North Carolina Fish Tales: A Cookbook, Soft Crabs & A Day Down East

For those of you who follow my blog and my social media feeds, you already know that  I am all about supporting local farmers and promoting  local farmers markets, products, produce and proteins. In the case of this blog post that means lots of NC Seafood from the Carolina coast including lots of sustainable seasonal catch,  soft crabs, oysters and more.

soft crabs I was delighted to recently be  invited by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to join in a three-day tour to the OuterBanks for a taste of  North Carolina Seafood. These well planned media tours are always an exciting opportunity to explore our states local agriculture. In the case of this tour, and one I took last year, this included the historic and important commercial fishing & Aquaculture industry in the Old North State. These experiences always reinforced something that cannot be restated enough: Farming isn’t just on land, sometimes its in water, too! North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry needs our attention, and I am delighted to bring the camera into focus for the bigger picture and turn on the spotlight.

This most recent trip set the spotlight on the fishing industry in and around the OuterBanks, particularly around Nags Head, NC. and I will be writing about that trip soon. As a companion piece, first, I wanted to republish a post I wrote after my similar trip to the coast last year. The recipes here more than still apply and  together the two articles, will served to show the bigger picture of buying, cooking and eating NC seafood.

soft crabsDateline 2017: The focus of my first coastal NC Department of Agriculture tour was on the commercial seafood industry, large and small in the coastal cities of Sea Level, Morehead City, Radio Island, Beaufort, Harkers Island and Smyrna, North Carolina. On the way to and from the coast we also made stops at several fascinating seafood farming operations in Pikeville and Ayden, NC, but those are fish tales for another day.

Farming isn’t just on land, sometimes it’s in water, too!

Fishing is THE industry along the coastal regions in North Carolina.  Since the early days when the North Carolina coast was home to many whalers as well as fishermen, communities have been built up and around the industry.  Their mantra was then, as it is now, to preach the gospel of Eating Local North Carolina Seafood.   For the members of the local communities who make up the Carolina coast, that point cannot be echoed loudly enough.

For North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry, those third, fourth and sometimes fifth generation fisherman who make bringing fresh locally caught fish to your table their mission, the industry and the commerce it brings is a way of life. Fishing is in their blood and in their hearts. My biggest take away from this trip: when you eat fresh seafood in the state of North Carolina – insist on eating local product! You want to eat fish that came from the ocean off our North Carolina shores, not from across the ocean.  

soft crabsThere is lots to be said, and I have many important fish tales to tell as a result of this 3-day coastal excursion and the adventures that ensued.  

My first of a series of fish tales here is about our day spent Down East ; a wonderful local lunch at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center; and how I learned to make one of my favorites: fried soft crabs.

The first task at hand was to get my bearings and figure out exactly where “Down East” is and where I was. It was explained to me that this eastern most tip of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, might be described by some as the southern tip of the OuterBanks. But ask the locals and you’ll find that  “Down East” runs very specifically from the time you make the turn on Highway 70 and cross over the North River Bridge, down to Cedar Island where people can catch the ferry back up to Okracoke.

soft crabsNorth Carolina Coastal History and the Heritage

Our trip Down East started at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. This museum, located on the Cape Lookout National Seashore at Harkers Island. NC, holds a lot of the area’s heritage and history inside with exhibits that tell the tale of the early whaling and  fishing communities that built this part of the state. Outside the museum preserves the area’s fowl, flora and fauna on a 4-acre fresh water habitat that surrounds the museum.  In addition to preserving the history of the fishing industry Down East, the museum holds an incredible collection of antique decoys, many of them locally made important historical examples of the art of hand carving.

soft crabs
Several of the Core Sound Quilters’ Group, dedicated to preserving the heritage of hand sewn quilts and supporting the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center

