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Soft Shell Crabs

Ahh, the season is again upon us - having begun early in many places due to the warm winter. Such a glorious little treat. Ripe with attached memories for me, which makes them even more enjoyable.

Crabs were always part of summer's bounty. Having grown up in the 70s on one of NJ's thin barrier islands, crabs represented long days with doting grandparents. We'd sit plucking them from the Bay 'til there were more than the four of us could possibly eat. Such an easy thing to do, pulling up a hard shell blue claw and scooping it with the net - such fantastic fun for a little boy.

Then, on those certain occasions, often around the time of the full moon, you'd see one sort of floating, gently swimming by. As fast as the net could get near the water, you'd swoop. Sometimes, you were rewarded with a freshly molted crab, a soft shell. To the mind of a seven year old kid, it was an almost unthinkable treat, considering the bucket of it's brethren that Grandma would later steam, you could just bite right into this fella.

Now, the gentle, old lady had one basic way for frying up her crabs, quite similar to what she did with the fluke we'd catch on other days. The cleaned crab went into flour, an egg dredge, then seasoned breadcrumbs. They were pan fried in mostly Crisco oil with a decent amount of butter. Occasionally, the crabs were on a plate for a dinner, but usually they were the stuff of lunchtime sandwiches. They would rest on toasted, country white bread, above a smear of tartar and a leaf or two of lettuce. The top got a slice of a tomato from her garden after a squeeze of lemon. Glorious, indeed.

Today, my technique involves less coating. Typically, I just dredge the crab in seasoned flour and pan fry quickly in peanut oil. Simple art. A sandwich is more likely to involve fancier bread, but I've still got a soft spot for the fresh tomato and tartar.

So, I can't help but ask, how do you soft shell? Any other lovers?

Edit: Just noticed Bitman's got a nod to them today: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/06/mag... I'll agree, grilling can be a good change of pace.

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  1. I love them except for the inside stuff that is a little too strong for me. Any suggestions on cleaning that out?

    1 Reply
    1. I love them simply grilled or in a chinese ginger sauce.

      1. You have accomplished what I thought was impossible; make me homesick for NJ.
        I need to make a trip down from ME this summer, just for a soft shell crab sandwich on corn rye.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Passadumkeg

          Funny, Pass, those were my South River kin - summers in Barnegat Light. I recall my Grandmother making the sandwiches a couple times on toasted babka if the old man had brought some down from "up north." Unconventional, sure, but actually quite good - may have to revisit that myself some time.

          1. re: MGZ

            Spent summers in Ship Bottom, then Seaside Hights. I used to since elementary school in the South Rive and Raritan Bay near the S Amboy power plant. I could walk to 3 Polish bars and get soft shell sandwiches on Sitz's rye.

        2. Love soft shells. A trick from David Rosengarten. When pan frying, line something heavy with foil (I use a cast iron pan) and put it on top of the crabs. The weight forces out a lot of water.

          1. I do enjoy Pan Fried/Deep Fried Soft Shell Crabs.....either alone or on a sandwich with Aioli or Remoulade....but my favorite way to have them is pan sauteed.....first dipped in flour and egg....then dressed in a Francese/Francais or other lemon and butter sauce enhanced with herbs and Concasse Tomatoes ...served with a starch of choice and vegetables on the side.

            Chinese Salt & Pepper is also pretty good too.

            1. Our local Wegmans market just started carrying Soft-Shell Crabs last week, & unlike the inferior pre-cleaned & sometimes pre-frozen ones, these are ALIVE & KICKING when you buy them. This is the ONLY way I'll buy them, even though it is a bit disconcerting to see them still moving when they hit the pan.

