The Time is Right for Soft Shell Crab
|Right Food for the Season - Late Spring|
|Written by Jane Ward|
Beginning around mid-May in our cold Atlantic coastal waters, the blue crab undergoes a growth spurt and swaps its too small hard outer shell for a new, roomier one. In the few weeks between the crab’s shedding of one covering for the other, when the crab is protected only by a thin flexible covering that is flimsier than cellophane, seafood lovers have the opportunity to sample the treat that is soft shell crab.
Briny yet as delicately sweet as shelled crabmeat, these crabs are a distinctive delight. There’s no smashing of hard outer shell and finagling with tiny seafood picks to get to this meat. With a soft shell crab, every last part is edible.
You will see the crabs on restaurant menus (just this weekend Cambridge chefs Raymond Ost of Sandrine’s Bistro and Tony Maws of Craigie on Main featured soft shell crab dishes for their diners and staff alike) and in fresh seafood shops now through June. With such a short molting season, do what I do and grab some from your market while they are available. As I told the clerk at David’s Fish Market in Salisbury last Saturday, a year is a long time to wait.
A long and hard wait, yes, but well worth it for something this fresh, local, and at the height of its brief season.
A good fishmonger will clean, or dress, the crabs for you, but I prefer to dress my own. Since the crabs are alive until cleaned, you must eat ones dressed by your seafood person almost immediately. By doing the task yourself, you can keep the crabs alive for a day or two, refrigerated and stored on a bed of continually replenished ice, until you are ready to dress, cook, and eat them.
I love a pair of kitchen shears for the task but a sharp chef’s knife works well too. No matter which utensil you choose, soft shell crabs can be cleaned in three steps. First, place the crab right side up on a cutting board or mat and snip the face off just behind the eyes. Next, lift up the flexible shell flaps from the end points on each side of the crab, one at a time, to expose the body. Here, just above the meatiest parts of the crab, you’ll find the sets of white, feathery, tendril-like gills. These, too, should be snipped off.
Finally, turn the crab over, belly side up, and locate a triangular flap of soft shell tucked against the back end of the belly. This is called the apron. Lift the apron from the belly and snip it where it joins the body, cleaning off any gooey-looking bits left behind. That’s it. Your soft shell crabs are now recipe ready.
Cooking soft shell crab is equally simple. In fact, the simpler the presentation, the fewer ingredients and spices, the better. Why not showcase these clean, sweet flavors?
When we cook soft shell crab at home – whether in a rather straightforward presentation or something fancier – we keep ingredients down to a minimum. A classic preparation is soft shell crab meuniere: flour-dusted crabs are sautéed in butter, finished with lemon juice, capers, and parsley. We have made these to serve with their pan sauce over angel hair pasta that has been tossed with barely cooked and crushed sweet cherry tomatoes. A little upscale but with all the simple and fresh, bright flavors the crabs require.
Our supper last Friday was definitely more home style. We plated up the crabs, first soaked in buttermilk then dredged in a cornmeal-flour mixture before being fried to a deep golden brown, with a lightly spiced mayonnaise and a cabbage-vegetable slaw. The following preparation is more of a method than recipe, but give these soft shell crabs a try while you can. They’ll be gone from the market in the blink of an eye.
Method for 4 Soft Shell Crabs
Select soft shell crabs from your fishmonger that are guaranteed fresh and alive and not already packaged in cellophane
When home, gather two shallow dishes or pie plates. In one, pour one cup of buttermilk or whole milk. Into the second combine ¼ cup all-purpose flour and ¼ cup cornmeal. Dress your crabs as detailed above and set them to rest in the buttermilk for a few minutes.
While the crabs are soaking, begin to heat ¼-inch of canola or other light tasting vegetable oil in a heavy steel pan that is large enough to hold all four shellfish without crowding. (Alternately you may fry two batches at a time, keeping the first batch of finished soft shell crabs warm in a low [175 degree] oven on a foil lined baking sheet.)
When oil is hot but not smoking, remove a crab from the buttermilk, shake off the excess liquid, and dredge it through the flour mixture. Place the crab gently and away from you into the hot oil. Repeat with the remaining shellfish. Fry these, turning once, until they are a deep golden brown and crispy on both sides.
The finished crabs are great on a plate with a pile of vinegary slaw or a cool potato salad on the side, or tucked into your favorite bread with a thick slice of tomato and buttery lettuce for a slightly decadent sandwich. Either way, I like them served with a mayonnaise-based sauce that has a little bit of a kick.
Measure ½ cup of either homemade or best-quality prepared mayonnaise. Cut a garlic clove in half and rub a small mixing bowl with each cut half of the clove. Add the mayonnaise to the bowl along with 1/8 teaspoon each of cayenne pepper and salt. If using prepared mayonnaise, add a couple of teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice to the bowl to brighten it up a bit. Stir well and let sit, refrigerated, for 30 minutes while the flavors blend.
Serve with soft shell crabs right out of the frying pan.