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!
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.