Softshell crab season in the Lowcountry equals some real good eatin’!

softshell crab

If you have read my blog here at southbyse.com or the blog I write for the Hilton Head Island V&CB, you know I love blue crab. I like to catch blue crab and I like to eat blue crab. This time of the year is especially great because it is the three to four-week local softshell crab season. Blue crabs molt throughout the year but this time of year many are molting at once. The in-between time of losing their hard outer shell and growing a new one they are, well, soft and yes, you can eat the whole dang crab (well pretty much most of it). It is interesting to note that crabs will mate only when the mature female crab has just molted and is still a soft or buckram crab.

Since we live in an area where blue crabs are abundant we can buy softshell crabs fresh – they are in fact, still alive. We are so lucky here in the Lowcountry to have access to such fresh crab, as most Americans who go to the trouble and expense of purchasing and preparing softshell crabs at home will have to settle for frozen. Not to belittle this, as I have had frozen softshell crabs and they can be quite delish, but fresh is a true delicacy.

Have the seafood market clean your crabs for you – they know just what to do. If you happen to catch your own or have live softshell crabs given to you, I suggest you use the great cleaning instructions found in the New Basics Cookbook (by Rosso & Lukins) or you can follow the instructions on the food blog called Coconut & Lime.

Be prepared to cook your fresh, softshell crabs the day you purchase them, as they do not keep unless they are cleaned and frozen. I have a very definite idea of how to cook fresh softshell crabs (of course I do!) and I’m passing this along to you now. Do not ruin your crabs with some kind of fancy batter or Heaven-forbid, a deep fryer (!) These are not onion rings…

Simple is best with fresh softshell crabs. My favorite recipe is based on the one found in the The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook (also by Rosso & Lukins) and while it does include some herbs in the soaking mixture, you could leave those out without losing any appeal. You must use real butter (Ghee is great because it is already clarified) and real lemon. Soaking the crabs in the milk makes them plump and this is especially important if using previously frozen crabs. Add a light coating of seasoned flour and a hot pan, and you will have a seafood dinner that contends with the best restaurant in town!

Fresh, live and local! Softshell crabs at my favorite local seafood market, the Sea Eagle.

Fresh, live and local! Softshell crabs at my favorite local seafood market, the Sea Eagle.

Here are my crabs waiting for their milk bath.

Here are my crabs waiting for their milk bath.

Mix the milk and herbs together before...

Mix the milk and herbs together before…

getting their soak on! I like Herbs De Provence - its just so fresh, pairs well with the crab.

getting their soak on! I like Herbs De Provence – its just so fresh, pairs well with the crab.

After a good soak, roll the crabs in the seasoned flour and have your butter-laced pan very hot.

After a good soak, roll the crabs in the seasoned flour and have your butter-laced pan very hot.

I like to use Ghee or clarified butter because it has a higher smoke point than regular butter - makes sauteing the crabs to a delicate crunch - without burning - easy peasy!

I like to use Ghee or clarified butter because it has a higher smoke point than regular butter – makes sauteing the crabs to a delicate crunch – without burning – easy peasy!

Here the crabs have been turned over and cooked through, Crispy but you can still tell they are crab, not a bunch of fried goo!

Here the crabs have been turned over and cooked through, Crispy but you can still tell they are crab, not a bunch of fried goo!

I like to pour the fresh lemon juice over the crabs while they are still in the pan. Then remove the crabs to a warm plate and add the rest of the butter back to the pan. Stir and pour everything in the pan over crabs. Perfection!

I like to pour the fresh lemon juice over the crabs while they are still in the pan. Then remove the crabs to a warm plate and add the rest of the butter back to the pan. Stir and pour everything in the pan over crabs. Perfection!

 

Another shot of this beautiful entree. I served the crab with garlic smashed potatoes and a saute of Vidalia onion, zucchini and baby portobello mushrooms.

Another shot of this beautiful entree. I served the crab with garlic smashed potatoes and a saute of Vidalia onion, zucchini and baby portobello mushrooms.

 

Softshell Crabs “Sterling”

Technique based on a recipe in the Silver Palate Good Times cookbook.

  • 1 cup milk (no less than 2%)
  • 2 tsp dried tarragon
  • 1 tsp Herbs de Provence
  • 4 fresh soft-shelled crabs*, cleaned
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 1/3 cup + Ghee (clarified butter) OR ½ cup unsalted butter
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Fresh parsley, washed, dried and minced

Place crabs in one layer in a shallow dish. Combine herbs and milk and pour this mixture over the crabs. Cover the crabs with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Allow the crabs to soak in the milk mixture about 1 hour.

Drain the crabs and discard the milk. Season the flour with salt and pepper and dredge each crab in the seasoned flour. In a large sauté pan (the pan should be large enough to cook all 4 crabs at once) over medium heat melt all but 2 tablespoons of the Ghee (or all but about 3 tablespoons of regular butter). Bring up heat to high and add the crabs. Cook 4 to 5 minutes per side.

Top the crabs with the fresh lemon juice. Remove crabs to a warm platter. Melt rest of butter in the sauté pan and stir. Pour this over the cooked crabs and sprinkle them with the parsley. Serve at once.

Serves 2 crabs per person as an entree or 1 each, as a first course. Doubling the recipe is fine as long as you only sauté 4 crabs (at the most) in the pan at one time. * You can use frozen crabs but allow to soak in the milk mixture at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours.

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Welcome Back, Mr. Crab!

