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8 & $20 Recipe: Soft-Shell Crabs with Asparagus and Maque Choux

A bright Italian Friulano refreshes the palate for a flavorful summer delicacy

Esther Mobley
Posted: July 8, 2014

Eight ingredients. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a weeknight feast for family or friends. That's the philosophy behind our "8 & $20" feature. We hope it adds pleasure to your table.

Soft-shell blue crabs are precious business. They’re not available year-round—May through August is their season—and, because their very soft-shelled nature depends on their having just shed their hard exoskeleton (a process known as molting), they must be caught at just the right moment, the sooner consumed the better.

Pan-fried and dressed with the best of whatever the green market has to offer any given summer week, plus a few pantry staples, soft-shell blue crabs are one of the season's great delights. The delicate crabmeat bursts with flavor, its crisped shell and light breading creating a textural foil. Buy them only if they're still kicking; your fishmonger can clean them for you, but it just takes a simple few flicks of the knife to do it yourself (instructions below).

This past week, my farmers market had beautiful bunches of asparagus and fresh ears of sweet corn—crunchy vegetables that would both pair well with the crabs. With the help of tomato and onion, I fashioned the corn into a Southern-style maque choux (similar to a succotash, sans lima beans).

As I envisioned my recipe, seafood-friendly standbys such as Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine came to mind—and those would almost certainly work here as well. But thirsting for a new summer adventure, I tried out a few Italian and Spanish whites: a Sardinian blend (85 percent Nasco, 15 percent Vermentino), a Friulano from northeast Italy's Friuli region and an Albariño from Rías Baixas, in northwest Spain's Galicia region.

First and foremost, a fried dish wants a palate cleanser, and most crisp whites will do just fine in a pinch, but soft-shell blues are naturally sweet and salty, and my seasoned breading gave them an extra kick. The Albariño, which offered a mouthwatering spiciness on its own, turned hot on the palate with the Cajun spices, tipping the alcohol out of balance. Likewise, the Sardinian wine’s mineral notes turned a shade metallic chasing the sweet and salty crabmeat. The Friulano's rich baked apple and honey flavors, on the other hand, really shined with the sweet, salty, spicy crab, thanks to a solid structure built on great acidity and a pleasing salinity. Each refreshing sip demanded another mouthwatering bite—or was it the other way around?

Soft-Shell Crabs with Asparagus and Maque Choux

Pair with a crisp Italian white, such as Bastianich Friulano Colli Orientali del Friuli Adriatico 2011 (89 points, $18)

Total time: 30 minutes

Approximate food cost: $25

  • 1 large ear corn, husked and shucked
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1 bunch asparagus spears, washed, bases removed
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup Wondra flour
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 tbsp Cajun seasonings (use a store-bought blend, or make your own with salt, pepper, oregano, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder and onion powder)
  • 2 jumbo soft-shell Atlantic blue crabs, cleaned

1. For the maque choux, combine corn kernels, diced tomato and diced onion in a bowl. Set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 425° F. In a large pan, lay out the asparagus spears and dress lightly with salt, pepper and olive oil. Put the pan in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Set aside when done.

3. While the asparagus spears are cooking, put the vegetable oil in a cast-iron or heavy-bottomed skillet and set to medium heat. Combine the Wondra flour, breadcrumbs and Cajun seasoning in a small bowl. Fill another bowl with milk. Set both bowls near the skillet.

4. If you’re cleaning the crabs yourself, rinse them under cold water and then, with the crab belly-side down, take a sharp knife or scissors and cut off its "face," starting about a quarter-inch behind the eyes. Next, lift up the points of the top shell and remove the fibrous gills on each side. Finally, with the crab shell-side down, cut off the apron, hinged at the bottom of the shell.

5. Dip the cleaned crab in the milk, then coat it lightly in the flour mixture. Drop it into the hot skillet. Cook the crab about three minutes on each side, until crisp and golden brown. Set it on a paper towel to drain. Repeat for second crab.

6. Once the crabs are done, pour out most of the oil from the pan, leaving just a few tablespoons. Add about a splash of the white wine you’ll be serving them with—about a tablespoon—and deglaze the pan by scraping up the solid matter with a spatula or wooden spoon. Add the maque choux mixture and let it cook with the pan juices for 5 to 10 minutes, until the corn kernels and onions are tender. Top the asparagus and crabs with hot maque choux and serve immediately. Serves 2.

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