M. Andrew Gordon

Spring Time for Soft Shelled Crabs

In Main Dish on May 9, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Soft Shelled Crabs gently frying. It's a wondrous thing.

Soft shell crabs are one of the ocean’s most decadent treats, a handy parcel of sweet crab without all the fuss and bother associated with removing crab meat from the shell.  Because for that one shining moment, the shell itself is edible, providing a satisfying crunch to balance the soft and creamy sweetness of the meat.  Due to a trick of nature, when the blue crab molts the new shell is very soft and, conveniently, the crab doesn’t eat.  So it doesn’t have anything in its stomach.  Very important if you’re going to be eating the whole darn thing!

Soft shell crabs can be grilled, fried, or sautéed.  I suppose they could be baked too.  The only messy part is cleaning them, but wherever you are buying the crabs from can do that for you.  If you’re adventurous, it’s really not that difficult although it trends toward the barbaric.  First, you need to take a good sharp knife (when I mean sharp, I mean sharp) or kitchen shears and snip off the eyes and mouth of the crab.  How about that, huh?  Then you remove the gills and, flipping the crab over; remove the loose “apron” from the underbelly.

I bought four crabs for two people, a pretty standard serving size.  But I was conflicted as to how I wanted to prepare

The All-American Soft Shelled Sandwich - crab with apple-garlic mayonnaise

and serve them.  Grilling them had a lot of appeal but I did not have access to anything but a propane grill.  I’m not necessarily a grill snob but I figured the soft shells would really suck up the smoky flavor of a wood grill and that in this case, the propane just wasn’t worth it.  So, I decided to stick to the tried and true: dredge the crabs in flower, coat in egg, and then dredge in bread crumbs.  I coated two in plain bread crumbs and two in bread crumbs with chile powder, cumin, and curry powder.  The latter might be my default soft shell crab seasoning as we both very much enjoyed the results.

On the serving end, I had visions of using flavors from Asian cuisines.  This prompted me to braise bok choy and shitake mushrooms in a garlic, ginger, and fish sauce-laced liquid.  The end result was good – probably not great – but still enjoyable.  My other idea was the prototypical soft shell sandwich.  But even there I was torn between several ideas.  One included an avocado-mango salsa but the other was even simpler: the crab on a toasted roll with an apple-garlic mayonnaise.  In some circles this might be called an aioli but frankly, that phrase seems a bit over done.  Also, this is just doctored mayonnaise so it doesn’t qualify as an aioli.  And ideally, I would have had some type of green on the sandwich, maybe watercress or arugula.  But I didn’t have any at the time.

Basic Soft Shelled Crab Preparation

Soft shelled crab on gingered bok choy and shitake

(Serves 2)

  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 soft shelled crabs, cleaned
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup water
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • ½ teaspoon chile powder
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • ½ cup bread crumbs
  1. Combine butter and oil in large skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. Place egg and water in shallow bowl and beat well.  Place flour in separate shallow bowl.  In third bowl, combine curry and chile powders, cumin, and bread crumbs.  Dredge crabs in flour, shake off excess; dredge in egg and then dredge in bread crumbs.  Tap off excess.
  3. With butter starting to foam, cook crabs top-side down for four or five minutes per side, until cooked through and golden brown.
  4. Serve on toasted rolls or on top of greens.

All-American Apple Mayonnaise

The whole damn feast: soft shell crabs over gingered bok choy and shitakes; two different soft shelled crab sandwiches; and oven fries. With Long Trail IPA.

(enough for two sandwiches)

  • 2 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons diced apple
  • 1 clove garlic, diced
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • Freshly ground pepper
  1. Combine all ingredients.  It’s awfully difficult.
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