I remember my first soft-shell crab with a mixture of horror and pleasure. I must have been 10 or 11 years old. My Grammie Sarah, an inveterate crab eater, had taken me for dinner at one of the many crab houses for which my native Baltimore is famous. It was late May, and our waitress was touting the first of the season's fresh soft-shell crabs.
Now, I had grown up on crabs--Maryland steamed crabs, which are sprinkled with spices, steamed in vinegar and beer and served without ceremony on tables spread with newspapers. We're talking about a primeval experience here: A mallet and knife are your only eating utensils. You smash the shells with the former, dig out the meat with the latter and eat the crab meat with your fingers. It may sound barbarous--it may even be barbarous--but nothing is more delicious.
Well, maybe nothing but soft-shell crab, even if the notion of sinking your teeth into a crab with the shell still on is enough to give you goose bumps. That's certainly how I felt when the waitress presented the soft-shell crabs I had summoned the courage to order. Each detail of the crab's anatomy was painfully apparent. With great trepidation, I cut my first bite and with even greater trepidation I forced myself to eat it.
But one taste of the crab--its shell like a briny potato chip, the meat sweet and tender--was enough to hook me for life.
Soft-shell crab is not, contrary to popular belief, a separate species of crab, but a phase in the life of the blue crab. Like all crustaceans, crabs periodically shed their shells to make room for new growth, a process known as molting. A soft-shell is nothing more than a freshly molted blue crab. Molting makes the crab not only easy to eat but exceptionally sweet and tender. The unhardened new shell has a softly crunchy texture that is unique in the world of food.
Soft-shell crab is an ephemeral delicacy, since the new shell starts to harden in three or four hours. Fortunately, the crab gives fishermen warning signs before it leaves its domicile. "White liners" are about two days away from molting; "red liners" will molt in the next 12 hours. "Peelers," as such soon-to-be soft-shells are called, are separated from the rest of the catch and placed in special holding tanks.
Come time for molting, the crab grabs the tank's chicken wire walls with its claws and scuttles out of the back of its shell. Small crabs molt as often as once every two weeks, but jumbos molt only two or three times a season.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, soft-shell crab season starts in mid-May and continues through September. In Florida, soft-shells are available most of the year. Once out of the water, the crabs will live for two to three days on ice. They aren't completely bad frozen, provided each crab was individually wrapped in plastic wrap before freezing.
When shopping for soft-shell crabs, try to buy them live and kicking. (Limp soft-shells tend to be watery.) Soft-shell crabs range in size from mediums (3 1/2 inches across) to "whales" (5 1/2 inches across or larger). The average restaurant portion is three medium or two large crabs per person. Personally, I can eat three jumbos by myself.
Soft-shell crabs are easy to prepare, but you need to do three things before you cook them.
* First, make a V-shaped cut with a knife or scissors to remove the mouth and the eyes. (This kills the crab instantly, although it may continue to wiggle.)
* Second, pry up and remove the "apron," the V-shaped tab on the belly.
* Third, lift the flap-like pointed edges of the top shell and remove the feather-like gills underneath.
If this procedure sounds intimidating, ask the fish merchant to do it for you.
The best way to prepare soft-shell crab is generally the simplest. At Baltimore's venerable Lexington Market, for example, there is a seafood shop called Fadley's. For nearly a century, seafood lovers have jammed the stand-up tables for some of the tastiest crabs, clams and oysters on the Eastern seaboard.
Order a soft-shell crab sandwich at Fadley's and you'll discover what Marylanders mean by "simple." The cook fishes a live crab from a basket, cleans it with a few deft strokes of a knife and drops it into a deep-fat fryer. Sixty seconds later, the crisp, golden beauty is slapped between two slices of balloon-style white bread and shoved at you on a paper plate. It is one of the most delicious experiences this side of paradise.
Below is a dish with a little more gastronomic sophistication, but simple enough to preserve the crab's pristine sweetness. The recipe comes from "A Well-Seasoned Appetite" (Viking) by New York Times columnist Molly O'Neill. "The best thing you can do to crab is let it be," writes O'Neill, quoting a cook at a Chesapeake Bay guest house.
MOLLY O'NEILL'S SOFT-SHELL CRABS SAUTEED IN BROWN BUTTER
8 large soft-shell crabs
2 cups low-fat milk
2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black
6 to 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice or to taste
1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
Clean soft-shell crabs, or have fish merchant clean crabs.
Combine milk and hot pepper sauce in shallow bowl. Combine flour, mustard, cayenne, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt in separate bowl. Whisk to mix.
Heat 2 tablespoons butter until foaming in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Dip each crab in milk mixture, then dredge in flour mixture and shake off excess. Add crabs to pan (work in several batches if necessary) and saute until done, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer crabs to paper towels to drain, then to platter or plates.
Add 1/2 cup lemon juice to pan and boil over high heat until mixture is reduced to syrupy glaze. Stir in remaining butter and cook until nicely browned. Stir in parsley and remaining lemon juice to taste. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring sauce to boil and spoon over crabs. Serve at once.
Makes 4 servings.