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Guts, Limbs & All

Chef Bill explains why soft-shell crabs are all or nothing

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I just can’t get crabs off my mind. Last week, it was those childhood memories of crab shacks on the Chesapeake Bay. This week, the beautiful sunshine and the fantastic breezes we get off the harbor in downtown Fernandina Beach remind me of my years cooking so many crabs that my subconscious took over. (I suffered recurring nightmares—more on that later!) Perhaps I’m just a glutton, but I’m going to attempt to get my crab obsession out of my system by testifying to y’all several more virtues of the blue crab. In last week’s column, I focused on the boundless joys of hard-shell blue crabs. This week, it’s time to salute soft-shell crabs for the champion crustaceans they are.

Soft-shell crabs are the same species as hard-shell blue crabs. Soft-shell crab is a culinary term for crabs that have recently molted their old exoskeleton and are still soft. For a crab to grow, the creature must shed its cramped exoskeleton. Discarding the old, hard shell is known as molting. The crab naturally sheds its hard shell but has a soft shell underneath. Females molt 18 to 20 times to reach their final molt; males molt 21 to 23 times.

Crabs are closely monitored in their plush crabby home waters. When they begin to molt, they’re quickly harvested. Once removed from the natural brackish water environment, the shells will no longer continue to harden. The crabbers then pack these delicate little jewels into cardboard boxes lined with newspaper—not very high-tech, but kinda fun. I used to enjoy reading the newspaper articles to catch up on the news from whichever Eastern Shore town the crabs originated. Once caught, the crabs are rushed off to chefs up and down the East Coast.

When I was a young cook in the D.C. area, soft-shell crabs and shad roe were the true harbingers of spring. Never mind those fancy-shmancy fiddle-head ferns, English peas and fava beans—the soft, luscious crab-treasures from the bay were worshipped and cherished throughout the spring and early summer months. In fact, I used to go through dozens upon dozens of these creatures preparing them for service for my guests. Before I could create scrumptious specials, I had to clean the crabs in a particularly intricate manner. First, I would lift up the side flaps and use scissors to cut out their gills. Fun, right? Next, using the scissors, I cut the faces off to make them ready to cook! (Particularly the eyes, so they can’t watch you as you broil, fry or sauté them.) My nightmares include meeting eyeless, faceless crabs who condemn me to hell. Try not to worry about them peeking at you while you serve pan-fried crabs on a bed of succotash.

 

CHEF BILL’S SUCCOTASH

Ingredients

• 1 cup green beans, trimmed, cut on the diagonal in 1-inch pieces

• 1 garlic clove, minced

• 1 cup scallions, white & light green parts, sliced

• 1 zucchini, small dice

• 1 red pepper, skinned, seeded, small dice

• 1-1/2 cup corn kernels

• 3/4 cup corn stock

• 1/2 cup chopped herbs

• EVO

• Salt & pepper to taste

 

Directions

• Blanch and shock the beans

• Heat EVO, sauté corn, zucchini, garlic, red pepper, scallions

• Add corn stock, S&P and reduce

• Remove from heat, add herbs

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