Up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus, are coming out of winter hibernation.
When conditions are right -- phases of the moon, temperature of the water and other factors known only to Mother Nature -- the crabs will begin to molt, growing larger and shedding their hard outer shells. Generally speaking, the new crab will be 30 percent larger, point to point, than its old shell.
Left in the water, the new crab shell will harden in a few hours. But pulled from the water right after molting, the shell remains soft, resulting in the seasonal delicacy known as the soft-shell crab. The best part? Unlike a hard-shell crab where only about 25 percent is edible, with a soft-shell crab, you eat the whole thing (minus gills and face).
Soon restaurant menus will feature an assortment of preparations, and for many of us, soft-shell crabs are a restaurant-only item.
“I eat soft-shell crab every chance I get. If it’s on the menu, I’m going to order it,” said Vicky Murphy of Inland Seafood.
Inland Seafood is one of the major local suppliers of soft-shell crab. It provides seafood for more than 3,500 restaurants and 900 retail outlets in the Southeast.
But soft-shell crabs are easy to cook at home. Murphy’s favorite preparation is to dust the cleaned crabs with a little Wondra or all-purpose flour and sauté them briefly in a mixture of clarified butter and olive oil.
“Those little legs don’t have any meat, so if you’re eating a hard-shell crab, they’re just a waste. But sautéed like this, they crisp up and are absolutely delicious,” she said.
We may be most familiar with sautéed or fried soft-shell crab, but they also cook perfectly on the grill. The only cooking methods to avoid are steaming or boiling since the crabs will only turn to mush.
The crabs are available either live or frozen. If you purchase live crabs, you will have to clean them, removing the gills and cutting off the crab’s face. Live crabs should be cooked as soon as you get them home.
Frozen crabs have already been cleaned and prepared and will keep in the freezer for about four months. The crabs come in sizes ranging from mediums, 3 1/2 to 4 inches from point to point, to whales that measure 5 1/2 inches across.
Soft-shell crabs from Atlantic and Gulf waters are in season from now through the end of September. You can find them at many international farmers markets such as Buford Highway and Cobb. These markets also may sell frozen farmed soft-shell crab year-round. Your local grocery may be able to special-order fresh or frozen soft-shell crabs for you.
Soft-shell crabs are best cooked quickly, making them a great last-minute supper idea. For testing purposes (and because I’m reluctant to cut the face off a live crab), I prepared these recipes with frozen soft-shell crabs. They thaw in minutes.
Grilled Soft-Shell Crab With Mango
Hands on: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Inspired by a recipe for grilled soft-shell crab with pineapple, I decided to combine the crab with mango, which is in season right now.
1/2 cup plain low-fat yogurt
1/4 cup mango chutney
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 (5 to 6-ounce) soft-shell crabs, cleaned, thawed if frozen
8 cups salad greens
1 avocado, peeled and cubed
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced, separated into rings
Preheat grill to very hot. Lightly oil grates.
In a small bowl, make dressing by mixing together yogurt and chutney. Set aside.
Slice two pieces off each mango by holding the mango on end and cutting down each long side next to the pit. Use a paring knife to score flesh into 1/2-inch square cubes cutting down to but not through the peel. Reserve remaining fruit on pit for another use.
In a medium bowl, pour olive oil over crabs and toss lightly to coat crabs with oil. Arrange crabs and mango pieces on grill. Cook crab 2 minutes, then turn. After 4 minutes, remove crab and mango from grill.
Divide salad greens, avocado and onion slices between four serving plates. Top each with 2 crabs and one piece of mango. Serve dressing alongside.
Per serving: 463 calories (percent of calories from fat, 17), 40 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fiber, 17 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 146 milligrams cholesterol, 601 milligrams sodium.
Herb-Stuffed Soft-Shell Crabs
Hands on: 20 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
1/4 cup chopped basil
2 tablespoons chopped chives
5 tablespoons butter, divided
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup instant or all-purpose flour
8 (5- to 6-ounce) soft-shell crabs, cleaned, thawed if frozen
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon capers, drained
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
In the bowl of a food processor, combine basil, chives, 2 tablespoons butter and garlic. Process until smooth. Divide butter into eight balls.
Pour flour into a pie pan.
Carefully peel back top layer of crab shell and insert on herb-butter ball. Cover butter with shell, press lightly to flatten butter and lay crab in flour. Turn to coat second side with flour, brush off loose flour and arrange crabs on a platter. Repeat with remaining crabs.
In a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat. When butter just begins to shimmer, lay 4 crabs top side down. Cook 3 minutes or until golden brown, then turn and cook 3 minutes or until just done. Remove crabs from skillet and arrange on serving platter. Keep warm and repeat with remaining crabs.
In a small saucepan, melt remaining tablespoon butter and add lemon juice and capers. Heat until butter is melted, add capers and pour over crabs. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Per serving: 320 calories (percent of calories from fat, 47), 34 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, 16 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 183 milligrams cholesterol, 694 milligrams sodium.
Soft-Shell Crab Po’ Boys
Hands on: 30 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes plus resting time for batter
Three components (slaw, bacon and fried crabs) make this dish a little more time-consuming to execute, but by preparing the slaw, bacon and batter ahead of time, the only last-minute step is frying the crabs and assembling the sandwiches.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup beer
1/4 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
8 slices low-sodium bacon
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons honey
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 small head green cabbage, cored and shredded
1 small carrot, coarsely shredded
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
Salt and pepper
1 long baguette, split lengthwise
Canola oil, for frying
4 (5- to 6-ounce) soft-shell crabs, cleaned, thawed if frozen
Lemon wedges, for garnish
In a small bowl, make batter by combining flour, beer, egg and seasoning. Stir until thoroughly combined and refrigerate, covered, at least 1 hour, up to overnight.
In a medium skillet, cook bacon until crisp. Drain slices and set aside until ready to assemble sandwiches.
In a medium bowl, make slaw by mixing together mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, chives, parsley, honey and cayenne pepper. Stir together until well combined and then add cabbage, carrot and onion. Toss together, season to taste and refrigerate covered until ready to assemble sandwiches.
When ready to assemble sandwiches, arrange slaw over bottom of baguette. Top with bacon slices and set aside.
In a deep saucepan, heat oil over high heat to 375 degrees. Pour batter into a pie pan. Dip each crab into batter, coating both sides and carefully place in hot oil, one by one. Do not crowd saucepan. Fry to golden brown, about 4 minutes, turning if needed. Remove from oil, drain and place on prepared baguette. Repeat with remaining crabs. Serve sandwich immediately.
Per serving: 971 calories (percent of calories from fat, 51), 23 grams protein, 96 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 56 grams fat (9 grams saturated), 91 milligrams cholesterol, 1,697 milligrams sodium.