MIAMI BEACH -- It's stone crab season here, and until it's over in May, traffic will be lined up bumper to bumper on Biscayne Street at the southern tip of this island, home of Joe's Stone Crab. Boats will crisscross the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Keys, hauling innumerable square wooden traps, rushing the catch to processing plants around southern Florida. Roadside stands selling stone crabs have popped up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. All for a food that 80 years ago was deemed barely fit for human consumption.
The stone crab is a rust-colored, stalk-eyed crustacean found as far south as Cuba, as far north as the Carolinas and in great numbers in the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Keys. It is prized for the firm, sweet, buttery meat in its thick-shelled, coral-colored claws, which end in stubby, black-tipped pincers. Unlike the Maryland blue crab, only the claws of the stone crab are eaten and they are always eaten cold.
In this age of ecological consciousness, stone crabs are a model of recyclable resources. The claws are removed from the body and the crab is returned to the water. New claws grow back in 12 to 18 months. (The fishermen call crabs with second- or third-growth claws "retreads.") While the new claws are smaller than the originals, they are an important part of the industry. By law, the fishermen may remove only one claw from an egg-bearing female.
Stone crabs have long been eaten in Cuba, but they didn't really catch on in this country until the 1920s. The problem is that the flesh of a freshly cooked stone crab has a watery consistency and an iodine aftertaste. Enter one Joe Weiss, a retired waiter from New York, who in 1913 opened a tiny eatery on Alton Beach (as Miami Beach was called in those days). At the urging of a Harvard University marine biologist, Weiss began experimenting with the stone crab. In 1922 or '23, he discovered a way to firm up the flesh and eliminate the off flavor: serve the claws chilled.
The public tasted the new delicacy. The public was impressed. Joe's grew from a six-table eatery to a sprawling 400-seat restaurant that serves 1,500 people a day. (Joe's goes through 70,000 pounds of stone crabs a week.) The tourist season on Miami Beach traditionally begins the day Joe's opens in mid-October and is over when Joe's closes in mid-May. Joe's Stone Crab has spawned countless imitators across the state of Florida. Last year, stone crabbing earned Florida fishermen more than $13.5 million. There's good news for stone crab lovers this year; thanks to a super-abundant supply, the current wholesale price has dropped 20 to 30 percent from last year.
Stone crab claws are sold in three sizes: medium (eight claws to a pound), large (four claws to a pound), and jumbo (one to three claws to a pound). The latter look most impressive and command the highest price. But according to Stephen Sawitz, fourth-generation owner of Joe's, the mediums have the sweetest meat. Penny per pound, the ratio of meat to shell is also higher in mediums.
The question of size brings us to another point of debate about stone crabs: the proper auce for dipping. Joe Weiss Sr. favored simple melted butter. But other crab enthusiasts argue for mustard sauce. There are almost as many mustard sauce recipes as there are purveyors of stone crabs. Joe's sauce contains mayonnaise, powdered mustard and A-1 Steak Sauce.
Some of Miami's new young chefs are taking a fresh look at this Florida delicacy. Allen Susser of Chef Allen's in North Miami has replaced the traditional mustard sauce with a cayenne mustard sabayon. Mark Militello of Mark's Place in North Miami pairs the crustacean with tropical fruits and baby salad greens. Norman Van Aken of the Stars and Stripes Cafe on Miami Beach gives the crab a Southwestern twist, serving stone crab papaya taquitos.
Stone crabs are available on a limited basis in the Washington area (at Sutton Place Gourmet). They can also be ordered by next-day mail service from Joe's (call 800-780-CRAB or 305-673-4611).
The stone crabs sold in this area and by mail order are already cooked. To crack the cooked crabs, pound them with a wooden mallet, rolling pin, baseball bat or lead pipe. It's a good idea to cover the crabs with a dish cloth when cracking to prevent pieces of shell from spattering.
JOE'S MUSTARD SAUCE
(Makes 1 1/2 cups)
This is the classic accompaniment to stone crabs.
3 tablespoons Coleman's dry English mustard
1 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon A-1 sauce
2 tablespoons light cream
1/8 teaspoon salt
Combine the ingredients and whisk until smooth.
