Starting in late April and proceeding for up to six weeks heralds the harvest of soft-shell blue crabs. I can tell the season is upon us when my local gourmet grocer’s seafood display is stacked with the little crustaceans. Being in Michigan, there are two ways the crabs are sold: they are either slightly stunned and a day old or already processed in hygienic cellophane sleeves. Shipping the crabs to faraway places like the Rust Belt means they arrive in less than optimum conditions – such as not knowing the date of expiration or how long ago they molted – but as seasoned soft-shell crab lovers, we take what we can get.
In my opinion, blue crabs in general and soft-shells in particular are the true Kings of the crab world. There are larger, more monstrous crabs, like the Alaskan king, or the petite, delicate legs of the sweeter snow crab, or the ginormous claws of the stone crab. Blue crabs with their brilliant blue sheen are smaller and intensely flavored. They are native to the Atlantic (especially the Chesapeake Bay area) and the Gulf Coast. I have vivid happy memories of buying a bag of steamed blues in a crab house in Maryland, then taking them back to the Holiday Inn to eat without butter. (Talk about fat and happy!) The blue crab is the variety usually seen in processed fresh and canned crab.
Once a year, the blue crabs molt, leaving them soft for a few days until the shells harden. At this time they are vulnerable to predators and crab fishermen. The upside to the soft-shell is being able to ingest the crab shell and all, with minimal cleaning (removal of the gills and apron) and without the hazards associated in the deconstruction of the hard crab body. This means no hammers, pickers, or bibs, for those of you who are inlanders.
There are several delicious options to preparing soft-shell crabs. There are some Japanese restaurants that insert them into sushi (spider roll), but since my rolling hand is weak, I prefer to subject the crab to a light tempura batter and a quick fry. Soft-shell crabs are delicate and do not need a lot of batter. Less is best. Serve the tempura soft-shell with ponzu sauce. Tempura soft-shell crab also makes a nice centerpiece in a chirashizushi (rice with vegetables and broth) bowl.
Soft-shells also make a tasty sandwich as they are perfectly sized to fit on a bun. I stole this idea after having some kick-ass crab sandwiches on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. Coat the crabs with a dusting of flour seasoned with Old Bay Seasoning and flash fry for two minutes on each side. On the bun (which I prefer toasted), layer with remoulade and cole slaw, or dress it up like a burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo.
An alternative to frying the soft-shell is a brief sauté in butter and olive oil. No flour coating or batter is necessary. Add garlic to the pan if you want flavor. After a few minutes, flip the crab. During the last minute of cooking, drizzle with lemon juice and chopped parsley. Serve on mixed greens. For something really special, make a reduction of balsamic vinegar, add a spoon of honey and a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and blend well. Lightly drizzle on the crab.
Soft-shell crab season doesn’t last long, so take advantage of it while it’s here. I know I will.