TAKING THE BAIT: During my freshman year of college, I worked as a waiter in a restaurant. The experience made me decide to go to the Culinary Institute of America. Today, I think being true to the region is what makes a chef unique. My training is all French and Italian, but I was raised in the American mid-Atlantic region, so I apply my classical cooking training to its products. And the area's cuisine would be incomplete if you didn't mention soft-shell crab.
A REAL CATCH: The crabs begin to molt and shed their shell in late spring. That's when they're best. Those left in the bay develop a hard shell -- though we eat them as well, of course.
SHELLFISH SHOPPING: When you feel the top of the crab -- which should still be alive and active, not lethargic -- it should be silky, like suede. The little points on the top shell should be soft to touch, and the two front claws should be intact. They should have a good blue hue or a real aqua color at their ends. The crab shouldn't have a strong smell to it. If you don't feel like tackling the soft-shells yourself, a lot of places will steam and spice them for you. You can take them home cooked and ready to crack.
COOKIN': The classical way of preparing soft-shells is to dredge them lightly in flour and saute in clarified butter. Then take them out of the pan and make a pan butter sauce. What's inside the crab when you eat it this way is called "the mustard." It's a yellowish liquid with a strong flavor.
DIG IN: Eating a soft-shell crab for the first time can be daunting. Begin by taking a knife and fork and cutting it right down the middle, from tail to front. You'll have two equal halves. Then I recommend eating from the legs in. Get a little of the inside of the crab, with the mustard, a little of the soft shell and a little bit of the crispy leg. Eat them together so you get a little crunchiness and a little softness of the interior.
ON THE SIDE: You don't want to overpower the crab. I like to serve soft-shells with a salad -- some lightly wilted baby spinach or some cantaloupe and watermelon. You get the richness of the crab with the sweetness of the melon. Get creative, but don't overcomplicate things. Don't serve soft-shells with intense mushrooms or black truffles. And while hard-shell crabs taste great with a cold beer, with soft-shell crabs, try a bright white wine, like a crisp Riesling or champagne.
As told to Kelly DiNardo
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