April 29,  2008

Island Cooking:  Spring is the time that we wait for our softshell crabs

The first soft whiff of real spring is in the air here in Hatteras village.  Warm blue periwinkles and fragrant yellow-and-white freesias are in bloom in the raised beds alongside the laurel that produces bay leaves for the kitchen. The lovely chirping of tiny migrating songbirds greets me when I walk outdoors and, the mockingbird that perches noisily on an overhead wire joins in a whistling conversation with me. 

My outside perennial herbs are showing first growth, and I have just planted the annuals.  The Italian parsley and arugula have seeded and now grow through the uncut lawn.  Just in time too, as the AeroGarden herbs in my kitchen that see me through the winter are just about finished.

But the chilly winds have been incessant and, after a winter with fewer than usual T-shirt days and a long, blustery introduction to spring, I am finally sure that the water in the ocean and sound really will warm up again soon, and the spring seafood species will arrive any day.   The winter has been hard on the watermen and they are more than ready for good fishing days such as today.

The most eagerly anticipated springtime seafood is the delectable softshell crab that usually begins to appear in April and peaks in May.  This is a life phase of the familiar and tasty blue crab, Callinectus sapidus, whose name means “beautiful swimmer.”

The blue crab, commonly called the hard crab on the islands, is commercially caught in boxy wire cages called pots in the sounds of eastern North Carolina.  Pamlico and Albemarle sounds with three major inlets (Oregon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke) are particularly prolific grounds, and blue crabs are the number one commercial seafood product in the state.

Crab pots are baited with scrap fish and set in the sound, where they are left for the season.  The crabbers check the pots regularly, remove the crabs, re-bait the pots and return them to the water.  The buoys you see in the sound, usually bobbing in an efficient line, mark the locations of the pots, and their colors and markings indicate ownership. 

In the spring, the blue crab sheds its hard shell to accommodate growth, and, for one very brief period before the new shell grows hard, it is edible in its entirety. 

Watermen set special pots, known as peeler pots, for this short season and sell their catch to the shedders, the folks who tend to the crabs as they molt. Peeler pots differ from the usual crab pots.  They are made with smaller “marsh” (mesh) wire and they are baited with Jimmys, or male crabs.  The peeler, or immature female, goes to the Jimmy for protection and mating when it is ready to molt.  This usually happens six to 14 days before shedding.

After the crabs are caught and culled, extraordinary efforts are needed to produce the culinary treat we enjoy so much.

According to L.B. Fulcher, a Hatteras waterman who unsuccessfully tried a shedding operation on Hatteras many years ago, the male Jimmys are kept from the females (she-crabs), in a cage in the peeler pot to protect them from the aggressive females who “try to get them.”

There are six stages in the molting (shedding) cycle, and each requires special handling -- from hard crabs that are 25 to 60 days from shedding to the busters that are a day or less from shedding.

Shedding is an exhausting and time-consuming occupation that requires round-the-clock attention for about one month.  Complicated water filtering, pumping, and aeration systems must always be working.  Water quality in the shedding tanks must be carefully monitored.  Someone must be on watch 24 hours a day.  Keen observation of the crabs is essential.

The peelers go directly from the peeler pot to the shedding tanks, always kept in water, where they are culled. The peelers in different phases of shedding are stored separately, and when a white line appears near their backfins, they are considered in the “white line” stage and are about six to 14 days from shedding. The next stage is “red line” peelers, when the line on the backfin turns red or pink and they are about one to six days from shedding.

A very deep color red line means, the crabs are to the buster stage, which is the process of coming out of their old exoskeletons.  When they have finished molting, their shedder tenders usually leave them in the water for about four hours to allow them to firm up a little for long survival in the market.

Packing is also critical with strict guidelines as to the temperature of the seafood, the degree of dampness, and even to the placement of the softshells in the trays.  They must be marketed in three days or less.

There is no commercial shedding on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, as L.B. Fulcher well knows. The molting females need brackish water and ours is way too saline for them.  However, there are big shedding operations in the area, primarily on the northern Outer Banks and just inland in Columbia, where the salinity in the sound is lower and more favorable to the production of softshell crabs. We are thus assured of rapid delivery to our seafood markets and restaurants.

