Urbanna, Virginia, situated on the Rappahannock River just east of the Chesapeake Bay, was established in 1680 making it one of the oldest towns in America. Fish, oysters and crabs are plentiful and most of the fishing businesses here are multi-generational. My friend and chef, Jimmy Sneed knows this area well and once I explained to him that I wanted to learn about soft shell crabs, he knew just who to introduce me to.
Thomas Lee Walton owns Walton Seafood specializing in oysters and crabs pulled from the waters near his home. It is a family business—his grandfather and father both worked the water in previous years and now Thomas Lee works along side his brothers, his two sons, an aunt and his mother. Beginning in May and continuing through the summer, blue crabs are entering their molting season—casting off the old shell to develop a new one. The soft shell crab season is important to the Walton’s business because they are only available for a few months each year and the public demand is high. Each morning, Thomas Lee puts his boat in the water just before sunrise to gather any crabs that have been caught in his over 300 traps and one early summer morning, he invited me to go with him to see how it is done.
We started very early and traveled by boat for about 10 minutes on the beautiful Rappahannock River before we got to the first traps. When the traps are pulled up, any crabs that are captured are poured out into a big tray so that they can be checked. Thomas Lee and his son are experts and can tell very quickly if the size is right and if the special coloration and markings on the crabs indicate if they will molt soon. They taught me the signs and after several failed tests, I finally started to get the hang of it. Any crabs that don’t fit the criteria are thrown, unharmed, back into the river. The selected crabs are kept alive on the boat and once we reach the shore, we make our way to his facility in Urbanna.
Walton Seafood’s facility is a large building filled with many big tanks that have a water flow system attached to them. The crabs are put into the tanks where they will stay in the water until they molt in one to three days. Once they begin the molting process, it may take a few hours to complete. It is a stressful time for the crabs because it takes a lot of energy to shed the skin. They become weak and because they start to emerge with a very soft body, it makes them very vulnerable. Once they are finished with the process, the men will take the crabs out of the water and put them in containers where they will stay fresh and alive throughout the shipping process.
Many restaurants receive Walton’s crabs but we were lucky because we were able to get some just a few hours out of the water and very soon after they had molted. At this newest stage, they are referred to as “velvet crabs.” I have seen many soft shell crabs over the years but I have never seen them so fresh after molting. The crabs begin to develop their new, hard shells immediately after they shed their old shell so to get to take some that were so fresh and new was really a treat.
Meeting back up with Jimmy in town, I gave him the fresh, soft crabs and he showed me how to fry them in the style of the area. He explained that when the crabs are that velvety and fresh it is very important to handle them with care and to not make the cooking process complicated. Because the crabs are still filled with salty water from the river, they are seasoned naturally and don’t require any additional salt and only a simple dredging of flour before they are fried very quickly in a cast iron skillet. Once the crabs are done, all that was needed was a squeeze of fresh lemon and a little coleslaw on the side. The taste and texture was incredible and really demonstrated the philosophy that we have at our restaurant in New York, Le Bernardin, to make the fish the “star of the plate.”
Le Bernardin is a seafood restaurant and years ago, Gilbert LeCoze, the original chef/owner of Le Bernardin, emphasized the philosophy that the fish needed to be the star of the plate. The goal is to find the freshest fish available and enhance it, not overpower it, with supporting flavors that elevate the fish to be the best it can be. For example, one of Gilbert’s signature dishes is the pounded tuna carpaccio. It is a piece of the nicest tuna available, pounded thin and enhanced with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and chives. It is elegant and delicious and really allows the exquisite tuna to shine. He developed the technique, perfected it for the restaurant and we still serve it today.
It is possible to adopt this same philosophy for home cooking. The idea is to, no matter what you are cooking, try and source the very best ingredients. Obtaining good products and practicing culinary skills is the way to create great dishes at home. This week, I will demonstrate how to poach halibut in a veloute. The technique is classic and while it is a little bit advanced, is certainly something that you can, and should try at home. The result is a very gentle way of cooking the fish that protects it and makes it very shiny in texture. The vinaigrette that goes on top contains some fresh herbs and it is simple and well balanced. It provides just enough of an accompaniment to make the dish interesting and adds some fresh and bright flavor that enhances the fish instead of covering it up.