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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Warm the Soul with Crab and Corn Chowder Vindaloo

If you have been following my blog, you may have gotten the impression that my family likes crab and on this you would be correct. But there’s more to it than just the eating crab, or even the fun of catching them and preparing a meal with our haul.

For me, it is just a part of summer and has been since my youth. For my husband, who grew up for the most part in land-locked Tennessee, crabbing was a new experience but one which he has really come to love, apparently. Several years ago, prior to parenthood, I was invited to crab with a friend on the Moon River, near Savannah. (Yes, it’s the Moon River of Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame). Dear Hubby was off in the Lone Star state for work so I sent him a picture of a huge male crab I had just caught. He thought it was bizarre that my friend and I would go crabbing of our own volition, instead of shopping or getting a pedicure I suppose, and even more strange that I would send him a picture of a ‘scary crab’. From then on out, he humorously referred to me as “crab master” or the “crab whisperer”.

My family is “mad” for blue crabs, and well this fella is just plain mad! Obviously, you can see why our indigenous crab is called a “blue crab”.

I find this ironic now, since over the summer Dear Hubby has been like a man obsessed with catching those blue crabs. Being our first full summer back in the Lowcountry, I took the plunge back in the spring and purchased the necessary tools for crabbing. We gave it a try at the community dock in our neighborhood and caught a few. Apparently that is all it took to get Dear Hubby’s competitive crabbing juices flowing and it’s been like a regular crab-fest at our house all summer. Just two weeks ago during our stay at Edisto Beach, he (and we) crabbed just about every day, both at a marsh-side dock and off the beach. We had gorgeous weather and saw many dolphin and other local wildlife on our crabbing jaunts.

Girly Girl and my mother hard at work picking the crabs out so we can make something delicious.

With a bevy of blues caught throughout the week, we were able to bring some of that luxurious crab goodness home. My mother, daughter and I spent all morning picking out the crabs on the back porch of the beach house on our last day. This was Girly Girls’ first time participating in this exercise, but she took to it like a duck takes to water. So sitting at that table were three generations of my family doing the same thing that I did myself as a child, with the youngest learning a skill not many people these days know about, much less value. Once you pick out 3 or 4-dozen crabs you’ll appreciate that next crab cake, believe me.

Later I made some hot crab dip to celebrate our hard work. It was probably the best I’ve ever made – that acknowledgment is due to way more than just its taste. That bowl of creamy seafood deliciousness equaled more than just a good snack on a cracker, it illustrated why I love to cook, to write about food and adore the South.

Coming back home with a couple of pounds of crab, the second recipe I made is a fall favorite for me. When the humidity drops and temperatures fall into the 60’s in the evening, it is soup time in the Lowcountry. Its also chowder, chili, stew, and bisque time, so hurray for fall! After fishing the next-to-last package of “put up” corn off the cob out of my freezer and remembering I had a little smoked hog jowl in the meat drawer, I grabbed my old 8-quart Caphalon stock pot for Corn and Crab Chowder, with the added kick of Vindaloo seasoning. Vindaloo is a curry-based dish popular in eastern India often considered fiery hot although the Vindaloo seasoning from Penzy’s is not nearly so hot as it is flavorful. It reminds me of the traditional Lowcountry (via the seaport of Charleston) Indian-influenced dishes like Country Captain and Mulligatawny soup. Add a hunk of cornbread and there you go – a seasonal chowder to warm the belly, and the soul.

Ingredients are pretty straightforward and include potatoes, broth or stock and light cream (half and half).

I like to use small red potatoes, any eyes or blemishes removed and cut into a small-ish dice.You can leave the peel on – it’s prettier if you have red potatoes. But you can also use white potatoes instead of the red.

After you fry up the jowls, remove them to drain and cool. Then add the butter into the pot with fat from the hog jowls. You can also streaky bacon if you don’t have jowls. Saute the onion for about 5 minutes before adding the flour mixture and then…

adding in the broth/stock and the potatoes. Stir and bring up a low (not rolling) boil.

Pour in the half and half but do not bring to a boil. Just simmer on a low heat from now on.

Lastly stir in the crab and the Vindaloo seasoning. Cook over low heat for another 10 minutes or so with the lid off.

Just before serving adjust salt and pepper to your liking and ladle the chowder into warm bowls. Top with minced parsley and the diced hog jowls, if you like. To accommodate those who prefer a spicy chowder, serve with your favorite hot sauce like Tabasco, Crystal or Texas Pete on the side.

Corn and Crab Chowder Vindaloo

  • 2 cups fresh crab, picked over for shells
  • 3-4 pieces smoked hog jowl
  • 1 lb. red or white potatoes, washed and diced
  • 2 cups corn, fresh or frozen or combination
  • 2/3 cup diced onion
  • 3 cups, chicken or vegetable stock or broth or combination at room temperature
  • 2 cups half and half
  • 2 tbl flour
  • 1 tbl butter
  • 1 ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp Vindaloo seasoning
  • additional salt and pepper to taste
  • parsley, minced, for garnish
  • hot sauce, optional

In a small bowl mix the flour, salt and black pepper. Set aside. In a heavy pot cook the hog jowls until crisp. Remove from pan and set aside to cool. Dice the hog jowls and set aside. Add the butter to the remaining hog jowl fat and sauté the onion in this mixture until just translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the flour mixture to the sautéed onions and then stir in the stock/broth. Bring to a low boil and stir in the potatoes. Bring back up just to a low boil and allow to simmer about 8-10 minutes. Next add in the corn and bring back up to a low boil. Turn heat down and simmer (low heat) 5 more minutes. Add in the half and half and the crab. The heat should be on low. Add the Vindaloo seasoning and stir gently to combine. On low heat continue to cook for another 10 minutes with the lid off.

Taste the chowder and adjust salt and pepper as to your liking. Serve topped with minced parsley, a little chopped hog jowl and hot sauce, if you like. Serves 4-6.