Some of us wait all year long for our waters to warm up enough to induce new growth in blue crabs. This warm water growth spurt causes the crabs to molt, shedding their hardened calcified shells, yielding the seasonal delicacy that is soft shell crabs. If you have ever spent time picking and finagling your way through hard shells in search of sweet tender crab meat, this is your season. Every little bit of a soft shell crab is completely edible and thoroughly delectable.
Preparing soft shell crabs at home has, frankly, always intimidated me so I turned to Nicole Roarke, executive chef at J.A. Heneghan’s in Point Lookout for some pointers. It turns out that Nicole is a bit of an expert when it comes to preparing soft shells and not only shared a detailed recipe, but some anecdotes, too.
Chef Nicole Roarke’s Famous Soft Shell Crabs
“I created this dish while working at Trattoria Aroma in Buffalo, NY. During the summer, soft shells were in season and in high demand but, I needed to stay somewhat true to the authentic Italian cuisine we were known for. I chose a light, Italian ale and added a pinch of cornmeal to mimic a crunchiness we associate with crabs. By frying it, I gave texture to an otherwise one-dimensional protein. The mustard and chili add a touch of spice to balance the sweetness of the crab.”
4 large soft-shell crabs
1 cup cornstarch
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tbsp cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tsp spice mix (dry mustard, paprika, cayenne pepper)
1 bottle of Peroni Beer
1 cup club soda
Clean live soft shells: remove mouth behind eyes, remove sex organs/tail flap, scrape out gills under top shell. Remove excess moisture with paper towels. Assemble batter by combining all dry ingredients then whisk in the wet ingredients until desired consistency is achieved. Submerge crabs in the batter.
Using swimming method, deep fry crabs at 350° until golden brown and crispy. Use a spider to fetch crabs from oil and place on a paper towel-lined tray to remove excess grease. Season with Kosher salt and set aside.
Italian Open Faced Soft Shell Crab Sandwich
“Everyone loves the idea of a fried fish sandwich, whether it’s a New York hoagie, a Louisiana po’boy or even a California fish taco, so why not an Italian inspired open faced bruschetta?”
1 loaf Calabrese bread (ciabatta or foccacia can be substituted)
1 tbsp blended oil
kosher salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
4 large yellow bell peppers
2 large shallots
4 large scallions
1⁄2 cup limoncello (lemon flavored liquor)
1 tsp saffron
8 tbsp unsalted butter (softened/room temperature)
Slice bread into 1-inch thick slices. Use a pastry brush to paint on blended oil. Mark bread on the grill, oil side down. Grill scallions, and slice. Roast yellow peppers on grill or directly on grate, over open flame, until blistered. Place in plastic covered metal mixing bowl. Once steamed and cool, remove skin. In hot pan, saute julienned shallots, grilled scallion and roasted yellow pepper in remaining blended oil until soft. Deglaze the pan with limoncello and reduce until au sec (nearly dry). Add saffron threads and season with salt pepper. Remove and, once cool, fold in softened butter. Spread compound butter over grilled bread and set aside.
“To add brightness and freshness to the dish, I harvested the summer’s heirloom cherry tomatoes and paired it with micro herbs. The acidity of the tomatoes cuts through the fattiness of the fried crab and buttered bread while the greens and herbs lend a burst of light, crisp flavor and replace simple lettuce on this sandwich.”
1 pint heirloom cherry/plum tomatoes (halved or quartered, depending on size)
1 tbsp Balsamic vinegar
1 cup poached garlic and oil (slow simmer whole peeled garlic cloves in blended soybean/vegetable oil until soft and spreadable)
1 ounce micro arugula
1 ounce micro chives
1 ounce micro basil
1 red onion chopped in a small dice
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
Mix all ingredients together and set aside so flavors can marry.
“My infamous version of tartar sauce.”
2 ounces fresh dill
2 tbsp capers
1⁄2-1 cup honey
1 lemon (zest and juice) (preferably Meyer lemons)
1⁄2 cup poached garlic
4 cups mayo
In a food processor, blend dill, capers, poached garlic, salt, pepper, mayo, lemon zest, juice and honey.
Place a dollop of caper-dill aioli on center of plate and place bruschetta toast directly on top (so bread doesn’t slide). Spread compound butter over bruschetta toast. Put a high mound of tomato and herb salad on the center of toast and place the fried crab on top, slightly off-centered to reveal ingredients underneath. Top with a bit more tomato-herb salad and garnish with remaining caper-dill aioli.
“Finishing touches: red (orange or black may be substituted) tobiko (flying fish roe), grilled lemon and love.”