Soft shell crabs: Delight of the sea

By Nick Borreggine | Each year that passes I eagerly await the end of winter.  No, I don’t mind our mild winters, it’s what comes next that I am anticipating.  Spring across the Lowcountry.  Certainly, the birds are chirping, our azaleas blooming, dogwoods and magnolias budding, and the daffodils are ready to be picked.  We’re blessed with days in the 70s, and nights in the 60s.

Truth be told, the Lowcountry is probably the most beautiful part of the entire country.

Even with all of this beauty to distract from other things, I just shake myself of other thoughts at this time of year. My mind is focused on a certain two to three week period that signals winter is indeed over, to me anyway. The one event in which I determine when spring has arrived.

The arrival of the crispy crustacean of the heavens. The soft shell crab, of course.Nick's Fat Patties even puts a soft shell crab on a burger.  This is called the 'Crabby Pattie'. Try one this season.  Photo ESPB

Having lived up and down the east coast I’m no stranger to the short period of time that these beauties are available.  If you could compare a map of the east coast and a thermometer, the soft shell crab availability will rise like the mercury to let you know when spring is near.  Yes, the mercury gets stuck here in Beaufort a bit longer than other areas. I guess it may be due to our early and long springs. Or maybe it’s God showing favoritism to us for the heavy burden we bear with our oh-so-tough Lowcountry winters.

Soft shell crabs: Delight of the seaFestivals are named after them.  Restaurants delight customers with them. Shirts depict them.  Tastebuds envy them.

I’m personally very grateful for this crispy, crunchy, creamy delight of the sea, and I’m quite sure you’ll agree.

My personal favorite preparation is simply breaded and sautéed in butter with fresh lemon. But I’ll gladly eat and enjoy them any way they are prepared.  Fried is the method of choice in our neck of the southern woods, so that will do just fine by me.  My only rule is that they have to be crispy.

Try it yourself!

Here’s a simple recipe and then I’ll throw in a way to put a bit of a twist on it, to make it your own.
So let’s begin with the Softie!

When purchasing your crabs, make sure they are alive.  Sometimes they will be very dormant if they get too cold, so let them warm up to ensure they are active. (Warning: Do not attempt in front of small children!)
With a pair of sizzlers, cut off slightly more than just the eyes and first part of the head.  Lift back the soft shell on the sides to expose the lungs. Dispose of them too.  Lastly, flip it over and cut off the tail.

The ‘simple preparation’ is to roll the crab in Wondra flour or rice flour.  Preheat a sauté pan on high temp.  Add a significant amount of canola oil.  I absolutely recommend canola oil, as other oils will smoke too soon and will not be able to hold the heat. Add the crabs, but not more than two per pan. This will maintain the pan’s heat and ensure you get a crispy crab.

Cook for 3-4 minutes and flip.  Reassess your oil . If you need more, add it.  If you do not hear the ‘sizzle’, add more oil.
2-3 minutes on the second side is all that it takes and they will be done.
Take out of the pan and drain on paper towel. Give a squeeze of lemon…and enjoy.

You could also try, using the same method above, but this time instead of Wondra or Rice flour use cornmeal or crushed “Potato Chips.” (be careful the chips will brown quickly)

Mix Mayonnaise with Cayenne, lemon juice, fresh chopped herbs.  Any fresh herbs would work but cilantro or basil would be my choice.  Salt and pepper to taste.

If this is your first time, welcome to a special treat, and a piece of the Lowcountry that you’ll be sure to enjoy for seasons to come.  I’ll probably see you around somewhere in the next few weeks, and you can bet I’ll have softies on my mind.

Happy spring feasting!

Soft shell crabs: Delight of the sea