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Soft Shell Crabs


Every corner of the globe has food products prized because they are local, taste great, are easy to prepare and, as a result over time, serve to define both the region and its people.  "Soul food," if you will.  On the eastern shore of Maryland lies the Chesapeake Bay, an Atlantic Ocean inlet extending 200 miles inland while spanning 40 miles across.  It's big. 

The Blue Crab is the prize catch in the Chesapeake. Like other crabs, it sheds its shell now and then to grow a bigger one.  This takes a few days.  Eons ago, some indian waterman, observing long-legged birds feeding in the shallows, discovered that during those few days the Blue Crab was good eating--body, shell, claws and all. Waterman on the Bay have been bringing soft shell crabs to market ever since.  They are seasonal from May through July but never in great abundance.  Urban fish mongers get $3 to $5 apiece for soft-shell crab.  And worth it! 

The preparation of this delicacy should be uncomplicated.  The objective is to serve a crab with a crisped shell and belly, nicely browned, and a juicy and meaty inside, all with a little seasoning.  Sautéing in hot oil is the best method. 

Select a large heavy sauté pan big enough to hold at least two crabs in a single layer.  (I have a large high-wall Calphalon pan bought for the purpose of preparing four large soft-shell crabs at a time.) 

Soft-Shell Crabs
Yield:  2 servings 
See abbreviations if necessary 

  • 2T       cornmeal
  • 3T       Wondra flour or AP flour  (see note a.) 
  • 1t         Ancho or Chipotle powder or a pinch of cayenne powder (see note b.)
  • S/P       quite generous
  • 4          large soft-shell crabs
  • 2T        peanut or grapeseed oil
1.  Have your fish monger clean 4 fresh soft-shell crabs.  Or better still, have him show you how to clean them and then take them home alive to clean yourself just before preparation
2.  In a stainless steel bowl, mix together the cornmeal, Wondra flour, pepper powder and S/P 
3.  Clean and dry the crabs 
4.  Place the crabs, one at a time, in the dry mix and dredge each thoroughly--top shell, under "the wings," belly and claws 
5.  Shake off excess mix and set each aside neatly 
6.  Add the oil to the sauté pan and bring it to high heat (see note c.) 
7.  When the oil is hot (test to sizzle with a bit of the dry mix), lower each of the crabs into the pan carefully, belly side down
8.  Sauté for about 2-3 minutes.  Check the undersides and turn them when they're nicely browned 
9.  Sauté the shell side for another 3 minutes 
10.  Serve immediately on heated plates with a side of Rémoulade Sauce, Salsa or Tartar Sauce, 
 or serve as a sandwich with sour dough bread and mayo 
Notes:
a.  Wondra flour browns more quickly and better than AP flour.  It's the flour of choice here. 
b.  A little pepper seasoning in the crust, along with the S/P gives the crab a better bite.  A squirt of  Tennessee Sunshine on each belly at Step 8 works, but don't over do it. 
c.  Make sure the oil is hot enough to make the crabs sizzle with enthusiasm, but not pop and spit (too hot). 
d.  Crabs in photo courtesy of Gary at American Seafood in Arlington, Virginia.

 

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