By Murray Schulman
It’s sweltering outside and the heat is turning my lawn a lovely shade of brown. We shower, dress for work and walk outside to get in the car only to find ourselves drenched in sweat. The air conditioner takes forever to cool the car and the house unit is working overtime. Hooray, Friday is finally here, and it is about time. I am in a crabby mood, but I’m not talking about being an old grouch. mood. I am talking about having a serious craving for crabs. Specifically, my absolute favorite soft shells, shedders, big, fat and scrumptious.
Now I’ve gone and gotten ahead of myself.
We live in the mid-Atlantic region of the country, smack-dab in the heart of blue-claw crab country. From the shores of North Carolina all the way up to Nova Scotia, blue claws reign supreme. Maryland is No. 1 in this category. I have to be fair and state that Louisiana ranks No. 2 in blue claw population. For me, there is none better than our area’s crabs. These beauties can grow as large as 9 inches across. But our jumbos generally range between 6 and 7 inches across. From the end of June through early September is the period during which the blue-claw crabs shed their shells and grow into larger shells. This is the window of opportunity for crabbers to bring in these tender delicious creatures. The newly forming shell is paper thin and completely edible. These are a delicacy well worth the time and the cost.
Speaking of cost: The blue crab market fluctuates daily. In fact, the price of the crabs can literally change from morning to afternoon. Within this market, soft shells are a sub-category with price fluctuations all their own. We have seen 4-inch soft shells selling for between $4.99 and $5.99 each.
Soft shells are sized in four categories. Hotels are 4 to 4 ½ inches, primes go up to 5 inches, jumbos measure up to 5 ½ inches. and anything bigger is known as a whale. The measurement is across the back from tip to tip. Availability varies day to day, and nothing is guaranteed as to what size will be in stock.
Now are you ready to eat some soft shells? I always say that fresh is best. Find your local seafood market. If they are doing business, the odds are in your favor that you will get fresh product. The good news is that any good seafood market will clean your soft shells for you. All you have to do is ask. In the event that you have to clean your own, the process is not hard. There are You Tube videos that will show you how it is done.
Simply hold the crab from the back. Using kitchen shears, snip the face right behind the eyes off. Next, turn the crab upside down and remove the abdominal apron by folding it open and snipping it off. Flip the crab right side up again and fold back the soft shell one side at a time. Remove the gills and clean inside. Repeat this on the opposite side of the crab. Line the crabs up as you clean them on a platter lined with paper towels. Now you are ready to prepare these treats.
Soft shells can be prepared in a number of ways. I go easy on the seasoning because I love the flavor of the crabs. Why disguise something this delicious? I combine flour with a nice sprinkle of corn meal mixed in for a little added crunch. For seasoning I add either some Cajun seasoning (my favorite) or if you prefer, some Old Bay seasoning. Mix this well with a fork to evenly disburse the ingredients. I prepare my pan with a 50-50 blend of vegetable oil and olive oil. This way your smoke point stays relatively high while still providing that olive oil flavor. Heat your oil to medium-high. The test is you should get a sizzle when you touch the crab to the oil. Dredge the soft shells in your seasoned flour. Carefully place the floured crabs into the hot oil. Crabs contain moisture and you will want to avoid getting burned from “spitting.” The crabs are done when the coating is golden brown, and the crabs have an orange-reddish hue.
The great part about soft shells is that you eat all of them. That provides great versatility as to how you serve them. Soft shells make an awesome sandwich with lettuce, tomato and your favorite seafood condiment. Dress them up as a platter with roasted seasoned potato wedges and freshly made slaw. Or you can take the crabs to the next level and serve them with your favorite pasta recipe. Nothing could be better. That is, unless you do what Liz and I do. Pick a clear sultry night with the moon and a zillion stars sparkling in the sky. Choose a table at your favorite seafood restaurant. On nights like this, we love to sit outside on the deck or patio of the restaurant. There is island music playing and the water is gently rippling just below. A friendly smiling server serves cold frosty libations and asks what we would like to eat. This is the moment that we have anticipated. We order the soft shells. Liz likes hers on a toasted bun dressed all the way and served with waffle fries and cold crisp creamy slaw. I order my shedders with linguini tossed with quartered cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil and roasted garlic. We let ourselves forget the work week and gently slip into a very romantic and “crabby” mood. This is what a warm summer night is all about. IAH