The museum does not have a restaurant, but  as a part of our tour, we were the guests at a  delicious local luncheon of stewed flounder, beef brisket with sweet potatoes, crab cakes,  fresh tomatoes, quick pickled cukes, and more  prepared and hosted by a group of woman who have  worked to make the museum what it is today.  These woman were all locals, passionate about their community. They all  grew up in the fishing industry  and are keen to preserve the commerce that build the community in which they live and love. Many are members of the Core Sound Quilters who, among their other projects, work together to make a large completely hand-sewn quilt each year, auctioned off at the annual anniversary celebration to raise money for the museum. To date their quilts alone have raised over $100,000.00 to go into the museum coffers.

soft crabsAfter lunch we had time to quickly tour a few of the exhibits, climb to the third story tower to check out the fabulous views of the area and to stop in at the gift shop. Lots of coastal goodies here – Including OuterBanks Sea Salt, made by hand in small batches by my friend Amy Gaw. Sea salt aside, my favorite find is always a local cookbook and I was not disappointed.

Island Born and Bred is a collection of Harkers Island recipes, fun facts, history and stories that tell the stories passed down through the generations of this Carolina coastal fishing community. Compiled by the Harkers Island United Methodist Women, it has been in publication since the late 1980’s. Its not only a cookbook, its a great read that goes to preserving the colloquial history of coast. If you collect cookbooks its one to hold on to and use as a wonderful resource.

Mr. Big Seafood: The Harker’s Island Go-to for Soft Crabs, Shrimp and more!

soft crabsOur next stop on Harker’s Island was to a locally owned independent fish house. Fisherman, seafood retailer and wholesalers Eddie and Alison Willis sell Eddie’s own catch directly to chefs, restaurants, other seafood wholesalers and  in the retail market from North Carolina up and down the Eastern Seaboard and beyond.  A native of Harkers Island, Eddie grew up in the fishing industry and after years of working day and night, in season, for other fish houses, he made the decided to stop fishing for other people and open up his own operation.

Mr Big Seafood opened in 2005 and is a well know spot for fresh Carteret County seafood. In the years since it’s opening Mr. Big Seafood has grown by leaps and bounds and the day before we arrived to visit Eddie, his wife Allison and their crew had just finished shedding and processing 2500 dozen  local blue crabs! Do the math and that’s  30,000 individual soft crabs -all processed and packed by hand.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say soft shell crabs.   To locals, these are simply soft crabs. Call the spring season when local blue crabs molt and shed their hard shells, “soft shells” and it will be apparent that you are not from around these parts.

heidi with soft crabs

I simply adore soft crabs and to see the operation at Mr. Big Seafood at the height of the soft crab season ( which runs from the first full moon in April  till sometime toward the end of May) was fascinating.

As Carolina blue crabs turn to soft crabs, they are called “Busters”

The  blue crabs start to shed through the summer with the light of each  full moon and  are harvested and then placed in shallow pools until they shed their hard shells. Locals call the moment the crab pops out of the hard shell “a buster” and we were lucky enough to actually see it happening on the spot.  Mr. Big Seafood’s soft crabs are then shipped fresh or are immediately frozen so that Eddie and Alison have local NC soft crabs to ship from now until March when the season will start again.

Not only do they process crabs at Mr. Big’s, but they catch and process fresh NC shrimp and all other kinds of local seafood as well. As is the way in farming and in fishing, the catch or the harvest changes with the season.

soft crabsIn the midst of the shrimping season, Eddie estimates that his crew of just  3 or 4 employees can head and process 70 lbs of fresh North Carolina shrimp every 11 mins – and again, its all done by hand!  The operations from fish boat to fresh catch to freezer run all year long and Mr. Big Seafood sells  hard and soft crabs, shrimp and fish fresh, frozen and live from January till November; but they take a break from the long days in the fish house and nights out on the boat in December. Then after the New Year’s Eve clock strikes 12, they all swim back into action once again.

