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Soft-Shell Crabs

Imports make this once-seasonal pleasure available year-round

Sam Gugino
Posted: May 14, 2003

The soft-shell "Firecracker" at Koi in Los Angeles is rubbed with garlic and jalapeño puree.
  How to Get It  
  Other Sam Gugino "Tastes" columns  

Warmer weather not only brings an abundance of hard-shell blue crabs but signals the season when these crabs lose those shells and, for a very short time, become soft-shell crabs. With soft shells, you don't have the tedious (and messy) work of picking through shell and cartilage to get to the meat. You just eat the whole darned thing. These attributes make the market for soft shells anything but soft.

"It has exploded out here in L.A., especially with Japanese cuisine. Chefs are being more creative [with soft shells]," says Rodelio Aglibot, chef of L.A.'s Koi restaurant, where his signature dish is the Firecracker, in which the crab is rubbed with a puree of garlic and jalapeño, then sprinkled with chopped scallions and wrapped in a wonton skin. The crab is deep fried and served with a sauce of chile paste, sesame oil and butter.

"We sell a lot of soft-shell crabs. People are more familiar with them than they used to be," says John Malocsay, chef and co-owner of Bentley's restaurant in Islamorada, Fla. At Bentley's the most popular soft-shell presentation is called the Outta Hand. It's a fried crab on a bed of sautéed mushrooms, scallions, spinach, cashews, shrimp and scallops, topped with a lemon, caper butter sauce.

The blue crab, or blue claw crab, can be found all along the eastern coast of the United States and along the Gulf Coast. At the end of April, the crabs emerge from hibernation and begin to grow. In order to grow, each crab must molt, or shed its shell, a process that may occur as many as 23 times during the crab's typically three-year life span. But the window from soft to hard is only four hours. Crab fishermen, called watermen, catch crabs in pots and look for signs of molting. Crabs near molting are brought to shore and placed in pens. The pens are checked every three hours. Molting crabs are removed and sold as soft-shell crabs. The problem for soft-shell crab lovers is that the season ends in September. Or, rather, that used to be the problem.

In the past few years, and especially within the past year, companies such as John T. Handy Co. of Crisfield, Md., have been importing soft-shell crabs from India, Thailand and Myanmar. "Asia has a year-round supply of the mangrove crab, which is almost indistinguishable from the blue crab. In fact, tasters often choose the mangrove over the blue crab," says Handy owner Terry Conway.

The mangrove crab is named for the mangrove forests; the shallow waters of these forests are one of the habitats of the crab. So are sheltered estuaries, mudflats and tidal areas of some rivers from South Africa to Australia and north as far as Japan. Since mangrove crabs live in warm waters, they don't hibernate and thus molt (and are sold) all year long.

Because the mangrove crab likes to burrow into soft, muddy areas, some seafood professionals such as Bill Holler, director of seafood operations at Legal Sea Foods, a Boston-based chain of seafood restaurants and retail stores, think the mangrove has a "muddier flavor" that puts their quality "a notch below" blue crabs'. However, Aglibot prefers frozen Asian soft-shell crabs to frozen domestic ones. (Because of their high perishability, Asian soft shells are always sold frozen.) "I think the Asian crabs are more naturally flavorful. They seem to have more salt content, so they don't need to be seasoned as much as the frozen domestic ones," he says.

"Asian crabs are nice and plump, and I find the meat sweeter than the blue crab," Malocsay says. In fact, Malocsay thinks frozen soft shells, Asian or domestic, can be as good as fresh: "It depends on who you buy them from. If they are properly frozen, you can't tell the difference." Aglibot disagrees. "Fresh soft shells have a sweeter flavor and a crisper texture," says Aglibot, though he acknowledges that proper freezing can narrow the difference.

One distinct advantage of the frozen Asian soft shells is that they are less expensive. In addition, as increased quantities have appeared in U.S. markets, they have depressed prices for fresh soft shells. According to Nelda DiLauro, sales director at Handy, the wholesale price for frozen jumbo Asian soft shells last season was $16 a dozen, while for fresh jumbo soft shells it was $32. The year before, prices were, respectively, $22 and $35 a dozen.

In February, with no fresh soft shells in sight, I tested frozen domestic and Asian soft shells. The brownish cast to the Asian crab made it a bit less attractive than the orangy domestic crab, but that difference faded when the crabs were cooked. After dusting with flour seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne, I sautéed both in butter and olive oil. The crabs were comparable in taste, though I found the domestic meatier and firmer.

Sizes of soft-shell crabs range from whales, the largest, to mediums, the smallest, with jumbos, primes and hotels in between. Generally one whale or two smaller crabs is enough for a serving. John Shields, owner of Gertrude's restaurant in Baltimore, suggests keeping home preparations of soft shells simple so that you "don't mess up the flavor much."

The most common way to cook soft shells is to sauté them in butter and oil or in clarified butter (whole butter usually burns). First, dust the crabs with flour seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne or maybe some Old Bay seasoning mix. Then sauté them for about three minutes on each side, a little longer for whales. Remove the crabs and deglaze the pan with any number of liquids, such as white wine, lemon juice or clam juice. (Shields uses Bourbon for one preparation that includes pecans.) Other additions include capers, minced shallots, parsley or perhaps some fresh tarragon. If you insist on getting fancier, after sautéing the crab, make an Asian black bean sauce with fermented black beans (soaked in Sherry), ginger, chile peppers, bottled clam juice and soy sauce.

Though it's far less common, soft shells can be grilled. Liberally brush them with a combination of oil, butter and lemon juice seasoned with salt and black pepper and a dash of hot pepper sauce. Cook them over moderate heat six to 10 minutes, brushing them with the sauce and turning them frequently until the shells are crisp and bright red.

Deep-frying is another popular option. Here crabs are dusted with flour then dipped in beaten eggs and coated with bread crumbs, or chopped nuts (especially pecans and almonds). Cook in a half-inch-deep layer of hot, but not smoking, oil for about three minutes on each side. Whether sautéed, grilled or deep-fried, soft shells are always candidates for sandwiches, perhaps slathered with mayonnaise and layered with crisp lettuce.

I tried nine different wines with the crabs. My two favorites were a kabinett Riesling from Germany's Mittelrhein and a premier cru Chablis. I also liked a Pinot Blanc and a Sauvignon Blanc from California, and a Portuguese Vinho Verde (which means a Spanish Albari—o would probably do nicely as well). Whatever wine you choose, keep the acidity high and the oak low. As Karen MacNeil writes in her Wine Bible, "It's hard to taste the ocean if all you can smell is the lumberyard.

How to Get It

Any good fishmonger will have fresh soft shells in season. Live crabs should be used within two to three days. But crabs don't have to be alive. If they have no off odors (such as ammonia) and the bodies are firm, they are probably fine. Handy sells dead soft shells that are cleaned and chilled to just above freezing. They can be kept up to five days in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Below are mail-order sources for frozen soft shells.

John T. Handy Co.
Crisfield, Md.
(212) 234-3883; (800) 426-3977; www.handycrab.com

Lafayette, La.
(888) 272-9347; www.cajungrocer.com

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