By Nigel Spence
Food and travel shows have created such a blending of cultures that the food scene is now exploding with a sophistication of tastes never before seen. Even the simplest of dishes quickly transform into being an exotic gourmet meal just by borrowing a few ingredients from one country or another.
Chefs are ever more challenged to “stump the patron” with a new and trendy ingredient, since everyone has suddenly become so foodie literate. It came as quite the surprise when I inadvertently won that contest via a menu item that simply bombed during a busy weekend rush.
I began to investigate the reasons for the unsuccessful menu offering and through feedback from my waitstaff, I uncovered the underlying reason for the disappointing show of support for the dish.
It turns out that many Caribbean folks have never heard of soft-shell crabs. Of the ones that have, most never bothered to try them as they didn’t get the concept. The few that did mostly described the experience as underwhelming. Even die-hard crab lovers admitted to never trying soft shell crabs.
I soon realized that this menu item stumped most Caribbean nationals because it has a very short season, and is mostly a southeast to northeast coast delicacy, only making its way to mainstream menus over the last couple of decades or so.
It really is also a stretch of the imagination to believe that a crustacean with such a hard exterior could ever possibly be consumed in its entirety, shell and all, without a trip to the dentist and/or emergency room.
The failure of my menu offering really made me “crabby” and I was determined to now educate the consumer and ask for their trust in my kitchen skills to give this crustacean the respect it deserved!
I stayed away from heavy batters or strong flavored sauces or additions that would compete with the delicate sweetness of the crab. With a light seasoning and dusted with cornstarch, they were pan-fried and served with a nutty brown butter, allowing the crab to be the star of the plate.
I came up with the dumbest idea yet—I dangerously offered a money back guarantee – you don’t like it, don’t pay for it, along with a full and exhaustingly lengthy description of what a soft-shell crab is and the technique I would use to prepare it.
They say God watches out for fools, drunks and children, so luckily my idea got many more people interested in trying the dish. Most guests enjoyed it so much they added it to their “best new thing I ever ate” list and none were returned to the kitchen unpaid. I have since carried it on my menu successfully whenever I get my hands on a good batch.
Yes, there are good and bad soft-shell crabs. Depending on the stage that they are caught, some shells may be not be as soft as others and in turn not as much fun to eat. Check them physically before purchasing them live to make sure they are the softest texture possible, by poking them with your finger. Don’t worry, they are too soft to pinch you with their claws in this state of molting. Also, they smell clean and fresh like the sea, so if they have an off odor put them back and look elsewhere. Soft shell crabs can now be found packaged frozen, though I find them to be a watery mess when thawed, so I only buy them fresh during the season.
The soft-shell season starts during the first full moon in the month of May. That is when the blue crab begins molting to accommodate its summer growth. The shedding of the shell takes up to three hours, which is when the crab is harvested. Removal from their natural environment stops the hardening process. This is called the peeler stage and they are taken to shedding operations where they are monitored round the clock and then sent to market.
Below is a great recipe for soft shell crabs. Not only is the preparation quick and easy but the rewards you will reap from your audience will be priceless. Let me know how it turned out for you by leaving / sending me a comment. Enjoy!
Pan-Fried Soft Shell Crab with Brown Butter
4 whole fresh live soft-shell Crabs
Salt and freshly ground Pepper to taste
1 cup Cornstarch
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
½ cup Clarified Butter (substitute vegetable oil)
½ tablespoon Red Pepper flakes
6 tablespoons Salted Butter
1 tablespoon fresh Lemon juice
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf Parsley
To clean soft-shell crabs:
Use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut off the front of the crab, about 1/2 inch behind the eyes and mouth. Squeeze out the stuff directly behind the cut you made. Lift one pointed end of the crab’s outer shell; remove and discard the gills. Repeat on the other side. Turn the crab over and snip off the small flap called the apron. Wash crab and pat dry.
Dry cleaned crabs with a paper towel. Season crab with salt and pepper, including under the flaps.
Add old bay seasoning to cornstarch and mix well.
Dredge crab in seasoned cornstarch.
In a large skillet, add clarified butter or oil over medium-high heat.
Fry the crabs until you achieve a light to medium brown hue and crisp on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Turn the crabs over and fry until just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes longer, then remove crabs to a paper towel lined plate.
Wipe out the skillet and add 6 tablespoons of butter and cook over moderately high heat until it starts to brown, about 3 minutes. Add red pepper flakes and lemon juice and stir to blend with butter.
Drizzle the brown butter sauce over the crabs and around the plates. Sprinkle the parsley over the crabs and serve.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cook offs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show , Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavor.