On the eve of Labor Day weekend, summer’s last gasp, I’ve toiled away for two solid days trolling for halfway reasonable airfares to, and accommodation in, Belize or St. John over the Christmas holidays. I know, I know; i waited far too late to look for something in December, but Jeez, who knew there would be almost nothing to choose from?
The problem with being too busy, as we all are these days, is never having the time to do the necessary trip planning research. Work and family commitments suck up all my time, and that’s the complaint I hear from my colleagues, too. Used to be, I could get some help with vacation planning from my travel agent who handles business travel; he’d do all the grunt work as a thanks for the business I threw his way. Not any more, though. It’s not worth his time to futz around for hours looking for deals for me when he’s not getting much for issuing even high dollar air tickets.
So I have to do it in my hypothetical “spare time.” Contrary to the giddy promises of a decade ago that the Internet was going to make travel planning faster, easier, and accessible to anyone with a computer, I find it tedious, inefficient, and a terrible time killer.
And now it’s too late. Airfares to Belize and St. John over the holidays are over $1000 per person (times four people in my family). I have yet to find accommodation at any price on Caye Caulker in Belize, but I did find a modest East End house on St. John still available that sleeps four. Only trouble is, they want $8000 for a week there, more than double the usual rate. Ouch! And that doesn’t even include a Christmas tree. With airfare, that would mean shelling out more than $12,000 for seven days before paying for airport parking, taxis, rental cars, gasoline, parking fees, meals, and incidentals. Call it $14,000 all in, or $2000 a day. Looks like we’ll be staying home for Christmas.
The high price for a week makes me appreciate the oceanfront “cottage” (the quaint term we North Carolinians use for bloody big beachfront houses) my family vacationed in last week on Topsail Island just north of Wilmington, NC. The rent for the week: $2000. And it’s right on the beach, with the waves just a few feet from the front porch. Four bedrooms with beds for 14 (with friends, we had just 7 people in residence, though).
OK, it was the first non-high season week, and the rent was lower than mid-summer on the North Carolina coast. Our usual summer rental at Topsail is over Independence Day and costs about $3500 for an even larger oceanfront “cottage” with five bedrooms, but still, no airfare, and it’s a fast 2.5 hour drive down I-40 from Raleigh to Topsail.
Topsail is pretty close to paradise. We love the tropics and their fabulous beaches: Belize, Moorea (Tahiti), Hawai’i, St. John, Ko Chang (Gulf of Thailand), Fiji, Bahamas, Isla Mujeras (Mexico), Barbados, Mauritius, North Queensland (Australia), to name a few that come to mind. But it’s hard to beat the North Carolina coast when it’s hot, especially the south coast near Wilmington, and it’s right there under our noses.
So what’s so good about it? First, an orientation. Here below is a map of the North Carolina Coast. The famous Outer Banks stretch from Virginia to Cape Hatteras (farthest point right on map) and then bend southwest to Cape Lookout. If you like to swim, the ocean along the Outer Banks is cold even in summer because the frigid Labrador Current runs south from Canada and swings out into the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Hatteras. South of Cape Hatteras, however, the warm Gulf Stream flows north, closely hugging the coast in the summer months, which makes the surf splashing onto those barrier islands very warm and tropical, including the beach we prefer, which is called Topsail Island.
Topsail Island is one of the North Carolina barrier islands on the south coast just north of Wilmington, and the ocean there is like tropical bath water in the summertime:
So wouldn’t it be nice to spend a week in one of the oceanfront “cottages” along North Carolina’s south coast? Maybe it would look like this:
And it would be great to have pelicans flying overhead all day like this:
And the dream would include eating delicious soft-shell crabs while at the beach, too:
Well, that’s exactly the experience you can expect on Topsail Island. We do it every summer, and we have for decades.
This is a story best told in pictures. Here’s what the beach looks like in front of our cottage (the one with peak roof on the left side of the photo):
And my wife enjoying the good life as a lunar ultra-high tide rolls in:
And a view of our so-called “cottage” taken while standing in the surf:
And a view of the upper deck:
And the view of the beach from the deck while sipping an adult beverage:
The cottages are all protected by the barrier dunes on which they are built:
The outdoor shower has hot and cold water, though with temps in the 90s, a cold shower feels great after swimming in the warm ocean:
Another view of our cottage on the ocean:
And the warm surf:
The view from the deck looking south:
And the view from the deck looking north:
We cook and eat lots of fresh-caught North Carolina shrimp while in residence (large heads-off shrimp is usually $10/lb)
We eat and drink well at Topsail. Here’s a lesson in preparing and cooking soft-shell blue crabs.
