The marketeers and commercial vendors have cleaned up our food so much that I think that soft shell crab must be about as adventurous an eat as anyone can have today. I can’t wait for their early spring arrival (along with that other harbinger, shad roe) and once they hit the market, we have them at least once a week – marveling at the remarkable fluctuation in price every time we hit Citarella or Wild Edibles.
They are also part of the spring family get-together cook-a-thon at Mickey’s (my eldest son) house. His wife, Laurel, and his children are squeamish about them and not only refuse to eat them but leave the kitchen (giving them a quick sear in clarified butter) or the deck (using the grill) when I prepare them. The rest of us wrap them in soft white bread and spoon on left-over salsa, warm butter and lemon juice, or whatever vinaigrette is hanging around. Yummy!
You don’t really need a recipe to cook soft shell crab – the simpler they are cooked and served, the better. For each person, you need 2 (if large) or 3 (if small) cleaned, rinsed soft shells. Pat them dry before cooking. For the stove top you need a very hot pan and a slick of clarified butter or grapeseed (or other non-threatening) oil (depending on whether you want the addition of the butter flavor or you want no additional flavor detracting from the sweet meat). Lightly coat both sides of each crab with Wondra flour and season with salt and pepper. A word of warning, when placing the crab into the hot pan, lay them in from front to back (that is, holding a crab in your fingertips place the side nearest you into the pan first) and gently lower the crab into the oil; otherwise the residual moisture in the crab will splatter back at you when it hits the hot pan and can cause a nasty burn. Using this method, it will still splatter but usually more toward the back of the pan. Cook for 3 minutes; then, turn and cook the remaining side for 2 minutes. Transfer to a double layer of paper towel to drain. If desired, you can add about ¼ cup of unsalted butter to the pan and place over high heat. When the butter begins to foam, begin shaking the pan back and forth allowing the butter to turn a lovely brown without burning. When brown, stir in ¼ cup of fresh lemon juice, a teaspoon of lemon zest, and a tablespoon of minced parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Place the crabs on a serving platter and spoon the lemon-butter over the top.
If you are grilling them you need to do nothing more than rinse and pat dry. Place directly over a hot fire and grill for the same amount of time required for stovetop cooking. I like to place lemon halves on the grill with the crab and then squeeze the hot lemon juice over the crab once cooked.