When it comes to soft shells, timing is everything

By on June 30, 2011

If someone were to ask me what my favorite season is, I might have to answer soft shell crab season. After living on the Outer Banks, I’ve come to relish these little spiders of the sea. The fact that there’s only a small window of opportunity to take advantage of these crustaceans only adds to their allure.

All crabs shed their shells to grow, but only a few species can be eaten in the soft shell state, and the blue crab is the only commercially available soft shell product.

During its lifetime, the blue crab goes through several growth stages. The blue crab may shed its hard outer shell 18 to 23 times during its three-year lifespan. Each time the crab molts, it’s a soft shell for only a few hours and must be removed from the water immediately in order to prevent the shell from hardening.

Crabbers look for a faint line next to the backfin. The color of this line determines when the crab is ready to shed. When there’s a white line on the backfin, the crabbers refer to the crab as a “green” crab, which will most likely shed within seven to 10 days. A pink line indicates the crab is likely to shed within two to seven days. A red line means shedding is imminent.

Crabbers separate the crabs according to their progress in the molting process. When the crab molts, it’s very vulnerable and must be removed from the water. They should be kept alive until immediately before cooking, so usually, crabs must be eaten within four days of shedding.

The soft shell season generally lasts from May to early July. General folklore says the soft shell season traditionally begins with the first full moon in May, but water temperatures and conditions really determine when the crabs start the molting process. At that time, the crab begins to shed to accommodate its summer growth, usually about a 30 percent growth spurt. The actual shedding can take anywhere from one to three hours. The crabs need to be monitored around the clock.

Say you come home from the seafood market with soft shells. What do you do with them? How do you clean them? How do you cook them? Well, that’s why you have Rosie.

Please watch as Mr. Hawthorne demonstrates how to clean soft shell crabs.

To dress or clean a crab, you first cut off the mouth and face behind the eyes, then cut off the apron. Next peel back the soft shell and snip the gills out on each side. Most people stop at this point. We don’t. Cut halfway through the middle of the shell and scrape out the yellow gunk, also known as the “green gland,” or “mustard,” or “tomalley.”

Contrary to popular belief, this is not fat. It’s actually a main component of the crab’s digestive system – the hepatopancreas – which acts as both liver and pancreas. It serves to produce digestive enzymes and is also responsible for filtering impurities from the crab’s blood.

Research has shown that colorless, odorless, and tasteless chemical contaminants such as PCBs, dioxin, and mercury accumulate in the fatty tissues and concentrate in the hepatopancreas. I don’t want to eat this. Many people consider this mustard a delicacy. I do not. It has a strong, bitter, and unpleasant taste, to me.

Now that you’ve cleaned your crabs, you’re ready to fry. We set up a three-stage frying station. First, flour is seasoned with freshly ground salt and pepper and Old Bay seasoning. Next, an egg bath — 2 eggs beaten with 2 TB water. And last, equal amounts of all-purpose flour and semolina flour seasoned with Cajun seasoning.

Using a heavy-duty deep frying pan, heat your oil to 350 degrees. Dredge the crabs through the first flour mixture, then the eggs, then the last semolina mixture. Drop carefully into the hot oil – soft shells can spit hot oil. Whenever frying, never crowd the pan. Crowding lowers the temperature of the oil and your fried product will be greasy and not crispy. Fry about 2 ½ – 3 minutes, until the crabs are a nice golden brown. Drain on newspapers or paper towels.

For step by step instructions, please refer to Rosie’s soft shell post.
Serve with your favorite coleslaw and Rosie’s Remoulade and Tartar Sauces.

Rosie’s Remoulade
1 cup mayo
2 TB finely chopped onion
1 TB finely chopped celery
2 small garlic cloves, minced
Heaping tsp capers, minced
2 TB white vinegar
2 TB coarse ground mustard
4 grinds sea salt
10 grinds pepper
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp cumin
And my secret ingredient- fresh, green coriander seeds- about 2 dozen.

Coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant and I have it growing in my yard. My cilantro is getting ready to seed now and I love the flavor of these fresh verdant seeds. First you get a slight hint of cilantro, then you get a happy burst of citrus flavor. If you don’t have fresh coriander seeds, you could substitute with dried ground coriander, but you won’t get that cilantro/citrusy/pop/thing going on.

Rosie’s Tartar Sauce
1 cup mayo
1 TB white or cider vinegar
2 TB dill pickles, minced
2 TB sweet relish
2 TB fresh dill, minced

Now I’m going to introduce you to a family favorite – Rosie’s Corn Bean Tortilla pie. Lucky you for getting this recipe in time for the Fourth of July. In case you need to bring a dish to a picnic or party, this one is The Ultimate Sure-To-Please Dish to bring. I promise. Every time I take this to a neighborhood block party (And I do, every Labor Day Pig Pickin’.), it’s always the first dish to be eaten. People remember it. And expect it the next year.
Caveat gourmand.

Rosie’s Corn Bean Tortilla Pie
1 can corn, drained
1 cup dried black beans, cooked
2 heaping cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
2 heaping cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 heaping cups grated Mozzarella cheese
½ cup grated red onion
2 TB each chopped red, orange, yellow, and green peppers
Jalapenos, sliced
Black olives, sliced
Scallions, sliced

3 TB melted butter
Cumin
Cayenne
Cilantro

Stack of tortillas

As for the black beans, do NOT use canned beans. If you do, you must rinse them off in fire-hose strength spray to get the slime off and there still remains that metallic patina, lingering like an oil spill.

What I do is rinse my dried black beans. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Throw in the beans. Cook, uncovered, at a simmer for 20 minutes. Rinse and drain the beans. Refresh the pot of water. Bring to a boil and put the beans back in to simmer until al denté, about 15 more minutes.

Assemble all ingredients:
Take a tortilla. Sprinkle on cheese. Add some of the corn and bean mixture evenly. Add more cheese, being sure to build up the edges with extra cheese. This is so the next tortilla will lie flat. If you don’t build up the edges, the tortilla cake will end up dome-shaped after cooking. Top this layer with another tortilla. And keep layering, ending up with a tortilla layer, until you run out of ingredients. Almost. Save some for toppings.
Melt the butter. Brush the edges and top of the tortilla pie with the butter and toss on some cumin and cayenne on the sides in all the nooks and crannies.
Top with scallions, olives, jalapenos, corn and bean mixture, and cheeses. Bake at 350 degrees about 45 minutes. Check on it after 30 minutes. You may need to tent it for the last few minutes. After removing from oven, let sit for 10 minutes before slicing.

Serve with homemade salsa and your homemade crème fraiche. If you’ve never made your own crème fraiche, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Crème Fraiche
1 cup heavy cream
1 TB buttermilk
1 TB lime or lemon juice
Combine ingredients. Cover and let sit at room temperature overnight. The next day, stir and refrigerate. Use as you would sour cream.

For the step by steps, please check out Rosie’s Corn Bean Tortilla post.

Bon appétit, indeed!

As always, please visit with Rosie at Kitchens Are Monkey Business.

GO TO HOME PAGE »


Recent posts in this category

Recent posts in this category

Comments are closed.