I look forward to many things in life, and when it comes to food, they include that first summer tomato, July’s fresh corn, late summer shell beans, fall’s green tail shrimp, and those first frost-kissed collards.
Right now, however, the moment is saved for a soft shell crab.
My first experience with “softs” was at a birthday outing at La Residence, back when Morton Neal was still in charge. They were a special, and since I love crabs, I decided to find out what all the hoopla was about.
When they arrived at the table I was taken aback, these things with legs and all, and I sheepishly asked the waiter how to eat them.
“You eat the whole thing,” he proclaimed, and warily I did just that, much to my delight and the beginning of a life-long obsession with the critters.
This is a soft shell crab’s moment. What is a soft shell? It’s when a crab molts, shedding the old shell and developing a new one. It’s part of the growth process.
When the moon phase and the water temperature get just right, the process begins. Most soft shells are raised in “floats” nowadays, with perfect water temperature and crabbers eyes on them 24/7. If the crab is not removed from the water soon after it sheds, the new hard shell will start to form.
Softs are a delightful treat: crunchy, creamy and silken all at the same time.
Fresh ones are much superior to the frozen ones and will probably require a trip to a seafood market. Look for ones that show signs of life, like bubbling and a small amount of movement. The crabs are very docile at this time. Get your fishmonger to kill and clean them for you, and cook them that day. (That’s important.)
Fried is my favorite way with softs, and nothing is better than the dredge and sandwich that follows. The simple avocado mayonnaise adds additional brightness, and you will find many uses for it. All the textures in this recipe will delight you, truly a feast on a roll. The fennel slaw is a wonderful side for this dish as it is for most seafood.
Yes, you could just order them in a restaurant, but they are easy to do at home and a lot of fun to cook.
Note: If you are the one who needs to clean the crabs, it’s very simple. With a pair of scissors, cut right behind the eyes all the way across. The crab is now dead. Lift each side of the top shell and remove the gray spongy matter completely. These are called the “dead man’s fingers” and you will be sick if you don’t get it out. Just pull the stuff away with your fingers.
Fred Thompson is a Raleigh cookbook author and publisher of Edible Piedmont magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Serve with: Fennel slaw (see recipe). Potato salad or French fries are also good, especially sweet potato fries.
To drink: A very cold Sancerre or Rose
Soft Shell Crab BLT with Avocado Mayonnaise
For the mayonnaise
1 ripe avocado peeled and mashed
1/2 cup good quality mayonnaise
For the crabs
6 fresh soft shell crabs, cleaned
1 cup buttermilk
3 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
For the sandwich
3 crusty Hoagie rolls
6 slices of thick cut bacon, cooked crisp
2 heirloom tomatoes, sliced
Lettuce as desired
2 cups Fennel Coleslaw (optional, see recipe)
To make the mayonnaise: Combine the two ingredients and refrigerate until ready to use.
To make the crabs: Place the crabs in the buttermilk and soak for 30 to 45 minutes.
Preheat a deep fryer or set up for deep-frying at 350 degrees.
Combine the cornmeal, flour, salt and cayenne. Dredge the crabs in the cornmeal mixture and place in the fryer, dropping them away from you. Use caution, the grease may splatter during the cooking process. Fry until golden brown about 4 to 5 minutes
To assemble the sandwich: Split the bread and place the crabs on the bottom slice. Next add the bacon, then the tomatoes and lettuce. On the top slice of bread, spread the avocado mayonnaise and place on the sandwich, cut in half and enjoy.
Yield: 3 to 4 servings
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Hot sauce, to taste
1/4 head of green cabbage, thinly shredded
1 head of fennel, shaved thin
1 bunch of green onions, charred, and thinly sliced
1/4 red onion, thin sliced
1 Granny Smith apple, thinly sliced and cut into thin strips
1 red apple, thinly sliced and cut into thin strips
To make the dressing, combine the first 5 ingredients and set aside. To make the slaw, combine the cabbage, fennel, onions and apples.
Combine the dressing and slaw mixture. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before serving. Season with salt and pepper to taste.