The first time I tasted soft-shell crabs I was as a little girl attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Looking back, I don’t know where I found the courage.
Not only wasn’t I a fan of seafood or shellfish, but this weird new item looked like a giant spider. Let’s say, then, that I closed my eyes before I took a bite. Wow! Crispy and sweet, that soft-shell crab was one of the best things I’d ever eaten. I have loved them ever since and make a point of preparing them every year when they come into season between late spring and early fall.
Soft-shell crabs are blue crabs from the East Coast that have shed their hard shells on their way to growing a new shell that’s even harder. Losing that first hard shell takes several days, but the new shell starts forming within hours. It’s during that tiny window of opportunity that the soft-shells are harvested.
If you’ve ever eaten a hard-shell blue crab, you know how much work it is to scoop out the meat. The delightful thing about a soft-shell is that there’s no scooping required. Just about the whole thing is edible, soft shell and all. In fact, for fans of crunch like me, it is that shell that makes the crabs so appealing.
Soft-shells are available in several forms at the fish store: live (my preference), fresh-dressed (cleaned on the spot by the fishmonger), dressed (cleaned earlier by the fishmonger), or frozen. They also come in different sizes. My favourite is medium; they tend to be 3 to 4 inches across. They’ll be at their freshest and tastiest if you purchase them live. (How can you tell if they’re still alive? Their claws will be moving.)
While you can dress them yourself, it’s easier to let the fishmonger do it. In either case, soft-shell crabs are very perishable, so get them home and cook them as soon as possible.
You may have assumed that soft-shell crabs were not only complicated looking, but also complicated cooking. Not so. Making them at home is a snap. My preferred method is to soak them in milk, then dip them in flour and saute them briefly in a little oil. The milk pulls out any excess fishy taste. But if you don’t have the time, just dip the crabs in milk right before coating them in flour (the milk also helps the flour stick).
You could cook the crabs in two successive batches of four crabs each, but then the first batch might get soggy while the second batch cooks. It’s better to cook them all at the same time using two skillets.
When it’s time to flip them over, please use long tongs and stand back. These little devils spit quite a bit in the hot oil. Many folks like to coat their soft-shells in batter and deep fry them. Not me. Deep frying tends to be an awfully messy operation for the home cook. Even worse, the flavour of the crab is smothered under all that batter.
I have offered a tomatillo, tomato and avocado salsa as a topping for the crabs. It provides a nice tangy counterpoint to the sweet crab meat. But the crabs are equally delicious simply topped with butter, melted and browned in the pan, and a squeeze of lemon. Whatever you top them with, you will be astonished that you can cook soft-shell crabs so easily and in about 10 minutes flat.
SOFT-SHELL CRABS WITH RED AND GREEN SALSA
Start to finish: 1 hour 20 minutes (20 minutes active)
1/2 gallon milk
8 small dressed (cleaned) soft shell crabs
For the salsa:
1/4 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed and quartered
1/2 cup coarsely chopped scallions (white and light green parts)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (with stems)
1/2 serrano chili, coarsely chopped (with seeds and ribs)
2 teaspoons lime juice
1 small garlic clove, crushed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup quartered cherry tomatoes
1/2 avocado, cut into small cubes
Ground black pepper
For the crabs:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
Fill a large baking pan with the milk. Arrange the crabs in the milk so each is covered. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, prepare the salsa. In a blender combine tomatillos, scallions, cilantro, chili, lime juice, garlic and salt. Puree until smooth. In a bowl stir together the tomatillo puree with the tomatoes and avocado, then season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Once the crabs have soaked for 1 hour, on a sheet of kitchen parchment, stir together the flour, salt and pepper. Set 2 large skillets over medium-high. Add 3 tablespoons of the oil to each and heat until shimmering, about 2 minutes.
While the oil heats, lift the crabs out of the milk, letting the excess drip off. Lightly dredge the crabs through the flour, lifting the parchment on both sides to help coat them well, shaking off the excess. Add the crabs to the oil, 4 per skillet, and fry until golden brown and firm to the touch, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Take care when flipping, as the oil will spit.
To serve, divide the crabs between 4 serving plates and spoon some of the salsa over each portion.
Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television’s “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” and has written three cookbooks, including “Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners.”