Stone crabs are one of the many things I love about Key West. Not only does their sweet, firm meat taste amazingly good but their arrival also signals the end of summer and the approach of near-perfect weather for the next seven or eight months. The Florida season for stone crabs runs from mid-October to mid-May, but often supplies run low toward the end, so I gobble them up as soon as they appear in the market.
Stone crabs are trapped in small wooden traps in the shallow near-shore waters. Their claws must be carefully snapped off without harming the crab (they grow back in about a year). Although it is perfectly legal to take both claws if they are of legal size, sustainable fishing advocates recommend that only one be taken to ensure the wellbeing of the crab. The claws are cooked right away, either on the boat or dockside to prevent the meat from sticking to the shells.
For a memorable stone crab experience, you can’t beat Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach. It has been an institution for over 100 years and is old-school dining at its best. The servers there are not biding their time until they write their novels or get an acting role. They are true professionals who are serious about the ritual of dining. The menu is as traditional as it gets: crabs, of course, as well as Florida lobster, surf and turf, chopped salad…all the steak and seafood house favorites (although I can’t imagine ordering anything except those delicious claws). Joe’s is a throwback to another time, but still holds up as a memorable experience.
For stone crabs at home, I usually buy medium or large claws, depending on what looks good that day. Count on four or five medium claws per person (about 1½ pounds). If you don’t have a cracker, remember to get your fishmonger to crack them for you. I like cracking them myself so that they are intact until the last minute. Don’t even think about those little hand-held crab crackers that work on blue crabs. These guys are tough! I use an amazing tool called the E-Z Cracker from Webb’s World Industries (see kwkitchen.com for more). The key to using it is to realize its power. You just barely tap on the handle to crack right through the otherwise impenetrable shell. It’s not cheap, but it will last forever. Serve the cracked claws clambake-style on a table covered with newspapers. Make the simple mustard sauce below for dipping or just dip in clarified butter.
Stone Crab Mustard Dipping Sauce
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add ½ cup sour cream and 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard and gently heat through. Remove from heat, stir in 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley and a pinch of salt. Serve in a small bowl alongside cracked stone crab claws.
Makes enough for about 8-10 medium claws Wine pairing A rich, buttery Chardonnay, like Sonoma-Cutrer