By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Soft-shell crabs are the jewel of the Chesapeake, a culinary luxury on par with truffles, caviar and champagne. Or so they say.
Delicate and expensive, sure. But I have to confess, I've never understood the fuss. Soft-shells don't really taste like much besides deep-fried batter, the prevailing flavor in most preparations. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But there are cheaper and easier ways to satisfy that craving.
What was I missing? I talked to a few chefs, a seafood distributor and finally Kevin Wade, who sells soft-shells at J&W Seafood in Deltaville, Va., on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Most city folk like me, he said, have never tasted a good one: "You've only eaten hamburger. You've never tasted a steak."
Getting a "steak" is harder than it should be, given that we city folk live just three hours from the source. Like tomatoes, which are transcendent only at the peak of ripeness, soft-shells must be eaten within two days of when the blue crab crawls out of its hard shell. Several hours is better. True connoisseurs will move the crabs from the water to the pan within minutes.
That is no easy feat. And that's why so many soft-shells disappoint. The ones in most sushi rolls? Frozen. The ones at the grocery store? Cleaned at the processor days before you buy them, an absolute no-no according to chefs such as Bob Kinkead. "That's nasty," he said. "It's like selling dead lobster."
Even fresh ones can be a letdown. Many producers allow the crabs to develop a very thin shell, called a paper shell, before shipping. It's a trick that makes them last longer but taste like mild-flavored crab cardboard.
Getting the perfect soft-shell -- a delicately crunchy and juicy one -- requires timing and precision from waterman to processor, distributor and chef. In the Chesapeake, crabs usually begin to molt after the first full moon in May and continue through until September; crabs from Florida and Georgia are available as early as March. This year, the run began late because of the cold, rainy spring. Peak season, when both males and female x crabs shed their shells, is happening now and will last until early June. J&W's Wade expects 2009 to be a bumper year, with harvests at least 25 percent higher than in 2007.
Watermen are a crucial link in the fragile chain. Fay Holloway Jr., who has been crabbing for 31 years, checks his traps each day. It's a tedious process. In Virginia, commercial fishermen are allowed up to 210 traps, known as peeler pots. (A peeler is a crab that will soon shed its shell.) Checking them all takes six to eight hours.
Crabbers pull each trap from the water and must inspect every crab. The watermen are looking for a pale pink or red color on the crab's swimming fin, an indication that the crab will soon molt.
Peelers are thrown into a bushel basket; crabs with white fins go back into the water.
Watermen then deliver bushels of crabs to processors such as J&W. The peelers are held in molting tanks, which look like giant bunk beds filled with water, where they are monitored 24 hours a day. Once the crab crawls out of its shell, the staff has two to four hours to "fish up" or remove the crab from the water before it begins to form a new shell.
Relentlessly scanning a tank of crabs is head-wrecking work. In high season, Wade's employees put in 80 hours a week. "This is why God created seasons," Wade said. "Because you can't do this all the time. You'll die."
Out of the water, an ideal soft-shell will feel like velvet or soft skin to the touch. The crabs are quickly graded by weight, packed in trays and stored in a cooler. Within a few hours, they're on a truck to the city, and by 10 a.m., they arrive in restaurants and grocery stores.
But the potential pitfalls don't end there. Once the crabs arrive, they must be kept at about 50 degrees. They like a little moisture but not enough to encourage them to grow a new shell. "There are lots of tricks to handling them," said Scott Weinstein, fishmonger at BlackSalt Market in the Palisades. "You have to learn what you can sell and move through them. If I didn't have [BlackSalt restaurant] here that blew through them, too, it would be even more difficult."
All told, chefs and retailers have at most two days to sell the crabs. The longer they sit, the more water drains out of their bodies, which can leave them mushy or insipid. "It's not really about the flavor," chef Kinkead said as he popped two crabs into a hot pan of clarified butter. "What people like is the texture. All the little crispy bits."
To deliver that, a little technical skill is required. First, it's best to clean the soft-shells right before cooking. That will keep them juicy and light. And it's easy. Flip the crab on its back and pull off the lift-off flap called the apron. Next, turn it over and use scissors to snip off the front of the crab, about one-half inch behind the eyes. (It sounds scarier than it is.) Then lift the pointed end of the crab's outer shell and remove and discard the gills. Rinse the crab, and pat it dry.
Diners like deep-fried crabs, and most chefs will serve them that way. But everyone I spoke to prefers to pan-fry them. Never one to mince words, Kinkead explained why: "People deep-fry them because you can use older crabs and you won't taste the paper shell. It's also easier to deep-fry than saute. Deep-fried crabs are popular for the same reason that Chilean sea bass was: You could have inept cooks cook the hell out of it and still get away with it."
Or to put it another way: Deep-frying masks a multitude of sins.
Instead, many chefs recommend the simplest preparations. Clean the crabs, then dust them with a layer of low-gluten flour such as Wondra. (Those who are wheat-intolerant can substitute rice flour or pulverized quinoa.) Heat butter or canola oil in a pan and saute the crabs for two to three minutes per side, depending on the size. You can also grill them. Oil the grates and flip the crabs every two to three minutes until they are red, about five to seven minutes total. Most chefs like "hotel" or "prime" crabs, medium-size ones that weigh between 1.9 and four ounces.
From there, the sky is the limit. Kinkead serves them topped with lemon-butter sauce alongside a ragout of spring vegetables: "I'm here to make it taste good," he said cheerfully. "I'm not running a spa." Down the road at Equinox, chef Todd Gray serves them over squid-ink fettuccine tossed with tarragon-tomato sauce, with sauteed spinach and house-cured bacon, and on an upscale sandwich with caper remoulade and romaine.
I tasted all of Gray's preparations, plus some oversize whales that J&W's Wade deep-fried right out of the tank in Deltaville. None had an intense crabby flavor, but done right, they had a texture that was something special. The fried crabs were meaty, salty and juicy, a combination impossible to criticize. In Gray's dishes, the crabs added little juice explosions to the delicate sauces and flavor combinations.
"People are intimidated by soft-shells," Gray told me. "But if you're from here, you have to like them."