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There are several types of fare that truly define summer at the New Jersey Shore. Of course there are the tomatoes that came into season a few weeks ago, sweet and juicy all over the state. There’s boardwalk pizza, favorite ice cream parlors, and the smell of peppers and onions on the grill. But at least as far as seafood is concerned, that most fleeting and delicious plate is the softshell crab.
“Of all our dishes, this is the one I look most forward to in our restaurants. It’s not really something we can serve in the off season. So it represents pure summer and its pure deliciousness,” says co-owner Mel Magaziner.
While some folks think it’s a different species all together, the softshell we eat is the blue claw, that iconic species found from New England down to South America. Take a look. They’re the same, one just has a softer exoskeleton.
The soft shell is a result of the crab’s growth cycle. Since the internal body grows faster than its shell, it essentially has to grow a new one. Known as a “shedder,” the crab cracks the exoskeleton and slowly backs out of the old shell. The crab pumps water into its body and the new shell begins to form. Within three to four days, the shell is completely hard.
This is what makes the softshell such a fleeting delicacy. Soft shell crabs are best as soon as they molt. They’re not often caught in traps because they stop eating during the molting process. That would explain why you don’t randomly get a softy in the trap off your dock. We get our crabs from shedder boxes, often right here on our bay.
The Blue Claw is the only crab that is eaten during the molting process in North America, which makes is that much more special. There are well-known shedder delicacies in Asia. Their Spider Rolls and Chu-chee dishes served in Japanese and Thai restaurants hold up very well with our local blue claws.
Cleaning blue claws should be done as close to cooking them as possible. They aren’t going to pinch at this state, so they’re easy to handle. Actually, you want to be delicate with them. To clean the softy, cut off the front quarter inch of the top shell with scissors. Then lift up the points on either end of the crab. You’ll notice they come up nice and easy. Cut out the gills on each side. Then on the bottom of the crab, you can very easily pull off the apron.
At most of our restaurants, we generally serve them fried or sautéed. Fried, they go into a light batter and into the deep fryer. With lemon, tarter or cocktail sauce, a piece of jersey corn and some coleslaw, this might be one of the most time honored East Coast seafood traditions ever.
When we sauté them, it’s in a bit of garlic, butter and white wine. We do have some variation among our chefs, Rich Schobel at the Black Whale uses some secret herbs. And at Mud City, you can get them over pasta, which some folks go crazy for.
Sautéed is generally for that most hardcore of seafood lovers. There’s nothing between you and that tender-shelled crab. This is what the purists come for.
Either way, they also make for an amazing sandwich with romaine lettuce and Jersey tomato, as the crab’s juices are soaked up by the bun. Occasionally, Ship Bottom Shellfish likes to serve up the particularly tender ones we get in June as its own sautéed appetizer.
At our newest establishment, Parker’s Garage, Chef Kyle has been experimenting with the softies. This summer, he’s been serving up a softshell summer succotash special, fried softshell with pancetta and an Old Bay aioli.
Across the board, let’s just say we don’t have many left at the end of the night.
So while local blue claw crabs can frequently be fickle this time of year, 2015 is off to a historically bad start. Our crabber is blaming the ultra freeze of jan/feb on massive death tolls throughout the local bays. In early spring dredging he said that large amount of dead crabs under the mud were all he was finding. Hopefully the warmer weather will start to show signs of life but the baymen are less than optimistic.
What does this mean for us? Unfortunately it means sourcing crabs from down south (North Carolina and Maryland). Which will ultimately lead to less product at a higher price. But hang tight, Mother Nature tends to throw curve balls so hopefully we’ll see a change in the near future!
One lonely crab out of 30 pots this past week –
(I did this last September and never published – better late than never)
A few days ago I took the opportunity to take my daughter down to the 14 th street docks in Barnegat light – she’s 9 years old now and I thought she might get something out of seeing how a good portion of the fish that comes to mud city reaches land – Rob at Cassidy’s in Viking village runs the fish market and acts as a wholesaler to a good deal of area restaurants – we have been dealing with rob for 20 years or so – he took over the business from Marty Cassidy ( happens to be my partners father ) who ran the market for years prior – lots of history in the BL fish business – I called rob up to find out if there was any tuna and sword in and he told me The Juliann was about to pack out –
Hadley and I got there just in time to see capt Craig and crew off loading part of 6,500 lbs of tuna and sword – the Julianne was on a 7 day trip with great weather and plenty of fish – these guys long line fish which means they set out a 25 mile line of 700 baited hooks let it set for 6-10 hours and then haul it in – the fish that are caught are headed, gutted and packed in the ice hold on the spot – the crew will run 5 “sets” to fill the ice hold before steaming back to the dock – Craig tells me that after the boat is packed out cleaned, re-outfitted and fueled they will head out again tomorrow – the moon is full and the bite is on so he needs to take advantage of the conditions – no time for rest –
As the fish comes off the boat each one is rolled up to the scale, weighed and graded and then packed into individual ice boxes to be shipped off to multiple wholesalers and restaurants –
Tuna is graded on a number system #2 – 2+ – 1 – #1 being true sushi grade 2+ Is excellent as well but may lack some of the fat or color required of a #1 – the tail is cut off and samples are taken from the fish to determine the fat content and color in order to grade the tuna
As the fish come into the dock house rob stands by and hand picks fish for himself and his customers (myself included) – from there rob butchers the whole fish into loins and drives them to the back door of mud city and a handful of other restaurants ( black whale, ship bottom shellfish)- and we in turn put it on a plate for you!
Come get your mud city fix before we close for the season! We are open Thursday-Monday at 11am until our last day on November 30, 2014.
Gift certificates can be purchased online for Mud City throughout the winter. Consider giving the gift of Mud City this holiday season.
Yeah, I know my last and only post was in early may or so but… It’s turned out to be a very busy summer – The storm didn’t keep to many people away from the beach it seem (at least it didn’t keep em away from mud city) and we are very thankful for all your support – here at the restaurant and in the area in general –
A couple new things here at the restaurant this year – most exciting is that we now have a liquor license – we acquired the license for our new project next door (more on that later) and it turned out we were able to cover both properties with one license – we have been offering a light menu for our customers as an option – featuring Narragansett beers on tap, a light wine list of 5 varieties and four cocktails for you to choose from –
We also added some really cool lights on the patio and have been serving lunch out there as well as our appetizer menu on the patio at night ( although these hours will get cut down as fall unfolds) – we’ve been doing live patio music on Sundays and will probably have a few more before it gets too cold – ill keep you posted — or so I say 😉.
About the blog: Now I’m really not much of a blogger or writer in my daily life but I thought this might be a good way to involve you all in our “mud city culture”. I plan on using this as a forum to bring you various information / goings on/ recipes/ ideas/ fish culture and whatever else pops into my head that may or may not be relative to anything. If you have some questions or ideas that would interest you or others feel free to chime in. I hope we can make this work. However, bear with me, as I said, I’m no writer/blogger so if I slack please forgive me – sometimes I’m a little busy! Thanks for looking!.