‘Tis the Season — Soft Shell Crabs

June 11, 2011

You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.
~Aristophanes

Another crustacean deity.

True crabs are decapod crustaceans of the order Brachyura. Ranging in girth from a few millimeters wide to spans over 12 feet, crabs are generally covered with a hard exoskeleton, and display a single pair of chelae (claws), dactyls (movable fingers) and four other pairs of legs. If a predator grabs a leg, crabs simply shed it only to rejuvenate the limb later. They are found in all of the world’s oceans, although many species live terrestially and/or inhabit fresh waters.

Sexually dimorphised, males have larger claws and a narrow, triangular abdomen, while females have a broader, rounded abdomen which is naturally contoured for brooding fertilized eggs. Due to joint structure, crabs typically have a sidelong gait yet they can burrow and swim.

Despite a reputation for culinary purity, crabs are scavenging omnivores, grazing on algae, mollusks, worms, fellow crustaceans, fungi, bacteria, and decaying organic matter. Aimless, promiscuous bottom feeders. In spite of or perhaps by reason of their diet, crabs are ambrosial on the back end.

A gastronomic and not a biological phrase, soft shell crabs are simply those critters which have recently molted their old undersized exoskeleton (carapace) and are still soft, succulent yet slightly crispy in texture. Maryland Blue crabs molt between mid-May and late September, and the new shell is exquisitely tender. The crabs fast several days before molting, so their systems are relatively purified when retrieved. Remember: the season is quite short.

Soft shell crabs should be bought live and should be cooked the day they are purchased. Have your fishmonger clean them, but do not have him hack off their legs.

By the way, do eat the whole enchilada…barefoot (or more), with bare fingers and une flûte de champagne in the other hand, while your eyes roll back into your head.

SAUTEED SOFT SHELL CRABS

Soft shell crabs, cleaned and patted dry
Buttermilk and/or whole milk

Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Quatre épices* or ras al hanout (August 11, 2009 post)
All purpose flour

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed

In a large shallow glass or ceramic baking dish, cover the crabs with buttermilk or whole milk and refrigerate for an hour or so.

Season the soft shell crabs with salt, pepper, and a very light sprinkling of quatre épices or ras al hanout on one side only. Please do not overseason these delicate creatures. On a platter, dredge the crabs in flour, shaking off the excess.

In a large skillet, heat the oil, butter and garlic until shimmering and bubbling but not browned. Lay in the crabs, undersides up and sauté over moderately high heat, turning once, until crisp and cooked through, about 6 minutes total. Remove and serve immediately with an aioli, rouille, saffron mayonnaise, salsa verde or rémoulade.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix.

Pourboire: So many options here. For instance, season crabs with salt, pepper and any spices to your liking. Grill over a moderately high charcoal fire until firm, about 3-4 minutes max per side. Serve immediately, with a home crafted mayonnaise, aioli, or salsa du jour. Or create sumptuous sandwiches with the sautéed or grilled crab, bacon, ripe heirloom tomatoes, avocado and basil served on toasted or grilled artisanal bread.

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