What To Eat Now : Soft Shell Crab

Living near the water in Sweden I grew up eating tons of seafood, especially crabs. We would prepare those hard bodies in any way imaginable - steamed, sauteed, boiled or in stock - but it wasn't until I came to New York that I tried soft shell crab for the first time. I was in Chinatown and got a taste of Singaporean crab - that mix of salty sauce and briny meat was it for me! It freaked me out at first that you could eat the whole thing.

Many years and many soft shell crabs later, it's still one of my favorite warm weather foods to eat. Some may be intimated by the thought of trying to prepare soft shell crabs at home, but it's really quite easy once you clean the gills and lungs.

Soft shell crabs have a mild, tangy flavor but are tender and delicate in structure. They are basically blue crabs that crawl out of hibernation to shed their hard shells and grow new ones - hence, why you are able to eat the soft shell crab in its entirety. The process for soft shell crabs is a tedious one because it takes several days to lose that hard shell. However, once the outer layer is removed, they are only soft for about 2-3 hours before their shell starts to get hard again which means a smaller window and time frame for eating the succulent, tender crabmeat.

Because the crabs need direct heat to become crispy, preparing soft shell crabs is much different than any other types of seafood. Soft shell crabs should not be boiled or steamed but rather pan-fried, sauteed, broiled or grilled. From there, you can head in a bunch of different directions - salads, pastas, sandwiches, even sushi!

The most traditional way of having soft shell crab is in a simple sandwich with tomatoes and perhaps a touch of remoulade sauce. Because the flavor of the crabs are so delicate, you don't want to serve them with overpowering ingredients. However, if you're looking for something different, why not try serving your crab lightly coated in flour, tossed with garlic, butter and fresh herbs? Toss in some paprika and cayenne pepper for a spicy kick. For an Asian twist, go for tempura-battered crab bites with a soy-ginger sauce. The mouth-watering bite-size crab will be succulent and the sauce will add the perfect tang to the meat.  You can also prepare the crab with a delicate homemade pasta noodle, served in a light sauce of olive oil, red pepper flakes and pasta water.

Whatever route you take, just be sure you're getting the freshest soft shell crab possible. Avoid those wrapped in cellophane and use your sharp sense of smell to weed out the good crab versus the not-so-good. Fresh blue crab should have a scent like the sea - astringent and misty yet clean and light. And if you're ever down in Chinatown, go for the Singaporean flavored crab - maybe I'll see you there!

Photo: Diva Eva 

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Harvesting The Florida Stone Crab: Animal Cruelty or Ecological Ingenuity?

By: Michael Engle

"Sustainable seafood" generally refers to the ideals of respecting certain seasons, not taking too many fish out of the sea at one time, and/or determining minimum and maximum sizes of legal catch. Normally, when an animal is killed or fished, its culinary yield is limited to a resulting number of meat portions, plus a batch of stock made by boiling the leftover bones. What if, almost like a perennial flower, the same individual animal could be fished repeatedly for food? Not only does this concept exist in real life, but it is a culinary tradition in Miami Beach, FL.

The Florida stone crab is one of the most unique regional foods in the USA. Unlike the Delaware blue crab, there is almost no meat in the stone crabs' bodies. To compensate for their meatless bodies, the stone crabs' claws, which, in the wild, are strong enough to crush an oyster's shell, are prized as delicacies.  Stone crabs occasionally lose their limbs to predatory attacks; however, since their claws regenerate in a year's time, the crabs can survive with one or--theoretically--no remaining claws. The Florida stone crab is fished with a similar strategy, in order to mutually cater to the restaurants and the pool of wild crabs. Because these techniques closely resemble natural processes, it is questionable to suggest any animal cruelty in the harvesting of stone crab claws.

Crab claws are specifically amputated so that the diaphragm between the body and claw is left intact. If done properly, the crabs will lose a minimal amount of blood in the process, and the wound will heal quickly. Consequently, bad cuts will result in a greater loss of blood, and longer odds of survival. Single-amputee crabs have a 75% chance of survival, while double-amputees only have a 50% chance. Furthermore, if a crab survives the following year, its newly-matured claw will always be bigger than last year's claw.

Despite the unique nature of stone crab claw harvesting, there are still plenty of standards in place. By law, crab claws must measure 2.75 inches (70 mm), from the tip of the claw to the first joint, for the crab to be considered mature enough to be fished. In addition, there is an annual moratorium on stone crab fishing, from May 15 to October 15. Aside from these rules, it is proper technique to cook the claws briefly, and immediately upon collection. Once pre-cooked, the claws may be chilled before reheating for service. This allows the crabmeat to remain tender, while preventing it from sticking to the shell.

One of the oldest, and most famous, stone crab establishments is Miami's Joe's Stone Crabs. In addition to its key lime pies, Joe's ships its crab claws worldwide, so you don't have to travel to Florida in order to try them. But the question remains: would you eat Florida Stone Crabs knowing the harvesting techniques behind them?

What do you think? Is Florida Stone Crab harvesting animal cruelty or just a technique resembling a natural process?

Photo: Andrea Westmoreland

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Taste the advent of summer with some soft-shell crab!

When soft-shell crabs come in to season, you don't have to bother busting out those shell crackers. These tasty delights are available in the spring because that's when they come to coastal areas to molt their shells, leaving their meat exposed to fishermen along the Gulf of Mexico and East Coast of the United States from roughly April to October every year. Unlike most crabs whose shells harden within a few hours of molting, soft-shell crabs take a few days to regenerate a hard exterior. One of the most common varieties is the Blue Shell Crab harvested in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. It is best served fresh and if you're preparing these at home, you might even consider buying them live. Otherwise, look out for restaurant specials since this is a good sign that the supply is fresh.

This is a very low maintenance shellfish - all you have to do is wash the creature off before cooking it and its entire body is edible. The most popular way to prepare soft-shell crab is pan-frying. Try putting yours on a sandwich or over a salad with some fresh veggies!

To read more, try Serious Eats' guide