I love soft shell crabs. Let me repeat that: I love soft shell crabs. I don’t know when I first bit into their crispy, crunchy little bodies and tasted their fresh-from-the-ocean (yes, I know many are available frozen) sweetness. I suspect it was in 2002. Sweet Shark and I attended the Preakness in May and spent three nights in Baltimore at the Renaissance Harbor Place Hotel at the Inner Harbor, eating a bunch of really good seafood in between races on Friday and Saturday. Sunday morning, we drove around Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore and spent two glorious days in the village of St. Michaels where I had booked us into the cutest little bed and breakfast, the Five Gables Inn. The weather was amazing: crystal clear skies, perfect spring fresh air, and more seafood to eat. Our first stop was the St. Michaels Crab House, right on the water. We sat outside, breathing in the smell of briny creatures and and digging into alot of crabs. Sweet Shark bought a t-shirt that he still wears.
It might have been that night at dinner at Bistro St. Michaels that I had my first soft shell crab. Maybe it’s like your first taste of a sweet, briny oyster or your memory of your first bite of lobster. That’s what it was like for me and soft shell crabs. It was love at first bite. Our love affair has never abated and it’s fueled by the fact that we only meet for a short time each year, in April to June, when those little crustaceans (specifically, blue crabs from the East Coast) lose their shells and submit to my appetite . But wherever our first meeting was, I love them simply prepared – lightly coated in a flour/cornmeal mixture with some kosher or sea salt, freshly ground pepper, maybe a little cayenne – just enough to promote crispiness and sautéed in a little canola oil until done, and, here’s that word again – crispy. The whole process takes about 6 minutes, 3 minutes on each side, and you are ready to eat. Last Saturday, while we were waiting for the grill to heat (Sweet Shark was grilling lamb chops.), I made one each for Sweet Shark and me. We devoured them standing at the kitchen counter. We bought our soft shell crabs fresh at Central Market. Rex’s, T.J.’s, and Whole Foods also have them. They will clean them for you, but I always give them another rinse until cold running water. Like any seafood, they are perishable, so be sure to ask for them to be bagged with ice, keep refrigerated until ready to cook, and cook the day you buy them.
Here’s what I did:
1. In a pie plate, combine about 1/4 cup all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup yellow or white cornmeal. Add a little salt and pepper, and cayenne if you like. I actually used Tajín, a spice mixture of salt, cayenne, and grated lime, which you can find at any Mexican grocery store.
2. Heat a large skillet – I like to use my cast iron – over medium-high heat. I like to use a big skillet so there is plenty of room for the crabs since you do not want to crowd them. While the skillet is heating, pat the crabs dry on both sides with paper towels. They are going to pop anyway, but the less moisture, the better to promote a crispy crust.
3. Add 2 – 3 tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil to the skillet until hot. The oil should shimmer when it hits the pan.
4. Dredge the crabs in the flour/cornmeal mixture and shake off any excess. Add the crabs (I’m talking about 2) to the skillet, top side down, shaking the pan a few times, until browned, about 3 minutes. Using tongs, turn over and cook until brown on the second side, about three minutes.
4. Remove from the skillet and place on some paper towels a minute to drain.
5. Plate and serve with a sauce of your choice and a squeeze of lemon juice. For my sauce, I combined some chipotle ranch dressing that I had from MacAlister’s Deli (sometimes I cheat, too), about 2 tablespoons, about 2 tablespoons of Maille coarse ground mustard (my favorite brand), a good squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt. You could mix anything with mayo and it would be good, too.
6. Sprinkle with some chopped parsley or cilantro. Go to heaven, but take it slow. You want the love affair to last. By the way, this will not be the last time soft shell crabs and I have a rendezvous this year. I’m planning on another date tonight.
For more information on soft shell crabs and other ideas for serving them, check out the June/July issue of Fine Cooking Magazine.