Remember that scene in “Splash,” where Tom Hanks takes Daryl Hannah the mermaid out on a date? The waiter sets a beautiful steamed lobster in front of her. She stares at it, picks it up…and chomps right in, shell and all.
Now that’s a top-of-the-food-chain move. Sharks don’t spit out bones. Anacondas digest whole goats. But us humans, we tend to be a little pickier.
Besides the fact that they are delicious, maybe that’s why I crave soft shell crabs so much. Eating an entire animal sounds the call of the wild. Just because we don’t eat like a shark or anaconda (or 80’s Tom Hanks-smitten mermaid) doesn’t mean we can’t.
But it’s not just the novelty of eating the crab, shell and all, that makes soft shells so good. By not having to pick the meat out of the crab, you get all of the crabby goodness that gets otherwise left in the shells. The mild lump and jumbo lump, the sweet claw meat, the fatty “crab butter” and the crunchy shell…you truly get everything wonderful about a crab when eating a soft shell.
This is going to be a GREAT year for soft shell crabs. So what is a soft shell crab…and how do the freshest soft shells end up on our plates in Dallas, Texas?
Like any shelled-creature, crabs shed their shells as they grow out of them–from the first full moon in May until beginning-mid September. Crabs form a soft “template” of their shell, shed the old one and then absorb minerals from the water to harden the new exposed shell.
Watermen who have worked for generations harvest these crabs at the crucial point during this transformation. The crabs are harvested, packed in straw and shipped live all over the world. Because they are still live, the crabs have to be harvested soon enough to be soft shells, but not too late that the shells get too tough before eaten.
Frozen soft shells are available year-round, but fresh soft shells are a special treat. There is a HUGE difference in taste and texture. Fresh soft shells are springy, juicy, meaty. You can taste the fresh ocean in them.
Even during the fresh season, many nice restaurants serve frozen soft shells. So cooking fresh soft shells at home guarantees a premium soft shell experience. And it’s easy!
Your fishmonger will dress the soft shell, removing the inedible parts. This should be done the same day you cook the crab.
Dredge in flour, egg/buttermilk and cornmeal and fry in peanut oil for a Cajun soft shell. Substitute panko or tempura for the cornmeal and fry in sesame oil for a Japanese soft shell. Substitute wasabi powder for the flour to add a kick. For a healthy preparation just grill the soft shell about 5 min a side.
Embrace your wild side. Eat with gusto and leave nothing but a memory on your plate. Devour a fresh soft shell this season!
Jon Alexis is the owner and fishmonger at TJ’s Seafood Market at Forest and Preston in Dallas and a contributer to craveDFW.