22 July 2007
Worth Every Flinch
If you had told my 16 year old vegetarian self that I would one day participate in removing the lungs from a living being, I don't think I would have believed you. I should say that my teenage vegetarian days were motivated not by any sense of ethical activism but rather by a strong distaste for most meats. As a child I recoiled from the steaks and chicken my mother tried to feed me, and even today I only eat meat about once or twice a month. However, I love seafood and will happily gobble down any creature of the sea, including spindly legged soft-shell crabs.
Soft-shelled crabs are not a kid-friendly food. There's the whole legginess of them, and then there's the issue of how they crunch. For any child reading Charlotte's Web, watching your parent crunch into a sandwich with legs hanging out of it can be a disturbing experience. Also, they are a bit confusing, something you normally eat only the inside of, it's kind of like being told to eat a banana with its peel. I grew up in crab-central Maryland and I can pick a crab like a pro, but I never had a soft-shell crab until a couple years ago. Now, of course, I love them. All the things that once seemed unappealing are part of their delight: the crunch that releases their salty brine, the sweet meat inside.
Usually, we just pan fry our soft shells with a little cornmeal coating (see above photo), but I got the idea for a tempura-fried soft shelled crab, and scuttled myself over to the grocery. "Do you have any soft-shells," I asked, not seeing any in the display. "Actually, we just got some in," the fish guy said with genuine enthusiasm, "but it will be a few minutes, I have to clean them." Having recently heard a friend talking about this rather tortuous process, I asked if I could watch how he did it. Now, the fish guy knows me, but he raised his eyebrow curiously, and that's how I found myself, a petite girl, behind the counter with a bunch of large men in butcher's aprons.
The crabs were still visibly alive, and we picked out four large males. "First, I cut off the eyes," he explained, as he took a large pair of scissors, and to my horror, did exactly that. Before I had recovered from that shock, he expertly lifted the shell edge and dug around and pulled out the crab lungs. "Actually, they're called gills," he told me. Right. He gave them a quick cleaning, snipped off the apron, and proceeded to the next crab. What was disturbing was that the crabs continued to twitch even after being defaced, much like the proverbial headless chicken. "They need to be alive up until the last minute, that's what keeps the shells soft," he explained.
As a child, we would catch our own crabs and take them home and steam them for dinner. The live crabs were put in a large pot and you had to hold the lid down firmly for the first minute as their claws banged on the pan trying to escape. One time a crab managed to get out and scurried after me, angrily pinching my toes as I ran circles in the kitchen until my mother plunked it back in the pot. This is all to say that I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that cooking involves a little gore. However, I did flinch when the crabs twitched again when I went to prepare them that evening. There is something about battering and deep-frying something that just adds insult to injury. Nonetheless, I proceeded.
As soon as the crabs were on the plate, I knew they were worth every flinch. The crabs were divine. Each crunchy bite is an explosion of salty brine combined with buttery-sweet meat. There's just no other way to put it, this has to be one of the best meals of the summer. They were so good, I wasn't going to write anything about the process of prepping them for fear it would scare someone away from making them. I was just going to write about how good these are, you have to make them. Luckily, if you have access to soft-shells, they may be sold already cleaned or your fish monger will clean them for you, sparing you any gore. But somehow, I think learning about them made me appreciate each bite even more. All you have to do is cook them up, which makes this one of the best 10-minute meals I can think of.
Tempura Soft-Shell Crabs
Crunchy, salty, sweet, soft-shell crabs are a special delight. Your fish monger will clean the crabs for you, but you may also want to reach under the shell and scrape out the bright yellow crab guts, called the tomalley. Soft-shells are in season May-July.
4 soft shell crabs, cleaned
1 cup very cold mineral water
1 cup flour (preferably rice or cake flour, but all-purpose is fine)
pinch each of salt and Old Bay seasoning
oil, for deep frying
1. Heat the oil in a large, deep pot. Combine the flour in a bowl with the salt and seasonings. Add the water all at once and stir just to combine. The batter should still remain slightly lumpy, do not overmix.
2. Test that the oil is hot enough by drizzling a little of the batter into it, it should bubble up and fry. Dredge the crabs in the batter, then add to the hot oil. Fry until golden and crispy, about 3-5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.
Gild the Lily: Serve the crabs with a little aioli or mayonnaise sauce drizzled on top.
French Laundry at Home cooks soft shells.
Cleaning Soft Shell Crabs