After featuring ramps in Lisa M's article last week
, we'd be remiss to leave out softies this week. Admittedly, ramps are my favorite indication that spring is sprung. But soft shell crabs-I mean, god, I love them. I guess depending on my mood, sometimes they're my favorite sign of spring.
What they are:
A soft shell crab is any crab that has recently molted its old exoskeleton and remains very soft. In the US, these are mostly blue crabs that molt and hit the market in the spring. After they molt their old shell, they can begin growing a new shell within 4 days. It starts to get papery, then gets tougher as time goes by so they need to hit the market quickly. What this means for eating, is that the sweet briny meat, normally so difficult to get at, it immediately accessible. And yes, you eat the whole thing, soft shell and all.
How to use them:
The most important step of preparing good softies is to make sure you start with fresh, soft crabs. Buy them from a reputable market, make sure they still look lively (that's right-they should be alive when you get them), and make sure their shells haven't started to toughen up. And of course, make sure they smell good. Your fish monger will usually offer to clean them for you, but they'll be much better if you clean them right before cooking. To do that, use kitchen shears to clip the face off just behind the eyes, then remove the gills under each side of the shell, and finally clip off the apron on the backside. It's typical to dredge them in AP flour (rice flour is a great alternative too), though at Gramercy Tavern we would simply season and grill on the wood fire till they crisp up.
What some chefs are doing with them right now:
When softies are in season, you'll find them on menus everywhere. Oliver Gift from Lowcountry calls them "the hotness." He fries them in a tempura batter, then serves them on toasted potato rolls garnished with charred ramp coleslaw and sweet red onion pickle. Harold Dieterle "loves all types of crabs and Soft Shells are no exception. The crispy exterior and sweet tender meat inside makes it a fun ingredient for me in the kitchen." He's serving them at both of his New York City restaurants. At Perilla, he "crisps it up and pairs it with pickled bok choy, ramps, chia seeds, and spicy almond sauce. You get the sweet, salty, spring-time flavors. At Kin Shop, [he's] using them on the Monday Crab Dinner menus and specials as long as they're in season." One course of the four course crab dinner is soft shell crab served with fermented mustard greens, radish sprouts, and spicy passion fruit vinaigrette. At Clancy's in New Orleans, they cold smoke their softies and top them with more lump crab meat. And at Fish in Philly they are offering up a very Springy soft shell crab in tempura, with roasted ramps, kohlrabi, hedgehog mushrooms, and smoked buttermilk.