Searching for delicious local shellfish

  • Local crayfish sometimes appear on the menu at the Palms Fish Camp. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER
    Local crayfish sometimes appear on the menu at the Palms Fish Camp. PAT FOSTER-TURLEY/FOR THE NEWS-LEADER

Anyone who regularly reads this column knows that I love eating shellfish. The best part of our field trips often involves finding places that steam local blue crabs, or harvest fresh clams, or serve up other favorite local seafood specialties. But in this pandemic time, these field trips are rare and there’s no place nearby, usually, that I can get the specialties that I love.

Of course, there is always shrimp, and there’s nothing wrong with that. About every other weekend, I visit Martin on South Eighth Street where he parks his pickup truck and I buy a couple pounds of Fernandina shrimp, their tails still glistening in iridescent colors.

To cook them is no problem. Boil them whole in water with spices, fine. Shell and clean them beforehand, then stir-fry with veggies and Asian spices or sauté in butter and white wine and serve over pasta, better yet. But sometimes I want something different.

I gravitate toward local blue crabs, but cooking them is a bit more of a bother – stuffing them live in a pot of boiling water is not my favorite sport. Usually I am successful in finding places that steam them for me. There are places I’ve visited on the fringes of Brunswick, Ga. or Palatka, Welaka and St. Augustine, Fla., where there are small crab shops run by locals, with people crowded inside waiting for the only thing on the menu – fresh steamed blue crabs to go. But in coronavirus times, I’m not sure these places are even open, and traveling anywhere seems problematic. That’s why I was thrilled to find steamed blue crabs in my Harris Teeter flyer last week and why I ran to the store on Thursday morning, the first day they were available.

They looked a bit on the small side, but hey, they were cooked blue crabs! They may not have come from the St. Johns River or our own marshes but they originated in coastal marshes somewhere, most likely somewhere in the Carolinas where Harris Teeter has its base, and they had not been frozen. I bought two of them, ate them readily, and the next day I went back and bought four more and heartedly consumed them again. Delicious.

I took a look at the other seafood on sale at the fish counter at Harris Teeter. There was raw shrimp and various types of fish, maybe some local ones, but most of the cooked and prepared seafood on sale came from other places. There was cooked shrimp, but only farm-raised – too bad. If they were raised in the United States, these shrimp are OK, but they are nothing compared to the shrimp Martin sells.

The rest of the crustaceans on sale that day came from far away. The whole lobsters came from up north, where Maine is the epicenter of this fishery. The Dungeness crab clusters came from the West Coast of the U.S. The snow crab legs came from the East Coast of Canada, more than likely. I know that lots of people here enjoy these crabs and flock to any of the  “all-you-can-eat” deals that are sometimes found in our local restaurants, but not me. When I am in Maine, I eat lots of lobster. When I am in San Francisco, I eat lots of Dungeness crabs. If I’m in Malaysia, I consume pounds of calico crabs. When I am in North Florida, I am partial to blue crabs. I’ve never been somewhere where local snow crabs are on the menu, but I’m sure I would love these too.

In recent months, I’ve gotten lucky about other local seafood choices. A couple of months ago, the Palms Fish Camp on Heckscher Drive was serving local crayfish (crawdads) and we stopped there every few days to buy some more for me to consume. Not too long ago, before the coronavirus, I had the best soft shell crab sandwich of all time at the nearby Sandollar Restaurant. Sometimes I get lucky at the Ahn Thai Kitchen just off the island when “sea spiders” are on their menu. Sea spiders are an Asian name for softshell crabs, and softshell crabs are just local blue crabs that have molted from their hard shells and have not yet regenerated a new one.

I’m finding that even in this time of travel restrictions there are still some seafood treats to be found close to home. But oh, how I long for my past days of travel, where even more exotic seafood crossed my palate. Hopefully I will be on the road or up in the air again soon, but for now, let me eat blue crabs!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.