By Pat Branning | As mid to late March rolls around each spring in and around Beaufort, it’s time to ditch those crab claw crackers and just dig in. Could there by any more highly anticipated treat in the South than soft shell crabs?
I don’t think so, for these are our culinary darlings and harbingers of springtime.
Beginning each spring, blue crabs start shedding their shells so they can grow, rendering them fully edible, spindly legs and all. It’s virtually impossible to find them at any time of the year except their designated season. Come late spring down the East Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico, a mass exodus of blue crabs surfaces from hibernation beneath the ocean floor. They soon molt, exchanging their hard shells temporarily for a thin skin that’s fully edible, and rich in flavor.
Shortly after molting, the crabs bury themselves in mud or hide in eelgrass, so crabbers harvest them beforehand and place them in holding tanks according to their expected shed dates. Crabbers drop their pots into the water, pull them out a few days later, and bring the ‘jimmys’ back to the dock. Here, the crabs are transferred to shallow slough trays, which are constantly irrigated with seawater. Every four hours, the crabs are closely inspected; any molting ones – called ‘Busters’- are removed and taken to market. These are delicacies often sauteed or fried in a light tempura.
My romance with soft shells began with the very first bite – sweet, salty, crunchy, tender, and intoxicating. It was an entire eating experience in one mouthful.
All too often, soft shell crabs are over-battered and over-fried. At that point the crunch comes entirely from the fried batter, and the delicate flavor is lost amid the flour and oil. My favorite mode of preparation and by far the easiest is to grill or saute the little guys.
Using a large skillet, use a butter and oil combination until you have 1/4 inch covering the bottom of the pan. Beat an egg and 1 cup whole milk in a bowl. Salt and pepper the soft shells. Dip the crabs into egg mixture, then dredge the crabs in flour. Shake off any excess and saute once the oil is hot. When the bottoms are nicely browned, 3 to 5 minutes, turn, and brown the other side. Drain on paper towels. If you prefer, use a combination of flour and cornmeal for dredging. Serve with lemon wedges.
Heat the grill untl moderately hot. Place the rack about 4 inches from the heat source. Grill crabs for several minutes per side, basting occasionally with melted butter spiked with a little Tabasco and garlic. Finish with lemon juice and freshly chopped herbs.
‘Ol Softies Sauteed
4 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 teaspoons capers
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Have crabs cleaned and prepped at the fish market. Place the buttermilk in a shallow bowl large enough to hold all 4 crabs in a single layer. Place the crabs in the buttermilk and let them soak for at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours in the refrigerator. Soaking helps plump them up when cooked.
Remove from buttermilk and wash under running water. Pat dry with paper towels.
Sprinkle each crab with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Use a shallow bowl for the flour. Dredge each crab in flour, being careful to coat all sides. Shake off any excess flour.
Melt the butter. Add the oil and raise the temperature to medium-high. Once the butter is hot, add crabs, top sides down, being careful not to crowd the pan. Cook 3 minutes. Add more butter and oil if needed. Turn crabs over and cook an additional 2 minutes. Crabs will have a nice crunch and be a beautiful golden brown.
Add the lemon juice and capers, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately. Serves 4.
Slap a sauteed soft- shell between two slices of white bread. Add a dash or two of hot sauce, some tartar sauce, if you like it, and you’ve got what some folks refer to as a “spider sandwich.”
Pat Branning is the local author of the best selling book, “Shrimp, Collards and Grits,” recipes, stories, art and history from the creeks and gardens of the Lowcountry. For more information, visit https://www.shrimpcollardsgrits.com