Green Grab Cuisine

Spring 2020

A CULINARY SOLUTION TO INVASIVE SPECIES

By Todd McLeish | Photographs by Marianne Lee

WHEN CATHERINE PUCKETT WORKED FOR THE BLOCK ISLAND SHELLFISH COMMISSION  in the early 2000s, part of the island’s shellfish management plan involved trapping and killing green crabs, an invasive species that has been implicated in wiping out the region’s soft-shell clam industry.

Native to Europe, the abundant crabs have had a significant impact on other elements of local biodiversity, too. According to University of Rhode Island marine ecologist Niels-Viggo Hobbs, native snails now grow thicker shells to avoid being eaten by green crabs.

“The crabs are voracious. We’d trap and kill them and dump their bodies offshore,” says Puckett, who owns the Block Island Shellfish Farm and Block Island Kelp and goes by the name the Oyster Wench. “It sounds awful and it was so wasteful, so it got me wondering if there was something better we could do with them.”

Now, rather than fighting the invaders, she’s eating them. Puckett is one of a growing number of shellfish harvesters and chefs who advocate eating invasive species as one strategy for reducing their impact on local ecosystems.

She and shellfish commission member George Davis went to a forum in Maine last year to meet like-minded people and came back to Rhode Island with ideas for earning income by encouraging people to eat green crabs.

“It’s all about combatting an invasive species by turning it into a delicacy,” she says.

“Anything that the fishermen pull up, anything we’ve never heard of before, we’ll be the first to get our hands on it,” she says. “We’ll give it a shot.”

–Yulia Kuzmina, the executive chef at the George’s of Galilee.

In July, Puckett caught several buckets full of green crabs and brought them to her friend Phil Walsh, the chef at Finn’s, a restaurant and fish market on Block Island. He crushed them and made a crab stock that he used as a base for green crab bisque, crab chowder, Thai curry, seafood gumbo, and other recipes. The crabs that were captured just after molting were cooked and served as soft shell crabs.

“He’s excited about it because it’s a new ingredient that nobody else is into yet,” says Puckett. “If I can catch him some big ones, he wants to do a crab boil.”

Puckett isn’t the only one who has found value in one of the marine environment’s most irksome invasive species.

Yulia Kuzmina, the executive chef at the Point Judith restaurant George’s of Galilee, has been using green crabs in her recipes for four years. Her green crab curry and crab bisque with corn are especially popular.

“It started with a conversation with our oyster guy,” she recalls. “He mentioned that every time he was on the water, the green crabs were everywhere. So I went for a walk with him to the docks to talk to other fishermen, and the crabs are apparently a problem for all of them. So I said, ‘Let’s start eating them.’ I made a couple of stocks and found it to be pretty tasty.”

Kuzmina makes a point of serving nontraditional seafood on her menu, including sea robin, scup, skate, and other species that fishermen often consider bycatch.

“Sometimes my customers are skeptical, but we try to educate them as much as we can,” she says. “We tell them to give it a try, and now they’re saying, ‘What else do you have for us?’”

The engine driving much of the region’s efforts to eat our way out of the green crab problem is the Green Crab R&D Project, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit with a mission to develop culinary markets for green crabs. The organization partners with chefs to create recipes using green crabs and develops supply chains so restaurants can purchase live crabs.

Mary Parks, the group’s executive director, travels to area festivals to share information about the crabs and offer tastings as a way to get the next generation of seafood consumers excited about them. She also co-authored The Green Crab Cookbook with Thanh Thai, who runs the blog Green Crab Café, which explores the culinary potential of the species. Written for the home chef, the book not only provides recipes and preparation techniques but also methods for process-ing the crabs based on traditional techniques in Asia.

Building supply chains so chefs have a reliable means of acquiring green crabs is the biggest challenge.

“Green crabs can’t be transported live across state lines because they’re an invasive species, though that could change as they become a more popular food source. But they can be transported if frozen or if they’re processed into a stock or soup,” says Parks.
“We’re working with wholesalers in Boston and New York City who have access to green crabs or to fishermen who could get them green crabs, which has opened up a huge market. We also hear from fishermen who have access to green crabs and are looking for restaurants to sell them to.”

The organization’s website lists retailers where green crabs can be purchased—including the Portside Fish Market in Warren—and fishermen and growers who are harvesting them, like Catherine Puckett.

While Parks admits that the list is small, she knows there are other retailers or fishermen who are catching and selling green crabs that she hasn’t heard about yet.

“Just look at #greencrab on Instagram and you’ll find rural fishermen who catch green crabs,” she says. “That’s how we found a woman in Newfoundland doing the same thing we’re doing.”

With progress being made toward consuming what Parks calls “one of the top 10 invasive species around the world,” Kuzmina at George’s of Galilee is ready to experiment with the region’s next major invader.

“Anything that the fishermen pull up, anything we’ve never heard of before, we’ll be the first to get our hands on it,” she says. “We’ll give it a shot.”

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