First, buy fresh soft-shells (that is, the crabs are still kicking), if possible. Prices are around $4-5 per crab, depending upon size, which sounds expensive, but remember that you eat the entire crab (little is wasted). If live crabs aren’t available, frozen soft-shells are also delicious and will do nicely. Here’s what frozen soft-shells look like when thawed:
Here’s what live soft-shells look like. They look fresher than the frozen ones because they are:
Fresh or frozen, you need to clean the crabs by cutting off their mandibles and eyes with scissors and then removing their gills which lie under each side of the shell. Before dong that, however, open a cold brew or mix a strong gin-and-tonic to make your task more fun. The gills are called “dead man’s fingers” because they look like the green fingers of a drowning victim. I’ve eaten blue crab gills with no ill effects, but it’s better to remove them because that’s where the crabs filter out toxins in seawater (if there are any):
After removal of the mandibles, eyes, and gills, the crabs are ready to be cooked, but only if you have had at least two beers or G&Ts:
While cleaning your crabs, it’s a good idea to heat up the frying oil to as high a temperature as your fryer will go. Commercial kitchen fryers reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit or more, but home fryers like mine (shown) generally won’t get hotter than 450 degrees. Set the temp on the maximum setting, and let it heat until the oil is very slightly smoking and a drop of water thrown into the fryer immediately explodes into steam (stand back a bit when testing that). Use only peanut oil for frying blue crabs. It’s also a good idea to cover the area in Bounty paper towels to absorb the inevitable oil that slops over:
When the crabs are clean and ready to be cooked, make an assembly line leading up to the fryer like the one shown with a dipping/coating station and a dredge station. The first station contains eggs mixed well with whole milk (essentially a scrambled egg mixture). This coats the crabs with a sticky egg film that will make the batter in the second station cling to them well for frying. Use whole milk instead of skim because it makes a more effective sticky solution with the eggs. Have another G&T while you are doing this. After all, you’re at the beach:
Here’s a close-up of the egg-milk coating in the first station. Be sure to immerse the crabs, using a spoon if necessary to wet the entire crab body, including under each side of the shell. Do not spill your beer or gin into the coating mixture:
Next, dredge the sticky crabs in the batter. The batter mixture is, like the coating mixture, important to get right. Prepare the batter in advance by first mixing equal parts of corn meal and white flour. For best frying results, use only “fine” ground corn meal, which is also called “corn flour” on the labels. Check the labels carefully when buying corn meal. Doesn’t matter if it’s white corn meal or yellow corn meal, but it does matter that you get either “corn flour” or “fine ground” corn meal. It adheres better to the crabs when they hit the hot oil.
Add copious quantities of black pepper, white pepper, Cayenne red pepper, and salt (I use Kosher salt because I like the flavor), plus a bit of Old Bay to the dredge, and mix all of that thoroughly into the white flour and corn meal.
Again, make sure that all body parts are covered in batter, including legs, claws, and under the shells on top of the crabs. If you do a good job in the dredge, it will look like too much batter on the crabs, but a lot of batter comes off in the fryer:
Next, carefully drop the crabs into the hot oil. Hold each crab by the end of its shell so it goes into the oil the long way to avoid splattering boiling hot oil all over you. A trip to the emergency room with second degree burns is no fun after a few G&Ts and while others are feasting on your hard work. You will feel resentful if that happens, so, instead, jump back fast after dropping the crabs in the oil.
Cook only two crabs at the time. This is because the oil temp will immediately drop when the crabs are introduced. One secret to non-greasy fried soft-shell crabs is to keep the oil super-hot. That way the crabs cook very fast and don’t absorb much oil. Have your spouse or a friend mix you another G&T while you watch the crabs cook.
This is what the crabs should look like right after you drop them in the oil; that is, like the boiling cauldron it is. Stand a bit back to avoid oil popping out onto your skin. Even after several alcoholic beverages, it will make you scream like a little girl:
Here I am removing a fully cooked soft-shell from the fryer. Note I switched from pedestrian G&Ts to a good Cabernet to make me appear more sophisticated. I don’t think it worked, but the Cab was sure good.
