The only thing that stands between the cook and the soft-shell crab is nerves.
For the faint of heart, there are certain obstacles to overcome before one can realize the wonderful regional dish offered by the blue crab during molting season.
Regular blue crabs shed their shells each summer to yield a soft, spidery animal that's edible through and through. But there's something about biting into a whole crab -- legs and all -- that perplexes crab novitiates.
Obviously, the most difficult part of soft-shell crab eating is overcoming qualms. "It's a delicacy," says Frances McFaden of the Tidewater Administration, Department of Natural Resources, in Maryland. "For people who have never seen them, this is something very strange."
McFaden, who has grown up eating crabs, describes the soft-shell as "velvet" and "suede." This stage lasts only a matter of hours, however, and the shell, still edible, becomes leathery, sometimes referred to as a "paper shell." It develops brownish spots at this stage, however.
"It isn't much to clean or cook," says McFaden, but she insists that live crabs must actually be moving when they are purchased.
Again, the uneasy consumer might shrink at the idea of cleaning a live crab, but it's the customary method of preparation. Should these feelings come between the cook and dinner, it's always possible to rely on fish market personnel to clean the crab for you. McFaden cautions the consumer to ascertain that the crabs are alive before the cleaning process begins, however.
Inclement weather has created a trickle rather than a full-fledged flow of soft-shell crabs, but the season has started and should last through the summer.
With fresh, clean crabs, preparation is downhill. Seasoning with salt and pepper does them justice -- they fry in just a little oil or butter (or a combination). Some people dredge them in seasoned flour before the saute'. Often crab cakes or fish fillets join them on a plate, and they are usually surrounded with french fries or corn on the cob.
This dinner will probably involve a special stop at the fish market, but the result is so easy and delicious it should be well worth it.
Every kitchen should be stocked with flour, sugar, salt, pepper and butter and/or vegetable oil.
EXPRESS LANE LIST: soft-shell crabs, lemon, almonds, russet potatoes, cabbage, carrots, radishes, mayonnaise. SOFT--SHELL CRABS (4 servings) Flour for dredging Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 8 to 12 medium soft-shell crabs 6 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons oil 1/2 cup slivered or sliced almonds (optional) Juice of 2 lemons White wine, optional
Season flour with salt and pepper and dust the crabs lightly with the flour, shaking off excess. Heat butter in large skillet (it will probably take two and may take a little more fat). Cook over moderate heat about 3 minutes on each side. Remove to warm platter. Add almonds to skillet and stir over heat until they just begin to toast. Squeeze in lemon juice and a few tablespoons of white wine, if desired, and stir to scrape up bits from the pan. Pour this over the crabs and serve.
The crabs may also be served between two pieces of bread for a soft-shell crabwich. It's advised to leave the flour coating off in that case. FRENCH FRIES (4 servings) 6 large, mature baking potatoes Oil or fat for frying Salt and pepper to taste
For good french fries, you must have enough fat to cover the potatoes (you may want to fry in batches). The fat must be hot enough to fry the potatoes quickly. The pot should only be half full, since the fat will spatter and bubble. We like potatoes with the skins on, but that's a matter of preference.
Heat the fat to about 300 degrees. Add sliced potatoes slowly, frying about a cup at a time so there is no drastic drop in temperature, and cook about 2 minutes per batch. Remove potatoes with slotted spoon to absorbent paper.
When all the potatoes have received this initial frying, increase the heat and bring the fat to 375 degrees. Finish frying the potatoes in this -- it should take about 3 minutes. They should be golden brown and crisp. Serve them immediately in a basket or bowl lined with paper towels or napkins. JAMES BEARD'S CARROT COLESLAW (4 servings) 1/2 head firm green cabbage, trimmed of limp or discolored leaves, stalk and core 1 cup shredded carrots 1/2 cup shredded radishes 1 cup mayonnaise Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the cabbage in chunks and slice it very thin with a knife or put it in the bowl of a food processor that has been fitted with the steel blade and process until finely cut. Mix with remaining vegetables and toss with mayonnaise. Flavor with salt and pepper. From "The New James Beard."
For information on crabs and crabbing, write the Department of Natural Resources, Tidewater Administration Sportfishing Office, Tawes Building, Annapolis, Md. 21401.