Soft-shell crabs: time to enjoy best of bay's bounty

May 31, 2006|By ROB KASPER

The days were longer, the breezes were warmer and a couple of soft crabs were sizzling in my skillet. Life was looking good.

Around Memorial Day, some eaters get a hankering for hard crabs. Not this boy. I go for the soft stuff, the rich, delectable flavor of soft-shell crabs.

Blue crabs shed their shells all summer long. But in the spring, when the Chesapeake Bay waters warm, the moon is full and the locust trees bloom, large numbers slip out of their old hard shells.

Chesapeake Bay watermen like Tony Rippons of TNT Crab Co. on Hooper Island, on the Eastern Shore, scoop up crabs that are showing signs of shedding their shells. They keep them in crab floats for the shedding process, then send them to market.

Soft crabs are, in my opinion, the best-tasting critters that swim in the Chesapeake Bay. But they are not for the squeamish. They are often alive, if not too frisky, when you buy them. On a recent Saturday afternoon as Mark Devine pulled some "softs" out of the walk-in refrigerator at Faidley's Seafood in Baltimore's Lexington Market, I could see that their mouths were still moving. These were "whales," the name traditionally given for the largest of soft crabs with their soft shells measuring, according to the Web site, 5 1/2 inches or more.

The next size down would be "jumbos," measuring 5 to 5 1/2 inches, then "primes," measuring 4 1/2 inches to 5, "hotels," spanning 4 to 4 1/2 inches, and "mediums," 3 1/2 to 4 inches.

I went for a couple of "whales" because I like my soft crabs big and plump. Prices rise and fall with supply and demand, but these whales on this day were selling for $6.50 each.

Next came the step known as "cleaning the soft crabs." This is a polite way of saying you dispatch the crabs and snip off various parts of their bodies.

I was born in Dodge City, Kan., but now think of myself as a local. In the 29 years I have lived in the state, I have caught and steamed my own crabs, I have reeled in and cleaned big rockfish and I have pried open oysters. But the single transforming action - the step that changed me, in my mind, from a "come-here" to a "Marylander" - has been cleaning soft crabs.

Once you have held live soft crabs in your hands, cut off their eyes and mouths, removed their "sand bag" stomachs, snipped off their "aprons," which look like the Washington Monument on males and a perfect triangle on females, and snipped off their spongy gills, you are not a Kansan anymore.

I don't relish this cleaning task and am not especially fast at it. When a merchant offers to clean soft crabs for me, as Devine, a co-owner of Faidley's, did the other day, I accept. Using a sharp knife and years of experience, Devine quickly had the softs ready for my skillet.

At home I sat out in the backyard on a gorgeous afternoon, watched puffy cumulus clouds ride across a cerulean sky and paged through cookbooks considering various ways to cook the soft crabs for supper.

One tome suggested putting them on a grill, another recommended cooking them in a wok and another called for serving them with a hoisin sauce. I told myself that I might try these approaches later in the summer. But now, for my first softs of the season, I wanted them lightly battered and fried.

I found a recipe in Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields that promised this treatment. Shields is a legitimate local. He grew up in Baltimore, runs a restaurant, Gertrude's, named after his grandmother, and has a coastal cooking series on public television. Moreover, this recipe had an added touch, slathering the crabs in Dijon mustard, that appealed to me.

Soft crabs and mustard are a magnificent marriage. Mark Henry, another homeboy who is the chef at the Oregon Grille restaurant, makes soft crabs with a whole-grain mustard sauce that makes me melt. I coated the bodies of two "whales" with Dijon mustard and let them sit in the fridge for a little over an hour. Then I dredged the mustard-covered crabs in seasoned flour, egg and bread crumbs. I cooked them in clarified butter for about three minutes on each side.

Topped with a garlicky lemon-butter sauce, and served with a salad of homegrown lettuce, these soft crabs were moist, slightly pungent and simply magnificent.

Rippons, the waterman, told me later that these crabs had come from the waters near Hooper Island. They were Maryland-bred; I was Maryland-fed and grateful to be living so close to soft crabs.

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at

Soft Shells With Mustard

Serves 4

8 prime soft-shell crabs, cleaned

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

3/4 cup all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper to taste

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup fine bread crumbs

1/2 cup clarified butter or olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon minced garlic

8 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Coat both sides of crabs with mustard and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Lightly dust the crabs with seasoned flour, shaking off excess. Dip them in eggs and then roll them in bread crumbs. Heat the clarified butter or oil in a saute pan. Add the crabs and cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to paper towels to drain and keep warm.

Discard the fat from the pan and return it to medium heat. Add the lemon juice and deglaze the pan, scraping up all the browned bits. Add the garlic and reduce the heat to low. Whisk in the butter, bit by bit. Stir in the parsley. Spoon the sauce over the crabs and serve hot.

From "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields," by John Shields

Per serving: 802 calories, 50 grams protein, 52 grams fat, 30 grams saturated fat, 29 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 471 milligrams cholesterol, 1,339 milligrams sodium

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