Seasons by the Sea: Savory Soft-Shel

soft-shell crab
Blue crabs become soft-shells approximately 20 times in their two-to-three-year life span, but only for a few hours at a time. They begin to form a new hard shell within hours of shedding the old one. Morgan McGivern

    This season there is good news for soft-shell crab lovers: They are plentiful and affordable. By affordable, I mean you can find them for around $4 each. At two or three per person, this is still cheaper than a burger or pizza at any local restaurant. So feel free to indulge in this fleeting treat of spring, the Callinectes sapidus, or “beautiful savory swimmer.”
    Crabs are one of the outstandingly successful forms of crustaceans. Since the first crabs evolved in the Jurassic, the number of species has multiplied to such an extent that within the order Decapoda (which includes lobster, prawn, and shrimp) some 4,500 of the 8,500 species are crabs.
    There are crabs on land, crabs that can climb trees, and crabs that swim and burrow in mud and sand. The tiny oyster crab is the size of a pea. The Japanese spider crab can be as large as 12 inches from claw tip to claw tip. The constant features of all crabs are two claws and eight walking or swimming legs, all contained in an exoskeleton which serves as protective armor, except when it must be shed to accommodate growth.
    The blue crab is third in catch by volume, after king crabs and snow crabs. It is this blue crab, found in East Coast waters and mostly centered around the Chesapeake Bay, that becomes the soft-shell approximately 20 times in its two to three-year lifespan.
    The capture or culling of soft-shell crabs is a time-sensitive process, as they begin to form a hard shell within hours of shedding the old one. Crabs about to shed are called “comers” or “peelers.” A red line appears along the edge of the paddlers at the rear of the crab. During shedding, the crab is a “buster,” “peeler,” or “shedder.” At the moment of emergence, it is a soft-shell. As the new shell begins to harden, it is referred to as a “paper shell,” and then as a “buckram” or “buckler.”
    As you can imagine, the mating process can be quite tricky. Obviously two crabs cannot mate while in their prickly impenetrable hard shells. So the male crab, or “jimmy,” chooses a partner and tries to entice her by waving at her, emitting pheromones, and doing a sexy little crab dance. If the female, or “sook,” finds this irresistible, she waves back at him and immediately sheds her shell. They mate, then the male carries her away and protects her until her shell grows back. To catch the crabs in flagrante delicto is considered a bonus, as the jimmies have more meat, and the female is in the perfect stage of soft-shell. If, however, she has already produced eggs, she is strictly off limits to the fisherman.
    Soft-shell crabs must be transported to markets quickly, as they should be sold alive and kicking. They are usually transported in cardboard boxes filled with seaweed or wet newspapers and held at the perfect chilling temperature. You can have your fishmonger clean them for you, but they must be cooked the same day.
    If you care to clean them yourself, it is a simple process. Begin by snipping off the face with a pair of scissors. Fold back one side of the top shell, exposing the gills, or “dead man’s fingers.” Pull away and discard the gills from both sides of the crab. Turn the crab over and fold back the tail flap, called the apron. Pull the apron away from the body and discard it. When you flip the crab over to remove the apron, you can tell the jimmies from the sooks by the outline underneath. The male’s underside resembles the Washington Monument, the female’s the Jefferson Memorial.
    Soft-shell crabs have such a sweet, delicate flavor that I recommend simple preparation for your first spring feast. Simply sauté in butter or oil (watch out for spattering!) and finish with a bit of lemon juice. After that, feel free to be more adventurous with your seasoning: Try deglazing the pan with some garlic, add some fermented black beans, or toasted almonds or capers or white wine . . . there are numerous flavor affinities for soft-shell crabs.

Soft-Shell Crabs With Homemade Lemon Mayonnaise

    This is the first recipe I tried this season. You can use the leftover mayonnaise for many other things, but just remember to use it up within three to four days. For those who would prefer to not eat raw egg in their mayonnaise, use a good commercial brand and simply doll it up with lemon juice, lemon zest, mustard, and chives.
    Serves six.

2 to 3 crabs per person, depending on size
Flour, salt and pepper for dredging
2 Tbsp. butter and 2 Tbsp. neutral oil for frying

Lemon Mayonnaise
1 cup olive oil
1 egg, room temperature
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 tsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. lemon zest
2 Tbsp. finely chopped chives
Salt and pepper to taste

    Place egg, mustard, and lemon juice in food processor. Start processing, and as you do, begin drizzling the oil in very slowly over the course of two to three minutes in a thin stream, allowing it to emulsify. By the end, it will be the consistency of commercial mayo. Fold in the zest and chives, taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste.
    To prepare soft-shell crabs, clean as instructed above, or have a fishmonger do it for you. Rinse and dry crabs. Dredge in flour that has been well seasoned with salt and pepper.
    Heat frying pan (or two if you don’t want to do it in batches) over medium-high heat. Add butter and oil. When hot, add crabs, and watch out for popping and spattering. Sauté about three minutes on one side, season again with salt and pepper, then flip over and cook another two to three minutes. Serve immediately with lemon mayonnaise on the side.

Soft-Shell Crabs With Chili Sauce

    In Singapore, there are many versions of chili crabs. This recipe uses soft-shells instead. Serve this with steamed rice or French bread to sop up the sauce.
    Serves two.

Chili Sauce:
4 cloves garlic
4 red jalapeno peppers, seeded (I suggest starting with less)
1 piece fresh ginger, about 11/2 inches, peeled
2 to 4 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp. peanut oil
1/4 cup tomato paste or ketchup
1 Tbsp. Sriracha sauce or sweet chili sauce
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 cup chicken broth
1 Tbsp. cornstarch, mixed with 3 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. lime juice or wine vinegar
1 extra large egg

6 soft-shell crabs, about 4 oz. each
1/4 cup cornstarch
3 Tbsp. corn or peanut oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 chopped scallions, green part included, for garnish
6 sprigs cilantro, for garnish

    To make sauce, purée in blender the garlic, chilies, ginger and just enough water to facilitate blending. Process until smooth paste forms.
    Warm a wok or large frying pan over medium heat. Add oil, stir in paste, and cook until fragrant and creamy, about one minute. Add tomato paste, Sriracha, soy sauce, sugar, and broth. Add cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens, about 30 seconds. Add lime juice or vinegar. Crack egg into wok and cook, without stirring, until it begins to set, about two minutes. Fold egg into sauce, do not over mix, you want to see flecks of egg. Remove from heat, cover, and keep warm.
    Dust crabs with cornstarch, shaking off excess. In large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add crabs and fry, turning once, until brown and crispy, about three minutes on each side. Season with salt and pepper.
    Add crabs to chili sauce and turn to coat evenly. Serve garnished with scallions and cilantro.