Per tablespoon: 72 calories, .3 gm protein, .5 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 97 mg sodium.
CHEF ALLEN'S CAYENNE MUSTARD SABAYON FOR STONE CRABS
(Makes 1 1/2 cups)
Melted butter or mustard sauce? This question perplexes thousands of seafood enthusiasts, as they search for the perfect dip for their stone crabs. Allen Susser of the North Miami restaurant Chef Allen's combines both in this rich sabayon sauce.
1 cup chardonnay wine
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons Japanese dry mustard
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1 cup clarified butter
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Boil the chardonnay in a small saucepan until reduced to 1/4 cup. Combine the egg yolks with 2 tablespoons chardonnay in the top of a double boiler. Cook the yolks over a moderate heat, whisking steadily, for 2 minutes, or until thickened to the consistency of mayonnaise. Whisk in the mustards and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in half the butter in a very thin stream. The sauce should thicken. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons chardonnay. Whisk in the remaining butter in a thin steam, followed by salt and cayenne pepper to taste. Serve the cayenne mustard sabayon sauce warm with freshly cracked and cold stone crab claws.
Per tablespoon: 84 calories, .6 gm protein, .2 gm carbohydrates, 8 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 54 mg cholesterol, 163 mg sodium.
MARK MILITELLO'S STONE CRAB SALAD WITH BABY GREENS AND TROPICAL FRUITS
Most restaurants serve stone crabs in their natural state. Mark Militello of the restaurant Mark's Place combines them with tropical fruits to make a colorful salad.
4 cooked jumbo stone crab claws (or 8 larges or mediums)
4 cups mixed baby salad greens
1 ripe Hass avocado
1 ripe mango
1 ripe papaya
FOR THE DRESSING:
1/3 cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon tangerine juice
1 tablespoon chopped scallions
2/3 teaspoon minced ginger
1/3 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
Crack the crab claws and remove the meat from the shells. Wash and dry the greens. Peel and seed the avocado, mango and papaya. Cut the fruits into 3/4-inch dice.
Prepare the vinaigrette. Place the ingredients (except for sesame seeds) in a jar and shake until well mixed. Lightly toss the greens in 3 tablespoons dressing and arrange on salad plates. Lightly toss the fruits in 3 more tablespoons dressing and arrange on top. Flake the stone crab on top. Spoon a little more dressing over the crab. Sprinkle the salads with black sesame seeds and serve at once.
Per serving: 517 calories, 13 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, 44 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 51 mg cholesterol, 413 mg sodium.
NORMAN VAN AKEN'S STONE CRAB TAQUITOS
Taquitos, baby tacos, are a popular Mexican snack. The recipe comes from Norman Van Aken of the Stars and Stripes Cafe on Miami Beach.
2 pounds cooked stone crabs claws
4 to 6 radicchio leaves
4 to 6 romaine lettuce leaves
FOR THE MANGO SALSA:
1 ripe mango, peeled and seeded
1 tomato, peeled and seeded
1/2 red onion
1/2 cucumber, seeded
1 jalapenao chili, minced
3 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro
Juice of 1/2 lime
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons peanut oil
8 fresh yellow or blue corn tortillas
Crack the crab claws and remove the meat from the shells. Wash, dry, and thinly shred the radicchio and romaine. To prepare the salsa: Cut the mango, tomato, onion and cucumber into 1/4-inch dice. Combine in a bowl with the remaining ingredients for the salsa and toss to just barely mix. Correct the seasoning, adding lime juice or salt as necessary.
To finish: Heat a thin film of oil in two large frying pans. Lightly pan-fry the tortillas over medium heat for 30 seconds per side, or until hot and fragrant, but still soft.
To assemble the taquitos, fold a tortilla in half, like a billfold. Place a little shredded radicchio and romaine lettuce in the bottom, followed by a spoonful of salsa. Flake the crab meat and place on top. Serve at once.
Per serving: 351 calories, 19 gm protein, 40 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 68 mg cholesterol, 303 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.