One of the fleeting joys of summer is the soft shell crab. They seem to come and go in the marketplace, but when they're around, they're irresistible to a lot of Marylanders. To newcomers, the prospect of cleaning, cooking and eating these crustaceans is, frankly, quite daunting. But once you get the hang of it, it's a breeze...
First of all, soft shell crabs are purchased live...just barely. When you go to a good seafood shop, look closely and make sure the little guys are wiggling around just slightly.
As you're taking them home, you want to keep them cold, and you want to use them right away. So plan your approach accordingly.
If your seafood purveyor hasn't cleaned them, here's what you do. Lift up the top shell and clean out the gills with a sharp paring knife. Then cut off the mouth area, and you're good to go.
The simplest method of cooking soft shells is to pan fry them in butter, or if you have a deep fat fryer, use that.
After cleaning the crabs, dredge them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, dip them in an egg and milk wash, then dredge them in the flour again.
Melt a stick of butter in a frying pan, and heat it until it just starts to bubble. Drop the crabs into the butter, top shell down, and fry for about 3 minutes. Turn them over and fry an additional 2 minutes.
Drain your fried soft shells on paper towels and serve immediately. A little squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of parsley completes the plate.
If you have that deep fat fryer, try this clever little trick. Mix up a batch of tempura batter, and dip your crabs in it. Drape the coated crab over a wooden spoon so that the legs and claws are hanging down. Carefully fry it in the deep fat, and after a couple minutes it will done, and you've got a nifty crab sculpture of sorts.
Put the crab on a plate with the belly side up, and fill in the little leg cage with pickled slaw of julliened strips of carrot, daikon and leeks. It's a great presentation.
Finally, there are tons of different recipes for dipping suaces that complement soft shell crabs.
A remoulade sauce is a piquant partner to soft shells. Chili sauce, mayonnaise, spicy mustard and a few other ingredients combine to amp up the flavor of the crab meat.
You can take an Asian approach and whip up a Ponzu sauce. This calls for lemon and lime juice, rice vinegar, soy sauce and sake. A little hot pepper flakes will provide an extra kick.
Finally a very traditional sauce can be made from melted butter, lemon, and a generous dollop of Old Bay seasoning, all whisked together.