One might question if its better to purchase this local fish fresh or frozen, the answer is you’ll be good either way.  This fish is processed, packed & properly frozen less than 24 hours from the time it was found swimming in the ocean.  Hungry for more? You can make arrangements to order your fill of soft crabs, shrimp and just about any type of fresh NC seafood from Eddie and Alison Willis at Mr. Big Seafood by calling them directly at 919.971.3905.  You can pick up your order from the shop at Harkers Island – its worth the trip to make the visit for yourself; or they are glad to make arrangement to meet you in Morehead City, Beaufort or along the coast if you are there for a visit.

If not, Mr. Big’s Seafood delivers across the state as far as Raleigh and can make arrangements to meet anyone from Charlotte or points west in or around the Raleigh area or you can have your order shipped Fed Ex…know that hefty overnight delivery charges are on you.

The perfect way to fry up a batch of soft shells

Once you have your soft crabs in hand – how to properly cook them becomes the question.  The crabs and the fried fish we ate on our NC Seafood Tour of the coast were all lightly breaded – nothing was batter dipped. I wanted to make soft crabs like that at home, so I went to the source: my new Island Born and Bred cookbook from the Core Museum Gift shop. The recipe is really easy, all you need is local NC soft crabs, of course, oil and breader.

soft crabsAs timing and travel would have it, I was unable to purchase crabs from Mr. Big Seafood while we were on the tour, but I loved this little coastal community and will be back to visit Harkers Island again soon.

In the meantime, to satisfy my soft crab craving, our tour coordinator Kristen Baughman of Table Top Media in Raleigh, was kind enough to stop at B&J Seafood’s retail store in New Bern on our way back home from the coast. ( I have stopped at B&J’s many times since and am always pleased with the local seasonal seafood offerings!)

We had  also visited B&J’s dock, fishing boat fleet and processing plant on Radio Island, one of the few remaining fish house’s in the Morehead City/Beaufort area while we were on the tour, so I knew this place was also the real deal.  Long fish story short, I was able to pick up a beautiful bakers’ dozen of fresh soft crabs ( which they packed and iced down in a cooler for me for the trip back home) plus a trio of packaged seasoned breaders all from North Carolina mills.

soft crabs in breader

I’d say the secret to perfect NC soft crabs, once you have great seafood, is in the breading. You can make your own, or use any one of these time tested brands, but the point is not to over bread and certainly not to batter dip. The mission is to accentuate the wonderful sweet and slightly salty taste the crab.

Step one is to light rinse and clean the crabs and pat them dry. They really are already cleaned but I took this opportunity to  removed the top skin of the soft shell to expose just the crab meat.

soft crabs in breadingGently place the crabs in a paper bag and lightly shake the bag just enough to coat the crabs with the breading.

Meanwhile heat an inch or two of oil in a cast iron pan or skillet. You can use any type of oil and you could do them in a deep fryer, but I think for a dozen or so crabs, that might be overkill.

soft crabs in oil

Fry the breaded soft crabs until they are slightly puffed and lightly browned, turning them once during the cooking time.

Serve the crabs with whatever condiments your heart desires, some people like a little hot sauce or cocktail sauce, these I just dressed with lemon and then served them on leaves of lettuce or a salad of sliced cucumber and microgreens from local Charlotte area farmers.

However you eat them, they are a seasonal North Carolina treasure and you should be sure and treat yourself soon. Try them on a sandwich with sliced tomato and lettuce – a taste of the Carolina coast at its finest and the delicious finale to my NC Fish Tale for today.

Where to find NC soft shells and all the other items in this post

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Want to know more – here are all the where to find it, where to order it details… Remember to #TellThemHeidiSentYou

Click here for more information about North Carolina Seafood and when and what is in season this summer.

For more information about the local catch and the seafood industry in Carteret County visit the Carteret Catch site here  

For more information about the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center and their annual Decoy Day celebration, visit their website here

To order your  own copy of the Island Born and Bred Cookbook, shop online at the Core Museum Gift shop here 

To order North Carolina seafood from Mr. Big’s Seafood in Harkers Island, and to read more of their story, including Eddie’s work with NC sea turtles,  visit them on Facebook  or simply call Eddie or Alison Willis directly at 919.971.3905

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