When J. and I first to Maryland 11 years ago, I’d never been to an O’s game, never headed “down to the ocean,” and never spent the afternoon picking crabs and drinking Natty Bo. The funny thing is that even though we may be transplants, our boys, who are 7 and 10, are Marylanders through and through. They show only polite interest in J’s beloved Indianapolis Colts, they never say “ya’ll” no matter how many times they hear me say it, and they think Baltimore is a small town. It’s almost like we adopted them from a foreign culture and then decided to live in their homeland. It’s our job to assimilate.
Because of them, we’ve embraced Marylandisms through and through, and I have to say it’s a lot more fun to live here if you’re not sitting on the sidelines. Steaming blue crabs is a great place to start. There’s nothing more Maryland than picking crabs – a couple of dozen crabs dumped out on a long table covered with newspaper, served with corn on the cob, potato salad, and cheap beer.
A couple of weeks ago J. and I visited a crab house in Chesapeake, VA on the Eastern shore to find they didn’t have any blue crab this year, and if we wanted crab, we’d be stuck eating Alaskan King crab legs. When the hostess told us nobody in town was offering them because of a shortage, I did a little research to find out what gives. Is the blue crab population healthy?
Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab is a best choice for sustainable seafood, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Blue crabs are available along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Individual states where they are available have efforts to manage the blue crab population and promote sustainable fishing practices. In the Chesapeake Bay, crabs are caught via a trotline, without hooks, ensuring other species – like terrapins – aren’t accidentally caught along with the crabs.
That said, 2014 has been tough for the blue crab population – not because of overfishing but because of a long cold winter and resulting low water temperatures, according to the The Maryland Department of Natural Resources in a CBS Baltimore story. The population of spawning female crabs this year is 65 million, down from 150 million last year, and three DNR jurisdictions – Maryland, Virginia and Potomac River — have agreed as a precautionary measure to reduce harvest for 2014 and 2015 by 10 percent.
What does this mean to average consumer?
1. To help keep the blue crab population, don’t eat the females, this year or any other year. If you’re crabbing on your own, throw them back, and if you’re buying them, ask the dealer for male crabs only. See this article for photos to help identify the difference between male and female crabs. While it’s rumored that female meat is sweeter, personally I can’t tell the difference, and larger male crabs have more meat, making all the picking you’re about to do worth it. Check out this youtube video for tips on the right way to pick crab. This kid knows what he’s doing.
2. Blue crabs cost a lot more this year. I’ve seen prices up to $55 a dozen. If you can drop traps off a friend’s pier, that’s going to be the most economical way to get blue crab.
3. Illustrated by our trip to Chincoteague, some of the traditional all-you-can-eat crab picking joints don’t have blue crab at all this year because it’s cost prohibitive.
That’s a lot to take in, but now let’s get started steaming crabs! You’ll need a large pot, preferably with a steaming basket. We own this one, which also works for steaming clam, shrimp, and lobster. If you don’t have a steaming pot, you can use a large pot with a rack in the bottom to keep the crabs out of the water. You’ll want to purchase 4-5 crabs per person. Show up at your seafood dealer with a good-sized cooler to store the crabs in on the way home. There’s a little bit of controversy over whether or not they need to be iced for an hour or so before cooking. I’ve heard that this keeps the crabs from fighting and losing their claws, but I’ve also heard that the icing process makes the meat stick the shell. Either way works.
- ½ cup Old Bay seasoning
- 3 tbsp. kosher salt
- 2 tsp. ground black pepper
- 2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- 1 tsp. cayenne
- 1 tsp. dry mustard powder
- 2 cans National Bohemian beer
- 3 cups cider vinegar
- 30 live blue crabs
- Combine Old Bay, salt, pepper, garlic and onion powders, cayenne, and mustard powder in a bowl.
- Bring beer and vinegar to a boil in an stock pot fitted with a steamer insert over high heat. We like to do this outside, on one of the burners of our gas grill.
- Using tongs, layer crabs in the steamer, sprinkling some of the seasoning mix between each layer and on top of final layer. Put the lid on the steamer and cook until crabs are cook about 10 minutes, checking frequently to see if crabs have finished cooking. They're finished as soon as they turn bright red and should not be overcooked.
- Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.