Florida's stone crab season begins with good deals

It looks like the best prices for stone crab this year, retail or restaurant, may be just as the season opens. That's Thursday for those of you who haven't noted it on your food calendar.

The season for Florida's most cherished shellfish continues through May 15.

Consumers paying retail have often been sticker-shocked by the prized claws, especially when a pound of jumbos crept over $20. This year, that price should start around $15, says Steve Reis, manager of Pelican Point seafood market in Tarpon Springs (937 Dodecanese Blvd.; (727) 934-3134).

Reis predicts that the first two months of the harvest will be plentiful, but thinks the haul may drop after that unless a few storms blow through. Without the "bad weather to chase the crabs" around, they don't scuttle into the traps, he says.

Reis expects to sell large claws for $12.50 a pound and mediums for $9 to $10, prices that are commonly seen at the end of the season.

In this lousy economy, with consumers more strapped than ever, Reis says the appetite for claws may die off sooner and then not pick up until the holidays. Hopefully, he says, tourists will be hungry for claws (and for travel) and if not, there may not be much point harvesting the crabs.

"The market has to be where people can afford them," he says.

Billy Moore of Billy's Stonecrab restaurant in Tierra Verde (1 Collany Road; (727) 866-2115) is more rosy in his outlook, predicting a "bumper crop."

"Stone crabs aren't aware the economy is bad," he says. "God makes stone crabs more abundant some years than others." He says this is one of those years.

So Moore is dropping the price of his 1-pound medium claw dinner to $15.95. It was $21.95 last year. Also, because he says he's feeling good about the supply, the restaurant will sell a 2-pound meal — about 12 medium claws — for $24.95.

There will be one place, though, you won't be eating stone crabs this year. The annual Stone Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival at the Colony in Longboat Key has been canceled because of a dispute between management and unit owners that has temporarily closed the facility. This would have been the 20th anniversary festival.

When buying retail, stone crabs are always sold cooked and can be served cold, traditionally dipped in a mustard sauce, or heated and dipped in melted butter. To heat cooked claws, plunge them into boiling water for a few minutes or steam. Do not cook for long or they will get rubbery and might stick to the shell.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recommends that fresh-cooked claws be stored for three to four days packed in ice or in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Claws that are free from cracks in the shell can be frozen for up to six months. Thaw them in the refrigerator for 14 to 18 hours depending on size. Do not run water over them to thaw or they will lose flavor.

The famed Florida stone crab, one of the 4,000 varieties around the world, is a favorite treat among tourists and at holidays meals. For winter visitors, it is often mentioned in the same reverential breath with grouper sandwiches and key lime pie. Though stone crabs are associated with Florida, they can be found as far north as the Carolinas and west to Texas.

The name describes the crab's hard shell, which must be hammered to release the meat from the claws. The claws can grow to half the crustacean's weight.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8586.

. if YOU GO

Crab feasts

Stone Crab Weekend: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Frenchy's Cafe, 41 Baymont St., Clearwater Beach. The original Frenchy's celebrates the 25th annual festival with stone crabs, drink specials and live music. Free admission, charge for food and drink. (727) 446-3607. frenchysonline.com.

Crab Fest: 5-10:30 p.m. Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Cooters Raw Bar & Restaurant, 423 Poinsettia Ave., Clearwater Beach. Celebrate with stone crab claws, plus king crab, dungeness crab and more at the party under the big tent with dancing and live music. Free admission, charge for food and drink. (727) 462-2668. cooters.com.

Stone Crab Fest 2009: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Oct. 24, Tarpon Springs Yacht Club, 350 N Spring Blvd. Night of stone crab, casual cuisine and music includes Jimmy Buffett tribute band, cash bar. $55 by Friday, $65 after. (727) 712-5227.

Florida's stone crab season begins with good deals 10/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 13, 2009 5:30am]

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