Summer has arrived here in South Carolina in all its humid glory. While I am not too keen on 60%+ humidity, the warm tropical temps do have at least one very positive effect – male blue crabs are getting plumper as they fill up the local saltwater marshes. Catching blue crabs by hand off the dock is a summer pastime I learned on weekend jaunts to my aunt’s beach house in Garden City, SC.

That beach house saw a lot in its time, many fish stories told, re-enacted and perpetuated by members of my family. Everyone I know has at least one to tell, even if it they weren’t witness to the actual fish-story generating event.

Blue crabs, sure they’re interesting looking but they are fun to catch and delicious to eat. Watch out for the pinchers!

My personal favorite involves a 30-gallon trash can full of shrimp and some wily blue crabs caught by my Dad, uncle and older cousins in a large seine net in the creeks around our beach house. I’ll never forget almost losing my finger to one of those testy crabs when I reached into the shrimp container and then made the belated realization that I had made a very poor choice! Instantaneously, I felt panic and pain as that voracious blue caught hold of my finger. My ensuing scream heard ‘round Garden City Beach’ was followed by howls of laughter from my brother as I flung the crab across the dock where it landed squarely at my Mother’s feet. I’ll admit that it took a couple of summers to participate in catching blues again following the “crab incident”. However, these days I do take great pleasure (revenge?) in every crab crack, crab cake and crab casserole set in front of me.

Now I know you may think, 30-gallon trash cans full of shrimp and crabs? We need a fact check here. But yes, the waters along the entire coast of South Carolina are brimming with blue crabs, shrimp, oysters and flounder for the taking. Back in the day (the ‘70’s in my case) all you needed was a permit, the right equipment and some local insider knowledge to catch the limit. Today, while you may not be up for pulling a net through 3 feet of pluff mud or setting crab pots you can visit your own local seafood market. Look for a product that was caught as close to your own town/state/area of the country as possible. I was recently informed that there are no commercial crab packing facilities in SC any longer – although there are plenty of commercial “crab men” – the picking and packing is done in NC. So you may have to ask where the crab was caught, but do ask, as any good seafood market would be happy to oblige. (If they do not, I would propose buying from a different source.)

Here’s my standby recipe for crab cakes. No real secrets involved, however, I will suggest using your own freshly made breadcrumbs as well as fresh lemon juice and parsley. Here I topped them with a cold lemon dill sauce – recipe below. You can even freeze them for up to a week, so it’s a delectable, do-ahead appetizer for a party. Just freeze them on a lined cookie sheet and transfer to a large bag or plastic container (with a good sealing lid) after they harden and freeze. Easy, peasy!

Fresh blue crab, picked out by ‘moi’ just a couple of hours earlier. Less than 24 hours before this picture was taken these crabs were footloose and fancy free in a nearby marsh, now they are dinner. There is some work involved but not as much sacrifice as those ‘blues’…so thanks to them we get to eat crab cakes tonight. Hurray!

All the ingredients, sort of… you will actually need some more bread crumbs as well as the ingredients for the lemon dill sauce (lemon, mayo & dill).

I know this is a boring image but you have to start somewhere…whisk the eggs first in the one bowl you need for making these crab cakes. Then…

add all the other ingredients except the butter. Mix together and chill. I only used a 1/2 teaspoon of hot sauce as we needed ‘family-friendly’ crab cakes but feel free to add more if you like spicy.

Here is the crab cake ‘batter’. Cover and chill for at least an hour.

Coat each crab cake in fine bread crumbs. I only use fresh bread crumbs that I make in my mini food processor, never canned breadcrumbs. Go light on the bread crumbs.

Here they are, ready for the big chill. If you want you can freeze them at this point on the baking sheet. When frozen solid remove to an airtight bay or container.

After they chill, bake in a preheated 400 degree oven. Flip them over once and bake another few minutes (exactly depends on the size). I baked these 8 minutes per side.

Fresh out of the oven. I find baking the crab cakes – instead of frying – still gives me a crispy crust but is lighter tasting (not greasy) and better for you, I would think. It’s all about the crab!

Okay, so this product, a refrigerated herb by Gourmet Garden is really the bomb. I do not have room to grown fresh dill and buying it is too expensive so this works great. A tube will last me a couple of months and I’m not throwing out old withered herbs – waste makes me c-r-a-z-y. They make other ‘flavors’ but the dill is the one I have used.

Carolina Crabcakes

  • 1 lb. of crabmeat
  • 2/3 cup + extra, fine breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup sweet bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tbl. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tbl. butter
  • hot sauce, like Tabasco or Crystal, to your taste

In a medium bowl lightly whisk the eggs and all the other ingredients except the butter. Mix well, cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Shape into crab cakes: 18-20 bite-size or 8 meal size. Coat each in extra fine bread crumbs lightly and place on a wax paper-lined  sheet pan. Chill another hour in the refrigerator (or pop into the freezer if you want to bake* them later).

Meanwhile preheat oven to 400 degrees. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a cookie sheet to coat. Place crab cakes on the cookie sheet and bake for 2-3 minutes for mini crab cakes and 8 minutes for large crab cakes. Turn crab cakes over once and bake another 2-3 minutes for minis and 8 minutes for large ones. Serve immediately with rémoulade, tartar or my favorite, cold lemon dill sauce.

Lemon dill sauce: Mix ½ cup mayo with 1 heaping tablespoon chopped dill weed (fresh or  “Gourmet Garden” type) and juice of ½ a lemon. Chill until ready to serve.

* Frozen crab cakes will take a bit longer to bake, 1 more minute per side for the minis and 2 more minutes per side for the large.