“If you like fried chicken, you’ll like soft-shell crab.”
well, you might like soft-shell crab a whole lot better, but this is
the phrase my mother and father used to entice people to sample
pan-fried, fresh-from-the-water soft-shell crab.
with flour or dipped in the lightest batter, my folks sautéed the crabs
until their lacy crusts turned honey brown, signaling the sweet, juicy
meat within the papery shell was ready to eat.
Forget tedious hours hand-picking meat from hard-shell crabs. With soft-shells, you eat the whole thing.
parents, brother and I found soft-shells while digging clams around
Sneads Ferry. Now and then, the crabs would be hiding in the shallows.
Just after molting, blue crabs lay low. Their new, soft shells make the
normally formidable pinchers an easy meal for predators.
one or two soft-shells would end up in my father’s shrimp or fishing
nets. Four crabs a day, no matter where they appeared, was a big haul,
making soft shells a rare delicacy.
we landed just one, my father fried and plated it ceremoniously,
placing the crab on the cleared dinner table. There the soft-shell sat
as he described how delicious it would be. Our imaginations on
anticipation overload, Dad carefully cut the crab into four equal
parts. Each of us slowly savored our share.
then, soft-shells were a marvel in our Jacksonville neighborhood.
Friends went crabbing, but it was the hard-shell crabs that hit their
chicken-neck baits tied at the end of long strings. No one had ever
seen a soft-shell crab.
days, the soft-shell crab season’s arrival is indicated by more than
May’s first full moon, the traditional marker for fishermen. The crabs
show up on menus all over North Carolina, and diners know when they’re
due. The soft-shell crab’s celebrity is thanks to fishers and seafood
markets that some years ago predicted the sales growth potential for
soft-shell crabs and put the word -- and product -- out.
understood the market segment’s promise because they had eaten their
share of delectable soft-shell crabs. As South River’s Rodney Cahoon
once said, “When you take a crab hot out of the oil and put it right
between a light bread biscuit, it’s a heck of a meal. You’ll feel like
you died and gone to heaven.”
May and June, soft-shell crab season peaks. That’s when maturing crabs
that have outgrown their hard shells shed the too-small armor. For a
few hours afterwards, the new exoskeleton, including that on the legs
and claws, is soft.
crabbers might nab one or two soft-shells, but to get a load, they look
through their hard-crab catch to determine which of the crustaceans are
preparing to molt. They identify the “peelers” by looking at colors and
other markings on the crab’s body. The secrets of identifying peelers
have been handed down to fishermen through the generations, especially
in northeastern North Carolina, where the soft-shell industry
peelers go into large shallow tanks, where they are monitored around
the clock. Some fishermen can estimate the exact hour when a crab will
lose its hard shell. Time is short between molting and the crab’s new
shell hardening. Immediately upon shedding, crabs are sent to market
live, where chefs have a limited time to serve them, or the crabs are
packed and frozen.
Frozen soft-shell crabs are washed, dressed and ready to cook after defrosting.
prepare fresh soft-shell crabs, wash the body and then turn the crab on
its back. Lift and remove what is called “the apron” from the crab’s
underside. The apron is a rounded or T-shaped flap on the stomach. It
lifts off easily.
the crab back over and lift up the shell so that the grayish gills are
exposed. Use a knife to scrape off the gills. The shell may be left
intact or removed along with the digestive sac. Finally, remove the
eyes and mouth by making one cut behind the eyes with kitchen shears.
there, prepare to enjoy a Down East delight: that heavenly soft-shell
crab sandwich Cahoon described. It’s classic in the eastern Carteret
County fishing communities known as Down East.
Soft-shell crabs, cleaned and ready to prepare, can also be purchased in many seafood stores along the coast.
other preparations in mind. Marinate and then grill soft-shell crabs
over a slow fire and at least 12 inches above the heat. Cut fried or
grilled soft-shell crabs into bite-size pieces and add them to bisque.
FRIED SOFT-SHELL CRAB
1 tablespoon of water
2 cups all-purpose flour
Peanut oil for frying
1 dozen soft-shell crabs, cleaned and dressed
In a large, shallow bowl, beat eggs with water. Place flour in another large, shallow bowl or plate.
Place a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Pour peanut oil into skillet, to a depth of 1 to 2 inches.
While oil is heating, dip crabs in egg mixture and then dredge them in the flour.
Fry crabs in medium-hot oil until crabs are lightly browned. Drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.
DOWN EAST SOFT-SHELL CRAB SANDWICH ON LIGHT BREAD
1 package yeast
2 cups warm water
6 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons shortening
Fried soft-shell crabs
Sprinkle yeast over warm water and allow to sit for 5 minutes.
in a large bowl blend together flour, salt and sugar. Cut shortening
into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add yeast and
water mixture and stir until dough is formed.
dough out onto a floured pastry board and knead 8 minutes or until
elastic. Cover dough and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in
size. Punch down and shape into rolls large enough to hold one crab
Place rolls on a greased cooking sheet and let rise until doubled, about 20-30 minutes.
rolls in a 400-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Cool slightly. Split
rolls and place a hot, fried soft-shell crab in each roll.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
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