Roanoke Island Seafood
Seafood Market - Not a Restaurant
Being a Marylander who resides in North Carolina and There are NO restaurants in our area that serve steamed crabs, we must do it ourselves.
So, First, Roanoke Island Seafood IS NOT a restaurant. They sell seafood. Roanoke Island Seafood is located in the Farmers Market under a small tent outside the first building ON THE RIGHT.
But most important, Roanoke Island Seafood is one of the few places in the Triad that do sell live crabs. I have tried every place I can find in the triad that sells live blue crabs and so far Roanoke Island is the best. They are far from perfect, but the competition has set a very low stake. The Asian markets will sell tiny female crabs that are below the legal size limit and there is another seafood vendor inside the building at the farmers market that does bait and switch, you order male crabs and they sell you females and claim they can not get males. The Shrimp Connection also sells crabs on a special order of 1/2 bushel minimum and are respectable in size and quality. However, a 1/2 bushel is too much for most people. The ability to purchase 1 dozen from Roanoke Island Seafood is a huge advantage.
The crabs we purchased did not meet the Maryland standard for #1 Jimmies, Most were a decent size, but about 1/2 were light. We purchased 1/2 bushel which is close to 4 dozen and there were about 8 dead crabs. It is impossible to tell when they died, but we kept ours very cold with not exposure to ice drippings and cooked them within 4 hours. Typically you always get a small amount that end up dead, but 8 in 1/2 bushel is a bit high. Overall, these are by far the best crabs we have purchased in the Triad.
Males look like this on the bottom.
North Carolina IS a Crab State. North Carolina is one of the largest producers of crabs in the USA. The majority are shipped to Maryland and very few end up in our state. It is a shame as crabs are delicious and the people of North Carolina need to learn how to cook and eat this native crustacean.
First, how do you buy crabs
The premium crab is a male crab or in crab speak, Jimmies. Female crabs should he left in the water. Females are smaller, harder to clean and it does not make ecological sense to eat them. In Maryland, the goal is to get #1 Jimmies or LARGER!
#1 jimmies are obviously all males, but each one is hand separated and only heavy male crabs of a decent size will be number one Jimmies. Crabs undergo a molt in which they lose their shell and they puff up to produce a MUCH larger shell that they can grow into. If you get a light crab, it molted recently and there is very little meat. We call these empty crabs, if you get one you will know whey. It is important to get heavy crabs.
Large, jumbo and colossal are all bigger and much more expensive than #1 Jimmies, but in my opinion, are very much worth it.
Crabs MUST be alive when you cook them. Crab meat QUICKLY deteriorates after the crab dies. When you get a crab with mushy meat, it died before it was cooked. The mushier it is, the longer it was dead. A crab with mushy meat is tossed in the trash.
You can order crabs at Roanoke Island Seafood by the dozen, 1/2 bushel or bushel for those that have large groups. A dozen #1 Jimmies is $30. This price will vary as they are a commodity that can vary week to week. Live crabs must be kept very cold. Typically, you place them on a bed of ice. Crabs are a salt-water animal and too much fresh water from the ice melting on them, can kill them. So it is best to keep the ice in plastic bags. I like to put a layer of ice on the bottom of a cooler, then a piece of cardboard, then the crabs, more cardboard and then more ice in bags. It is also very important to keep the crabs from drying out. The humidity allows the crabs gills to continue to work. The cold temperatures slow them WAY down to almost being comatose. It is hard to tell a dead crab from a live crab when they are cold. Allow them to warm up for a few minutes and the claws will come to life trying to snipe you!
OK, so you purchased your crabs, have them packed up cold so this is how you cook them!
Crabs are steamed, not boiled, so you need a real steamer or you need to rig a way to keep the crabs out of the boiling water. I have a large steam pot that I can put on a turkey fryer stand. You can steam in water, beer, mixture of beer and water and even add some lemon to the water. If you do steam and beer, forget the IPA's. You want a non-bitter beer for steaming. I typically steam in just plain water or water with 2-3 lemons sliced up.
Get the water boiling and then add a layer of crabs, add old bay, add more crabs and then more old bay. I like my crabs steaming hot out of the steamer, so I prefer to make several batches so they don't get cold. 12 to 18 crabs for 2 people who eat fast is a good number to cook at a time. If you have never cleaned crabs, or if you are slow, cut that number in half.
Crabs cook pretty fast and they are actually hard to over-cook so it is better to error on over cooking for food safety. The time to cook depends on how powerful your steamer is and how many crabs are in it. Typically 15-25 minutes is MORE than enough to thoroughly cook the crabs. It is VERY important to use one set of tongs for live crabs and another set to removed and handle cooked crabs. You do not want to cross contaminate as it is a great way of getting nasty food poisoning. Also, if you handle live crabs with your bare hands, wash your hands before handling cooked crabs. Do not forget this.
Live crabs are blue and red crabs are cooked.
How to Eat Crabs
Describing how to open crabs is not that easy. There are several methods that work.
Remove all legs. Remove the legs and claws including the knuckle or rotator joint at the body. You may need a knife to pry off the knuckle. In the picture below one side has its knuckles and the others are removed. Many times if you are lucky, a good chunk of meat is removed with the knuckles.
The claws can be opened with a small wooden mallet. The best way is a quick firm strike. Do not mash the claw. The idea is to only crack the shell so that it can be pried off. Beginners mash crabs. If you do good the claw will look like the photo below.
Opening the body of the Crabs
Take your knife and pry out the male appendage of the crab, I know guys are cringing, but bend around back and off. This exposes a gap between the top and bottom shells. If you notice in the picture below it stills has a knuckle. These can be removed at any point up to cutting.
Stick you finger between the top and bottom shell and pry off the top.
On the body side, remove the gills, the mustard and other nonmeat bits in the center. A combination of cutting with a knife and shaking works well. Once this is done, cut off the mouth bits. Many cultures will eat the head fat out of the top shell. It is very rich and fatty. Others find the mustard or the yellow stuff delicious. Personally, I am crab meat guy and I pass on those. It is a personal choice. Try them both. The lungs/gills or whatever you want to call them are nasty. Don't eat those unless you are really hungry. Many people stress out too much during this phase. Most of the stuff you are yanking out is eaten by many people in different cultures.
Now you are ready to cut the crab in 2. Cut both top halves off of the bottom. This will give you 3 pieces. 1 bottom and 2 tops.
If you have done well you will see lots of delicious meat that is now very easy to remove. The idea is to slide your fingers through the channels to remove the meat. Avoid the urge to mush things.
If you have done well, you will have an empty shell casing with no mushed meat.
If you have never tried crabs or never cooked your own, you really must try them. If you get good heavy crabs that are fresh, it is a treat. It does take practice and some effort to get to the meat, but it is worth it.