in a hot skillet for 30 seconds. Set aside (this releases some of the flavors of the curry). Mix all the remaining ingredients together and stir in the curry powder. Chill and serve with warm or cold stone crab claws.
© 2008 C. Bertelsen