With the availability of new technology, island seafood markets are able to quickly vacuum park and freeze the softshells as they arrive, assuring us of high-quality products for months beyond the season.  Residents are happy to have them in their freezers for a later treat, and many visitors purchase the frozen seafood and either take it or ship it home at the end of their vacation.
North Carolina Sea Grant’s publication, “Mariner’s Menu, 30 Years of Fresh Seafood Ideas,”  written by Joyce Taylor, published by North Carolina Sea Grant, and distributed by UNC Press,  contains easy-to-follow directions for cleaning soft crabs, if you choose to do so.  But seafood retailers will clean them for you.  This book, by the way, is an excellent guide to North Carolina seafood from purchasing through handling to preparation.

The book’s cooking directions for softshells are equally uncomplicated.  This is one food that doesn’t need and, in my opinion, shouldn’t include many other ingredients.  The meat is so sweet and delicate that it should be savored for itself.  There are cooks who only sauté and those who only broil, and then there are those who only fry.  I think each technique creates an equally good soft crab, so try them all.  Their season is brief, so you might as well eat them every day and every way you can!


8 softshell crabs
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup butter or margarine

Sprinkle crabs with salt and pepper.  Dust with flour.  Heat butter/margarine in large skillet over medium heat.  Place crabs upside down in skillet when butter/ margarine sizzles.  Sauté until crisp and nicely browned, about 4-5 minutes.   Turn crabs and repeat on other side. 
(Note: Most everyone likes Old Bay seasoning with crabs, so you may want to add a small amount to taste to the flour.) 


12 softshell crabs
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 tsp paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Blend butter/margarine, paprika and salt in small bowl.  Gently mix in parsley.  Dust crabs lightly with flour.  Place on broiler pan.  Spread with half of butter/margarine mixture.  Broil about 4 inches from heat until crisp and brown, about 4-5 minutes.  Turn crabs, spread with remaining butter/margarine mixture and cook until crisp and brown, about 3-4 minutes.  Remove to serving dish.  Pour juices from pan over crabs. 

On a wonderful mini-vacation on remote Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, where everyone is involved in the business of crabs, my friend, Janice Marshall, treated us to her version.  She is one of the founders of the Smith Island Crab Meat Cooperative, created to save the community’s crab processing industry, and as good a cook as she is a crab picker and community organizer.


When Janice cleans the crabs she cuts off all legs and claws with scissors.  The result is, to my eyes, a strange looking crab, but all that is left is beautiful white lump meat.  She scrapes out the center, rinses, and sprinkles salt and pepper to taste.  Coat with flour, Bisquick, or a mixture of both.  Fry in oil until golden brown and crispy.  Simple!

If you are ready and eager to get the grill fired up for the long, warm season ahead, you can start with grilled soft crabs.


12 softshell crabs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 tablespoon fresh chopped Italian parsley
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Mix together the oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, lemon juice, lemon peel, and 1/4 teaspoon of the parsley and garlic powder. Cover the crabs with the marinade and refrigerate for 8 hours.

Arrange crabs, back down, on wire rack. Cook over hot coals for 10 minutes, brushing frequently with the marinade. Turn crabs over and cook another 10 minutes, again basting often, until well done. Sprinkle with remaining fresh herbs and serve.

There are a number of serving suggestions for softshell crabs.  Of course, fresh lemon slices are always appropriate.  And here are some other sauces and suggestions for serving.

This is a kicky version of tartar sauce from Epicurious.com that will enliven this delicacy.


1 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup chopped dill pickles
1/4 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons capers, chopped (I use those packed in salt rather than vinegar for a purer caper flavor.  It is necessary to soak them in water before use.)
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice – or to taste
2 teaspoons minced fresh jalapeno chile – or to taste

Mix all ingredients together and serve with softshells.

For a more elegant dinner, you can dress up the crabs à la meuniere or amandine.


Keep the cooked crabs warm in a low (200 degree) oven.  In a heavy saucepan melt 1 1/2 cups butter over low heat until the butter begins to turn brown.  Remove the pan from heat and add 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon white pepper. Mix well and return to low heat until the sauce is brown, about 1 minute. Pour sauce over crabs, sprinkle with chopped Italian parsley and serve.


Prepare as above, but just before the butter is brown, add 1 1/2 cups blanched sliced almonds.  Remove the almonds as they brown and reserve in small bowl.
To serve, spread the almonds over the crabs and then cover them with the sauce.

