Soft-shell crabs can be a tough sell

Some need to acquire a taste for delicacy that's now in season

June 16, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Soft-shell crabs are Rick Baxter's livelihood. His family-owned company, Baxter Soft-shell Crabs, on the Eastern Shore, supplies the seasonal delicacy to restaurants in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

It follows that soft-shell crabs would be a family staple.

But even in the Baxter home, soft-shell crabs were an acquired taste. "What my wife did the first time to get our kids to eat them, she cut them up in small pieces, dipped them in tempura mix. She fried them and put a plateful on the table," says Baxter, whose children are 10, 11 and 13.

"In 10 minutes, they were dipping them in ketchup and eating them like french fries," he says. "You don't see the whole crab and it's not looking at you."

The soft-shell season for blue crabs got off to a fat and plentiful start last month. At its peak, "We were doing 4,000 dozen a week, or better," Baxter says of his Easton-based business.

The soft-shell harvest has since slowed down a bit, according to Baxter, and will ebb and flow through September.

While the season lasts, soft-shell devotees will devour as many crabs as possible, sauteed, fried, grilled, topped with imperial, perched on slaw or tucked into kaiser rolls.

Others, though, may recoil at the thought of eating something with spindly legs more reminiscent of a spider than a dinner ingredient.

To avoid lifelong revulsion, introduction to soft-shell crabs should come at an early age. "I think if you get people to eat them when they're young, then they grow up liking them," Baxter says.

"You have to be a person who's adventurous and to want to try different things to begin with," says Dorothy Wockenfuss, a Baltimore native who spent her summers on the Eastern Shore. "As a child, we ate soft crabs. It's natural."

"The claws - they're creepy," says Bill Wockenfuss, who nevertheless also loves soft-shell crabs. He shares his wife's culinary spirit as they roam the United States in their mobile home armed with a copy of Roadfood, by Jane and Michael Stern.

For the chronically squeamish, there may be no hope. There are those, though, who can be led by the hand, if not the claw, to the pleasures of pure, velvety crab meat that isn't trapped in a hard, hot shell.

"We just had a person this past Sunday from Michigan who had never tried them," says Lou Ward, owner of the Bayou Restaurant in Havre de Grace. After ordering a sauteed soft crab, he said, "`I don't like the way this looks,'" Ward says. "So we fried up a sandwich and [he] thought it was great."

Batter and other coatings are the key to disguising soft shells for timid neophytes. "I think without any breading on it, you see the crabs and you see those legs and you kind of get intimidated," Ward says. "Once it's breaded, they look like a french fry almost or a mozzarella stick. That seems to be acceptable to most people."

Soft-shell rejection by customers happens "from time to time," says Buz Porciello, executive sous-chef of O'Leary's Seafood Restaurant in Annapolis. If "they try it and don't like it, they don't have to pay for it. Some people are that way. There's nothing wrong with them. Eating a soft-shell crab is something completely different, like ordering calf's tongue."

Initiating newcomers to soft-shell crabs is "done usually by the people they're with, because it's very difficult to explain a soft-shell crab to someone who has no familiarity with it," says Bo Hardesty, who owns the Narrows Restaurant on Kent Narrows.

Without a persuasive explanation from a trusted friend, those unfamiliar with the life cycle of crabs may have a tough time grasping that they can "eat virtually the entire crab because it's now soft," Hardesty says. "It's kind of like trying to talk somebody into trying eel or frog legs or catfish. They look at how ugly a catfish is and say, `I'm not eating it.' They don't realize it's pure white flesh."

Trying a soft-shell crab for the first time requires taking a "leap of faith," says Hardesty, who serves soft-crab tempura as well as a soft-crab salad with black bean salsa and deep-fried Vidalia onion rings. "Once they do, I've never seen anybody refuse to eat the rest of it."

To ensure that a soft-shell crab is palatable to a beginner, Rick Ziegel, owner of the Peppermill restaurant in Towson, says, "It's best to cook them just a little bit crispy. They taste better."

At the Peppermill, prime-size soft-shell crabs are served two to a sandwich or four on a dinner platter. They also come stuffed with a crab cake, with imperial topping and broiled with butter and lemon.

Ziegel's advice to first-timers: "Just try one that is fresh. Maybe don't look at them, with the legs hanging out and all that. That probably would scare some people. They feel like they're eating a cicada or something," he says.

"To me," Ziegel says, "the legs are the best part to eat. They are a little bit crunchy. I pick at the legs first and then eat the sandwich."

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