If you only cook two crabs at a time, and if the fryer is set on the max temp, and if you use peanut oil, the crabs will cook in 4-5 minutes. Don’t leave them in the fryer too long, as they will absorb too much oil and taste that way. They will cook quickly, I promise. You have to wait a few minutes between batches of crabs for the oil to heat back up to the fryer’s max temp. Don’t put the next two crabs in the oil until the fryer’s thermostat indicates it has again reached the maximum temperature.
The finished product: Yum! Note that I place the just-cooked crab onto a Bounty paper towel, under which is newspaper, to absorb excess oil. This reduces grease in the crab when served.
Since I am cooking just two crabs at a time, the process is slow when there are two dozen or so to fry up for folks. Therefore, turn on the oven to about 250 degrees, and put the crabs (after 5-10 minutes on the paper to dry out) on a cookie sheet in the oven to keep warm until you’re ready to put them on the table.
As I continue cooking two crabs at the time, people start eating. The crabs are at their peak of flavor when first cooked, and it’s best to let folks dig in ASAP. Note the good Cab in the photo. It is a fine accompaniment to fried soft-shell crabs. Eat the entire crab: legs, shell, body, swim fins, claws, and all. It’s great by itself (because I spiced up the dredge, remember?), or serve with tarter sauce or a sauce to your taste. Cole slaw is the tried-and-true partner on the plate to soft-shell crabs:
Here’s another picture of the crabs in the dredge on a different day:
And another photo of the assembly line with the two stations leading up to the fryer:
One more shot of the egg-coating station:
And a picture of the crabs ready to go down the line. Note the essential gin-and-tonic standing proudly by the bowl of cleaned crabs.
Oh, one more thing: While preparing the crabs (cleaning them), they will warm up to room temp (you should have stored them in the fridge up to cleaning them). That’s a good thing, as the crabs will be room temperature when they go into the hot oil, which will ensure they cook all the way through quickly.
One gallon of peanut oil, by the way, will fill a home fryer like the one shown, and will cook a maximum of 24 crabs. After that, the oil should be changed, but surely you are not going to fry up more than two dozen soft-shells at once!
Soft-shells are not the only seafood we eat at Topsail. We keep lots of boiled shrimp on hand in the fridge to snack on day and night. Here’s the before-and-after-boiling shrimp:
A common mistake people make when boiling shrimp is to cook them too long. Use a large pot, and bring the water to a roiling boil on the highest heat setting. Throw in up to five pounds of headed shrimp, and stir occasionally for five minutes. Leave the heat on the highest setting.
At about four and a half minutes, use a spoon to take a cooked shrimp from the middle of the pot, cool it under the faucet, peel, and eat it. It should have a slightly crunchy mouth-feel and taste cooked. Immediately take the pot off the stove and pour into a colander in the dish drain, being careful not to douse yourself with boiling water in the process. Keep your beer, wine glass, or G&T well clear of the sink. Run cold water over the colander for a few minutes to stop the shrimp from cooking any further, and then serve.
The finished product: Again, YUM! Serve with your preferred dipping sauce. I prepare two sauces, one using Heinz ketchup and Atomic brand horseradish with a squeeze of fresh lemon. It’s a killer and only for people who can stand spicy flavors.
The other sauce is a New Orleans-style mixture of ketchup and Blue Plate mayonnaise (Duke mayo will do in a pinch, but nothing else), a healthy dash of Tobasco, a squeeze of lemon, and a thimble of Texas Pete. It’s mild yet tangy, the perfect match for boiled shrimp at the beach (that’s the mild, tangy sauce in front of my daughter):
After eating and drinking like royalty, it’s good to go out to the beach and sit under the canopy to enjoy life! Note the ancient TWA towel blowing in the breeze in this photo, a souvenir from a long-ago 747 flight (in First Class) to London:
And to laugh, read, put your feet in the surf, and be happy to be alive:
St. John and those other tropical beaches are gorgeous and great experiences, but it’s hard to beat the North Carolina barrier island beaches. There’s that TWA towel again:
And if you are really lucky, you might even help your daughter catch a record-breaking fish while surf-casting in front of the cottage on Topsail Island: