Finding out just how soft shell crabs get to the plate was one of the most interesting parts of a recent fishing trip I took with Joey Fonseca, the subject of this week's column. Somehow, seeing firsthand the effort it takes to get these beauties to the market has made them even more delicious. But what happens to the potential soft shells that never make it to market?
Joey and his wife Jeannie have a series of cultivation tanks set up in sheds behind their home along Bayou Des Allemands, and their purpose is to nurture ready-to-molt crabs from the time Joey hauls them from a trap a mile or so away to the time Jeanie sells them at the Crescent City Farmers Market on Tuesdays, or to a roster of chef clients.
Most customers want perfect crabs, with all their legs and especially both of their succulent claws intact, but it doesn't always work out that way. Crabs lose appendages all the time. So if one of the crabs in a Fonseca harvest loses a claw, it means one less crab for the restaurant or market, but one more for the family kitchen.
"The ones that don't make real good restaurant quality still make real good coonass quality, because I'll eat the hell out of them," says Joey. "Who cares if there's no claw? I'll just borrow it from the next one."
Many crabs don't survive the molting process, but Jeannie says these can be the most exquisite of all.
"We call them peelers, because you have to peel the rest of the shell off after they die. But what you have there is the most tender crab possible. It hasn't started to puff up to its bigger size, it just stopped right there at its most tender," she says.
These peelers rarely make it out of the Fonseca household, but rather contribute to a fringe benefit of the crabber's hardworking livelihood.
"I take them, season them up and just sauté them in olive oil so they're done on each side," says Jeannie. "Then take some of that cooked rice and stir it around in there so it gets the oil and the crab bits all in it. Perfect."