Food & Drink

Side dish: Grill your spring asparagus. That leaves more soft-shell crabs for me

Fresh soft-shell crabs signal the start of spring to Debbie Moose.
Fresh soft-shell crabs signal the start of spring to Debbie Moose. jleonard@newsobserver.com

The farmers market was full of what most people consider the bellwethers of spring.

Except for the busloads of kindergartners swarming around on a produce scavenger hunt, that is (although it’s usually a dead giveaway, too).

Fragrant red strawberries festooned the aisles like misplaced Christmas decorations. Local berries are a big sign of spring for most people. I strolled past them. A few berries ... not there yet.

There was perky asparagus, another traditional symbol. Nice, but not quite.

Tender green peas? In my house, with the pea-hating Hub, we keep them around in frozen form and only to ice down injuries. Definitely not a spring sign.

There’s one edible – only one – that truly tells me it’s spring, that says it’s time to stuff the sweaters away and signals that it’s almost time for the beach: fresh soft-shell crabs.

If you don’t know what they are, maybe I shouldn’t tell you. That would leave more for me, and the rest of you can happily make strawberry shortcake, none the wiser. But my mama taught me to share, even if it might be against my own seafood self-interest.

Soft-shell crabs look like large insects. It’s best to kill them yourself (what those with delicate sensibilities might call “cleaning” them), to be sure they’re fresh. Frying is the one true cooking method. Sometimes I get crazy when I eat them and let one crispy little fried leg hang out of my mouth, like the crab’s trying to escape.

Turned off now? Good. Go grill some asparagus.

Oh, well. It’s no use. Soft-shell crabs aren’t a secret and haven’t been for a while.

They’re not as charming as strawberries or as regal as asparagus. Nevertheless, they’re my symbol of spring because nature truly dictates when they arrive and when they leave. And their time here is very short – just a few weeks.

They can’t be hurried up. Farmers can grow strawberries in greenhouses or on special black plastic to get them going early, and similar things can be done to coax early asparagus and peas to market. Soft-shell crabs show up when they’re good and ready.

The Atlantic blue crab – which is what a soft-shell crab is – requires a combination of warmer water (but not too warm) and a push from nature to decide it’s time to trade up to a larger home. Crabs have spring growth spurts, which means they need to shed their shells. A crab may shed its shell a dozen or more times in its life, depending on how good a job it does of avoiding my fryer.

It can take up to three hours for crabs to finishing shedding. New shells will harden into unappetizing, yet more protective, coatings in just a few hours. To get edible soft shells, crabbers must harvest the crabs within that brief window, which is very specialized work.

At that magical point, I can eat all of the crab. Every briny, sweet bite of it.

Experienced crabbers can spot a crab that’s close to shedding by looking at subtle color variations on part of the shell. They put those crabs in shallow trays or tanks of water called shedders. Then they wait. The crabs must be monitored continuously. Go a little too long after shedding and the shell begins to harden, becoming the unappealing equivalent of chewy wet cardboard when cooked.

Because weather is so important, the season for soft shells is mid-April to early June, but that period is variable. Warming water temperatures trigger crabs to grow and shed, which means that a stretch of cool weather may slow down or stop the whole process. The high heat of summer slows shedding as well. Sometimes there may be a little run of soft shells in the early fall, but that’s not common and can’t be counted on.

Of course, it is possible to purchase frozen soft shells all year long. But their message is so strong to me that I would no more do that than eat January asparagus. No, spring is the season of the soft-shell crab.

Debbie Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.

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