April 29, 2008
Island Cooking: Spring is the time that we wait for our softshell crabs
By LYNNE FOSTER
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
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
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
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!
SAUTEED SOFTSHELL CRABS
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.)
BROILED SOFTSHELL CRABS
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.
TYLERTON STYLE SOFTSHELL CRABS
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.
- TARTAR SAUCE
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
The earthy flavors of vegetables just pulled from the soil beautifully complement seafood and citrus is great with both.
- ROASTED ASPARAGUS
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.
ROASTED BABY BEETS WITH BALSAMIC, ORANGE, AND MINT
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
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
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
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
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.)