Debbie Moose: Buying and Cooking North Carolina fish and shellfish (with recipe!)

Carolina Catch by Debbie MooseToday we welcome a guest post from Debbie Moose, author of Carolina Catch:  Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast, just published by UNC Press.  Debbie reveals how to find the best North Carolina seafood in season, and also includes a tasty recipe for fried soft-shell crabs.

Early in life, North Carolinian Debbie Moose encountered fish primarily in stick form, but once she experienced her first raw oyster and first fried soft-shell crab, their pure flavors switched her on to shellfish and fish forever. Moose has now written the cookbook that unlocks for everyone the fresh tastes of North Carolina grilled tuna, steamed shrimp, pan-seared mountain trout, fried catfish, and baked littleneck clams, to name just a few of the culinary treasures sourced from the waters of a state that stretches from the mountains to the sea. In ninety-six dishes, Moose shows how to prepare North Carolina fish and shellfish—freshwater, saltwater, wild-caught, and farmed—in both classic southern and inventive, contemporary ways.

Carolina Catch is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Buying and Cooking North Carolina fish and shellfish

Many people don’t realize that, as with local fruits and vegetables, there is a seasonality to North Carolina fish and shellfish.

Different species of the state’s fish are most plentiful at different times of year, and being aware of peak seasons can help you select the freshest fish and shellfish. And as with a glut of tomatoes at the farmers market in August, when sometimes you can get a deal, knowing when fish markets might be seeing abundant amounts of a particular fish may help you find a lower price on it and stock your freezer.

But the best reason to eat seasonally with North Carolina fish and shellfish is that you’ll enjoy the best-tasting seafood available. You might also get inspired to try a kind of fish you’ve never eaten before.

My husband and I often visit the Outer Banks in the spring, one of the times that “the blues are running,” when bluefish are migrating, hungry and ready to snap at any bait in the water. So we know that bluefish will be a fresh catch of the day on restaurant menus. (I usually go for the catch of the day on chalkboards at coastal restaurants because it’s probably what just came off the boat, fresh and good.)

We seldom go in search of a particular kind of fish. We walk into a fish market and take home whatever attracts our attention. On a recent vacation, I ate black drum, mahi, triggerfish, snapper and the single seafood that tells me it’s finally spring: soft-shell crabs.

While you can certainly get frozen soft-shell crabs, fresh ones are magical harbingers of the end of winter. Blue crabs must shed their hard shells as they grow, like getting bigger pants to accommodate a larger waistline. Warming waters trigger the process, but other factors have to come together for crabs to shed, including the weather and even, some old-time fishermen say, the phase of the moon. If there’s a cold snap or intense summer heat, they don’t shed and, hence, no soft shells for me. Conditions have to be just right, and fishermen must have perfect timing to get the crabs after they shed but before the new shells have time to harden. When they do, you can eat the entire crab, no picking needed. I like them best crunchy fried.

As for other kinds of shellfish, that old saying about only eating oysters during months with an R in it is a total fallacy today. That idea probably originated for valid reasons in the past. Before refrigeration, you had to ship oysters during the colder months to prevent spoilage, and wild oysters need the warmer months to spawn. Today, many of the oysters we consume are farmed and North Carolina has a thriving oyster mariculture scene. So it’s OK to feast away all summer, R-month or not.

In Carolina Catch, I include a chart of the most common North Carolina fish and shellfish, marked with peak seasons and including texture and flavor descriptions to help you explore the wonderful range the state’s waters offer. If you’re headed to the coast this summer – or dropping your line at a well-stocked fish market – here are a few fish you might expect to see: grunt, flaky and white; pompano, firm and buttery; amberjack, thick and juicy; and tilefish, flaky and sweet.

Try them all, and go fish!


Debbie Moose is an award-winning journalist and author of many cookbooks, including Buttermilk and Southern Holidays. You can read her earlier blog posts here.


Crunchy Fried Soft-Shell Crabs

I’m traditional about soft-shell crabs, those coastal spring delicacies. I believe that pan-fried is the one true way to serve them—the crunchier, the better. As long as they’re in the world, I’ll never become a vegetarian.

Makes 4 servings

Vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 to 1 1⁄2 cups panko
8 medium-size soft-shell crabs, cleaned
Fresh Tartar Sauce (page 165)

Add enough vegetable oil to a large frying pan to come about halfway up the sides. Heat over medium heat.

Place the flour, eggs, and panko in three shallow pans. Lightly salt and pepper the flour. Dredge each crab in the flour, then dip in the egg and dredge in the panko. Add the crabs to the hot oil; do not crowd the pan. Watch out for spatters as the moisture from the crabs hits the oil. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes on each side or until the coating is golden brown. Drain on a wire rack placed over a plate or on a plate lined with paper towels. Place the crabs in an oven on low heat to keep warm if working in batches.

Serve with Fresh Tartar Sauce.


From Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast. Copyright © 2018 by Debbie Moose.
Food photography copyright © 2018 by Juli Leonard.
Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press