Softshell crabs are in season with asparagus, baby beets, green peas (usually called English peas here), and new potatoes.  Mint is now up too, and I use it liberally.  This menu has a thread of mint running all the way through it that brings all the dishes together.  You can even use mint instead of parsley or other herbs on your softshells.  French tarragon is another good substitute.

Serve softshell crabs with boiled new potatoes combined with quickly cooked fresh peas, gently folded with warm melted butter, finely sliced spring onions, and chopped fresh mint.  Season with salt and pepper.

The earthy flavors of vegetables just pulled from the soil beautifully complement seafood and citrus is great with both.


Snap off the tough ends of 2 pounds of fresh asparagus and arrange on baking sheet.

Whisk together 1/4 cup of olive oil, 2 garlic cloves, minced, and the zest of 1 lemon.

Brush the oil mixture over the asparagus spears and turn them to coat all sides.
Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange 8 lemon wedges around the asparagus.

Bake at 450º for about 6-8 minutes until asparagus are tender and just turning golden.
Remove to serving platter and drizzle with the pan juices.


If you can, use a combination of red and yellow beets. The jewel tones are so pretty!   I use surgical gloves when handling fresh beets, since I otherwise end up with stained nails and hands.

Williams-Sonoma is a favorite source for recipe ideas and here is their version.

1 1/2  pounds trimmed baby red beets
1 1/2 pounds trimmed baby golden beets
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons firmly packed, dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons finely slivered fresh mint leaves
1 orange

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.

Thoroughly wash the beets and pat dry with paper towel.  Place in a roasting pan. Add olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss the beets to coat them.

Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake until tender when pierced with a fork, about one hour.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack to let the beets cool to room temperature.  Slip off the skins and quarter the beets lengthwise.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the vinegar and brown sugar and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Cook until slightly thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.  Remove from heat and cool.

Just before serving, in a large bowl, combine the beets, balsamic sauce, half the mint, salt and pepper and toss to combine.  Transfer to a serving platter and zest strips of orange directly over the beets so they will absorb the flavorful oil from the zest.  Garnish with the remaining mint.

I have never mastered the icing bag technique but recently purchased a tool that takes all the fuss out of piping so this is my new favorite dessert, a variation from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot in Paris.” 


Make the meringues a day in advance.  They are not hard to prepare and do not take much time, but they do need a lot of oven time.  I make the meringues, crème fraiche, and sauce the night before.  Then all I have to do is assemble them before serving.

6 extra-large egg whites at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Finely ground sea salt or kosher salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Crème fraiche
3 pints of strawberries


Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.  Using a small glass and a pencil, draw six 3 1/2-inch circles on the paper.  Turn the paper face down on the baking sheets.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites, cream of tartar, and a large pinch of salt on medium speed until frothy. Add 1 cup of the sugar and raise the speed to high until the egg whites form very stiff peaks. Whisk in the vanilla.  Carefully fold in the remaining sugar.

With a large star-shaped pastry tip, pipe a disc of meringue inside each circle.  Pipe another layer around the edges to form the sides of the shells.

Bake for 2 hours, or until the meringues are crisp and dry but not browned.  Turn off the heat and allow the meringues to sit in the oven for 4 hours or overnight.

Fill each shell with crème fraiche, top with berries, and serve berry sauce.


Thoroughly mix together 1 c. heavy whipping cream and 1 c. sour cream.  Cover and let sit for 24 hours.  Then place in the refrigerator and allow to cool for a few hours.  It will keep for a week with an occasional stir to re-blend.


Place 1 pint of strawberries, chopped, in a non-reactive saucepan and add 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon seedless raspberry jam, 1 tablespoon ruby red port and 1 cup of water.  Bring to a boil and reduce by half.  Cool.  Process or sieve until smooth.

To serve, place one meringue shell on a dessert plate.  Spoon crème fraiche into the shell and top with fresh whole strawberries.  Dribble the sauce over the creation and tuck a fresh mint sprig just beneath the edge of the shell.

(Lynne Foster lives in Hatteras village with her husband, Ernie. Together they operate The Albatross Fleet of charter boats. They actively support the sustainable practices of the island’s commercial fishermen and the preservation of Hatteras Island’s working waterfront.  Both love to cook seafood and entertain friends, and Lynne loves to experiment with recipes for locally caught seafood.)

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