All set to savor soft crabs from bay

June 02, 1999|By Rob Kasper

AROUND Memorial Day I got a hankering to eat soft crabs. I also got an urge to enjoy some hard crabs, but that feeling quickly died when I saw the sky-high prices that a bushel of crabs was bringing early in the season.

Moreover, when I checked with a few longtime Mary-landers, they told me what I wanted to hear. Namely that few natives eat hard crabs -- which are likely to be shipped in from Texas or Louisiana -- on Memorial Day. Instead they prefer to dine on soft crabs fresh from the Chesapeake Bay.

I called my sources on the Eastern Shore for a report on the recent sightings of my favorite springtime supper, soft crabs.

Down in Crisfield, Carol Haltaman, president of Handy Seafood, told me there was good news and bad news on the soft-crab front. The good news was that the first big slough of the season, when the crabs shed their winter shells, had occurred in mid-May. This meant the warm-weather cycle of crab life -- when crabs emerge from their winter doldrums to eat, mate and frolic in the Chesapeake Bay -- had started.

The bad news was that a nor'easter -- a storm blow-ing in from the northeast -- had arrived on the scene at the same time as the crabs had started shedding their shells. The rough weather prevented watermen from scooping up great numbers of the soft crabs, she said. Crabs will continue to grow and shed their shells throughout the warm weather. So now watermen near Crisfield were waiting for the second "run," or shell-shedding session, an event that should occur in early June, Haltaman said.

When I spoke with C. J. Tolley who operates Meredith & Meredith, a seafood packinghouse in Dorchester County, he told me he had already enjoyed his first soft-crabs feast of the season. His description of a recent Sunday supper made my mouth water.

He told of how 11 adults had gathered around a mound of freshly fried soft crabs. The crabs had been scooped from local waters, cleaned -- their gills, apron, face and "sand bag" are snipped off -- then dipped in seasoned flour and fried in olive oil. The crabs were stacked four or five high in a serving dish, he said, adding that there was plenty of iced tea, with sugar, to go around. "There is not much more," Tolley said of the meal, "that a body could want."

Noting that some folks like to cook soft crabs on the barbecue grill, Tolley said he preferred the traditional time-honored Eastern Shore approach of frying soft crabs. "Or as he put it, "It is hard to beat the old skillet."

I agreed. Since then, I have been keeping my eye on local seafood markets, waiting for word that the soft crabs from the Chesapeake have arrived. As soon as I get them, I am going to give them the following treatment:

Fried Soft Shells

Serves 4

8 prime soft-shell crabs, cleaned

all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne

vegetable shortening for frying

Give the crabs a good dose of seasoned flour. Melt the shortening in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet to a depth of about 1 inch, then get it good and hot. Fry the crabs until golden brown, about 3 minutes on each side. Remove with tongs or slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.

-- From "Chesapeake Bay Cooking" by John Shields (Broadway Books, 1998)

Pub Date: 06/02/99

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