When my family used to live in Houston, we’d go crabbing down by the shore several times a year and come home each time with a bucket of fresh crab. Apparently, the shellfish was so plentiful back then that we never bothered to eat the legs, just the bodies. I retell all of this based on hearsay, of course, because I was a toddler back then and probably couldn’t have told you the difference between a crab and a seagull. My parents still reminisce fondly, though, so I’ve heard all about it in glorious detail over the years.
Even without knowing that I’d been an avid crabivore from an early age, I’d probably have figured it out pretty fast. After moving to California, we’d still always order them at restaurants when they were available and my mother had brought home bagfuls of squirming crustaceans from the supermarket on several occasions. As much as I love crab, though, there is a huge mess associated with cleaning and cooking the darn things. Well, there is most of the year, anyway. Except during a certain magical season starting around the first full moon of May and going into the warmer days of summer. That’s when the little buggers start molting and soft-shells start appearing at the market.
Last weekend, the boy and I went to visit a specialty fishmonger that was across the street from our favorite breakfast place. I’d gone in there just to get a pound of prawns, but when I saw a row of fat soft-shells staring at me from behind the counter, a lightbulb went on over my head and I couldn’t help but grab a couple of them as well. Later that night, I made this:
Breaded and sautéed soft-shells in a wine and butter sauce over rice, with steamed asparagus. Recipe courtesy of the fabulous Emeril Lagasse from the Food Network site. It turned out fantastic, but how could anybody go wrong with soft-shells and Emeril?
Ingredients for preparation of the crab and sauce: salt, ground black pepper, flour, extra-virgin olive oil, minced (or sliced) garlic, capers, mirin (or white wine), butter, fresh chives.
Ingredients for the “Essence” garnish (Emeril’s Creole Seasoning): paprika, salt, garlic powder, ground black pepper, onion powder, cayenne pepper, dried oregano, dried thyme.
And the stars of the show: 2 soft-shell crabs, cleaned and patted dry. Now, I bought “jumbo” sized ones, which are the second to largest grade available for soft-shells. They measure between 5 to 5.5 inches across and are a good single-serving dinner plate size. The largest crabs can get a bit leathery, though, and crabs that haven’t been stored right will develop “papery” shells, so you do have to feel them up before buying them if you want to get the best specimens. This probably is not the best food for the squeamish, I’ll tell you this now. So yes, give your crabs a gentle but testing touch — the top should have the springy give of moisturized skin and the underside should feel like a firm membrane. They should be alive and able to give you a dirty look. You probably deserve it for what you’re about to do to them.
You now have the option of either having your crabs cleaned for you by the fishmonger, or taking them home alive and cleaning them yourself. If you plan on cooking them pretty soon after you buy them, do yourself a favor and have them clean it for you. It’ll save you a bit of mental trauma. If you have to wait half a day or more before cooking them, you probably want to take them home live because the meat is very delicate and doesn’t stand up to prolonged storage. In this case, you’ll have to cut off their faces, squeeze out their guts, and pull out their lungs by hand. Now, coming from a background in biology and veterinary studies, and having grown up with a mother who can kill and dress a chicken with her bare hands, I am quite capable of doing this. Between having them staring and squirming at you, feeling their soft almost-mammalian-textured skin under your fingers, and knowing that we caught them at the most vulnerable point of their young and tasty lives, I in no way enjoy or prefer doing this if I can avoid it. So the choice is up to you, my crab-eating friends. Just get those darned things cleaned and move along. Store your cleaned crabs wrapped in plastic in the coldest part of the fridge until you’re ready to work with them.
Sprinkle salt and pepper on your crabs to your desired seasoning amount. Go sparingly, since the meat has a bit of a briny taste already and you’ll be garnishing the final dish with a seasoning blend anyway. Then dredge them in 1 cup of flour so they’re covered in a thin layer. Turn them over with some tongs if you have them, so you’re not leaving big unaesthetic fingerprints on their shells. Be careful when turning them over that you’re not flinging flour outside the bowl, since those little legs to flop around a bit. Shake off the excess flour and set your breaded crabs aside.
Turn the heat to medium high and add 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil to a large skillet. When the oil is heated, gently place the crabs on the skillet, belly up. This will let their backs get a nice, even browning that looks better for presentation. Sauté the crabs for about 2 minutes on each side, until they are soft and orange. In my case, after I flipped the crabs over to cook the other side, I put the lid over my pan for the second 2 minutes to give the heat a chance to bake through all the extremities. You don’t want to steam or boil softshells as a general rule because they are so delicate that they would just become soggy lumps. We had a 4.7ish earthquake that Sunday evening while these critters were on the pan, but luckily I use an electric stove so we just puttered right along.
Remove your cooked crabs and set them aside.
Your pan should now contained only crab-flavored oil and bits of browned leftover flour. To this, add three cloves of garlic — I used reconstituted minced garlic to great effect, but you’ll want to used sliced fresh garlic cloves if you have the time and don’t mind getting your hands dirty. Cook the garlic for a minute.
Add 2 tablespoons of drained capers and 1/2 a cup of white wine. I usually substitute sake or mirin for white wine in recipes because that is typically what I have on hand. Whether this works for you depends on how much you like the taste of a sweeter rice-based beverage over more tradition white wine. We thought it made the sauce doubly yummy over rice. Anyway, cook this mixture until the wine has been reduced to about half of what it was. Swirl in 1 tablespoon of butter and a few chopped blades of chives. Add in a sprinkle of salt and pepper if you like, but I’d once again advise you to go sparingly. I don’t like the idea of overseasoning seafood to the point where you can’t taste it anymore.
In a separate bowl, mix up some of Emeril’s lovely Creole seasoning, which is much lighter on the salt and heavier on the kick. The proportions are 2.5 tablespoons paprika, 2 tablespoons salt, 2 tablespoons garlic powder, 1 tablespoon black pepper, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon dried leaf oregano, and 1 tablespoon dried thyme.
Combine all ingredients thoroughly and store in an airtight jar or container. Or you can do what I did and just make a quarter of it so you don’t have a cup of random seasoning lying around.
Plating time! I started with a base of steamed long-grain Indian rice, on top of which rested the crab. Drizzle your wine sauce over everything generously — it’s good stuff and goes great with the rice. I steamed some baby asparagus in another pan while making the garnish, so that went on next. Finally, sprinkle some of the creole seasoning over the entire plate and put the extra in a little bowl for anybody that wants to add more to their own portion. This was probably the most restaurant-like dinner I’ve made yet, as even the boy commented, yet it was so very easy, fast and flavorful.
Just trust me about the crab-cleaning/face-cutting. That part sucks.