Right around the time when islanders and visitors pull their plaid pants and Lilly Pulitzer dresses out of the closet to prepare for the Heritage golf tournament, local seafood restaurants are making preparations for a different kind of visitor. In addition to golf, spring also brings the soft-shell crab season.
Soft-shell crab is a culinary term for crabs which have recently molted their old exoskeleton and are still soft. This means that almost the entire animal can be eaten, rather than having to shell it to reach the meat. The exceptions are the mouthparts, the gills and the abdomen, which must be discarded. The remaining, edible part of the crab is typically deep fried and is highly prized for its succulent and juicy texture.
Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks is taking matters into its own hands once again to provide locals and visitors with the freshest possible version of this local delicacy.
For the second consecutive year, Hudson’s, with the help of Carolina crabber and engineer Rob Rowe, has built a flow-through system at the restaurant.
Shedding boxes have been constructed in the packinghouse with a water circulating system to facilitate and manage the molting process.
“We enjoy pushing the culinary envelope, and finding new ways to insure that we have the finest seafood available anywhere,” said Andrew Carmines, general manager of Hudson’s. “The difference in the taste and texture of these crabs is astounding.”
To begin the process, Rowe starts by baiting pots with male crabs that put off a pheromone to attract virgin female crabs ready to molt, as well as traditional pots with bait to attract the male crabs. Once the baiting pots are full of crabs, Rowe will look at the fins and abdomen for telltale markings of molting crabs.
The peelers are collected and transferred to Hudson’s where they will continue their molting process in a series of floats. Rowe designed 14 of these floats, with the ability to hold 200 crabs each, with pool pumps to bring in saltwater from Skull Creek.
The molting process is the most difficult and stressful time in a crab’s life. When the crab’s shell cracks, Rowe will section off the tank in two parts, keeping the crabs with cracked shells and those that haven’t yet cracked separate. Since the crabs are so vulnerable, it is essential that Rowe gives the crabs the highest level of care to ensure a successful shedding process.
“I’ve been doing this for over 15 years and it is always exciting to see the final stage when they back out of their shells,” Rowe said. “The advantage to shedding peeler crabs yourself is that the customer is able to enjoy the crab when the shell is at its softest.”
Once the crab backs out of the shell, a new shell immediately begins to harden; creating a texture that is less desirable.
Rowe and the rest of the crew at Hudson’s will be tending to the crabs all night for 45 days, as the crabs tend to back out of the shell in the evening. Rowe said that last year local customers would come by five to six times a week to check out the crabs and enjoy their unique and delicate flavor.
“Since Hudson’s is increasing the number of softies that we are shedding here at the restaurant, there is a huge demand for great new dishes,” chef Patrick Ward said. “The kitchen is going to be putting an emphasis on matching up the peelers with crisp, intense flavors to heighten the natural flavor of the crab.”
Some of the dishes Ward will be serving include cornbread stuffed soft shell crab dusted with andouille sausage breading and finished with a local honey tarragon glaze, fried soft shell benedict with Benton’s ham and cumquat béarnaise, soft shell crab ceviche with finger limes, heirloom tomatoes and coriander habanero vinegar to name just a few.
“Hudson’s will come up with multiple dishes daily depending on the freshest ingredients available,” Ward said.