              So last week we purchased 4 (@ $6.99 each), & after cleaning (which I've been doing myself for decades), I dredged them in some seasoned flour & sauteed them in a 50/50 mix of extra-virgin olive oil & butter - 4 minutes per side - tossing in 4 cloves of roughly chopped garlic, a splash of Pinot Grigio wine, & some chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley during the last 2 minutes of cooking. Removed the crabs to a warm plate, reduce the pan juices a bit, whisked in a little more butter, & poured over the crabs. Served with steamed & buttered fiddlehead ferns & shoestring potatoes.

              Heaven on a plate.

              1. I use a chinese dredge consisting of 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of corn starch with some salt and pepper. I don't even bother with the egg. I pat them dry and flip them in the dredge and fry them in peanut oil. I'll either eat them in a sandwich of toasted bread or by themselves. And I eat every bit - leaving nothing behind. They are so delicious. Yes the inside is a little stronger in flavor but that's part of the experience for me.

                Today I buy them frozen from the local farmers market and thaw them. Not quite the same as fresh but still better than none at all.

                1. Picked up 2 more live soft-shells from Wegmans last night, & was emphatically told that this would be the VERY LAST TIME they'd allow me to take them home live & clean them myself. What the HELL is this about? They said the distributor insists on it now because if the crabs die before they're cleaned, they're "poisonous", & they don't want to be liable. Well, when THEY kill & clean the crabs, the crabs are still DEAD, & if not cooked asap, will be "poisonous". I explained to them - equally emphatically - that I'd been cleaning soft-shell crabs for longer than they'd been alive, & the only reason I buy them from Wegmans is because they sell the crabs alive & kicking. I also explained that when stores clean the crabs, they butcher them, & one ends up with 3/4 of the desecrated crab left. And at between $4.99 & $6.99 each, I should be allowed to do what I want with the damn crabs. Sorry for the vent - sigh.

                  Anyway, ACCURATELY & PROPERLY CLEANED the crabs, dredged them in seasoned flour, dipped in beaten egg, & then into Panko unseasoned crumbs. Sauteed up in 1/2 & 1/2 olive oil & butter & then placed on two lovely toasted crusty rolls with mayo, a little dill pickle relish, lettuce, & arugula. Heaven on a bun!

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Bacardi1

                    I wish I could find them alive. I've been told that to force crabs to molt, places will remove the eyes. That's how they get so many where they freeze them. Alive and kicking is much better but I am able to settle for the frozen ones. I am sorry to hear that Wegmanns will no longer sell them that way.
                    Another variation for me is if I am making a toasted sandwich - I will somtimes include a small amount of fresh avocado with the crab.

                    1. re: Bacardi1

                      I will only buy ss crabs when I can see that they are alive, can tell that they are soft, and I always clean them myself. I will not eat them any other way...had too many sick nights with a cramping stomach when I just trusted the fish monger. Its been over 20 years since that happened...cleaning the ones I know are alive has never made me sick. Even if they die after I buy them, they have been dead for too short a time. (rarely more than an hour) to go bad.

                      1. re: EricMM

                        Ugh, I think I just wasted $14. I had the fish market clean them last night when I bought them but I was going to cook them tonight. Looks like I better steer clear.

                        1. re: heypielady

                          Why?????? If the fish market cleaned them in front of you, there's no reason to believe they're unfit to eat - even 24 hours later so long as they were kept cold. Absolutely zero reason to "steer clear".

                          The only crabs I steer clear of are the ones already "pre-cleaned" in the market case, because I have no idea how long ago they were killed & cleaned.

                          The only reason I prefer to insist that I do the cleaning myself is because I find fishmongers too quick with the knife & take too much off of the crab, not because I think they're cleaning the crab improperly & it'll make me sick.

                          1. re: Bacardi1

                            Thanks Bacardi1. I did end up cooking and eating them and they were just fine... in fact delicious. On re-reading the comments in this thread I realized this issue was, as you pointed out, freshness. I trust my fishmonger to get me the freshest stuff.

                            My post above was a knee-jerk reaction. I'm pregnant so while normally I don't mind taking some risks with food, I've been a little more cautious lately. All said, there was little risk in this situation.