In 1971, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, sparking the idea of seasonal eating in the American consciousness. Over the last 50 years, this idea has had a deep and indelible influence on our food culture. For me, this a tonic and inspiration in the face of our industrialized food systems. Right now I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of ramps, tender spring greens, asparagus, and sweet English peas in local farmers' markets, as is just about everyone else I know. But it's not just green things that I'm looking forward to—I'm also anxiously awaiting the arrival of soft shell crabs.
That's right: Just like produce, seafood has seasons! Some of these seasons are natural, influenced by animals' seasonal changes and migrations, triggered by a number of environmental cues. Others are man made, and some are fixed while some are flexible. Different states set seasons for the fisheries they regulate, which determine when different species can legally be caught, and thus eaten. Not all seafood is seasonal, but a good bit is. Since I can't address them all, here I'll focus on some seasonal specialties from different parts of the country that I look forward to every year.
The soft shell crabs I've got my mind on are blue crabs emerging from their winter dormant stage, shedding their shells (molting) in preparation for summer's growth. Soft shell crabs usually start to appear in markets in April. The season can run into September, but you're most likely to find them in abundance in the spring and early summer.
Spring also means I'm looking forward to the start of Pacific salmon season, which typically kicks off around May 1st. The five species of Pacific salmon are a national treasure. Wild salmon is one of the costliest fishes on the market, so it's a special treat for many of us. Prices tend to drop as the salmon season progresses, so patience will pay off. The three species you're most likely to find are king, arriving first, followed by sockeye and then Coho, which tends to finish up in early November. Many Alaskan fishermen flash freeze part of their catch. This results in a very high quality product, available though niche subscription services (Community Supported Fisheries) as well as in big box stores and buying clubs. This is a great option if you're on a budget, live in part of the country where fresh fish isn't widely available, or if you'd like to stretch the season via your freezer.
On the East Coast, two fishes mean summer to me: bluefish and striped bass. Both of migrate up the East Coast seasonally, arriving in great numbers in the upper Mid-Atlantic and New England in the summertime. I love them both, though striper gets more universal love. I'm on a mission to change this, as a fresh bluefish is one of the best fishes we have in our local waters. Both fishes are meaty and are eminently grillable. Striped bass season ranges quite a bit from state to state (including some winter months further south), but you should be able to find it all summer long and into the fall. Bluefish are available well into the fall. In late spring and summer, I love to poach bluefish in olive oil. Kept in the fridge, covered with oil, this preserve is a staple in my kitchen for as long as the season permits. As temperatures drop, bluefish start to eat large quantities of menhaden ("bunker") and become quite fatty. At this point in their season, bluefish are ideal for smoking.
On the West Coast, summer is albacore tuna season. This mild, rosy tuna is relatively lean— be careful not to overcook it—and it's delicious eaten raw. If you're not on the West Coast, many fishermen flash freeze their albacore catch. This is worth seeking out and dedicating some freezer space to. If you're local, and so inclined, make the smallish investment in a pressure canner and put up several jars of the season's catch.
As the days get shorter and cooler, I start to look forward to tiny, sugar sweet bay scallops. Peconic bay scallops, from nearby Long Island are a local obsession, and their season is fleeting. Nantucket bays (and bay scallops from other Massachusetts waters) are just as delicious and have a slightly longer season, generally well into the winter. If you like raw seafood, bay scallops are delightful as crudo or ceviche. If you want to cook your bays, sear them; their natural sugars allow them to caramelize beautifully.
Fall is also a great time to eat Pacific halibut. While there are positive signs that Atlantic halibut populations may be improving, as the moment Pacific coast fish are a much better choice. Alaskan halibut season generally opens in March. That said, most fishermen tend to focus on salmon once the season opens. Once salmon season slows down in the fall, halibut comes back to the fore.
Blue crabs, either live or picked meat, are wonderful in the fall. As the crabs prepare to enter their dormant phase in the winter, they become especially sweet and plump. Recipes frequently call for jumbo lump crab, but I prefer lump; this is a mix of broken jumbo lump and special grade meat. It has a higher fat content (and flavor) than milder (and much more dear) jumbo lump. If you can avoid it, don't buy pasteurized crab meat; frozen unpasteurized is a better option if fresh, untreated crab is unavailable.
Winter is the time to eat other species of crab. Florida stone crab season opens every October 15 and runs though May 15 every year. Many people wait for this season with great anticipation. Winter is the peak time to eat these sweet claws. This fishery is truly sustainable; fisherman harvest one claw from each crab. The live crab is returned to the water with its remaining claw, with which it can forage and defend itself while it…grows a new claw! Stone crab claws are cooked immediately after they're caught, so all you need to do is decide what you'd like to serve them with.
On the West Coast, Dungeness crabs inspire similar devotion. They can be steamed, boiled, or roasted in either a standard or wood-burning oven. You can pick and eat the meat on its own, or incorporate the meat into different recipes. Dungeness crabs are sold live and cooked, depending on what part of the country you're shopping in.
Finally, my two favorite fishes to eat in the winter are skate and monkfish. Both are fished year round, but I think they are at their best when our local waters are cold. Skate is delicate and rich. This rich sweetness is what I crave when it's cold outside. Lean and meaty monkfish can stand up to big flavors. It's also perfect for any fish soup or stew; just the ticket when something restorative and warming is called for.