Despite the recent “chill” in the air, today I stumbled across a sure sign of spring: the first batch of fresh, live, soft shell crabs at Citarella. Nothing makes me happier than a nice fried soft shell crab, and now I’ve got three months of crab season to look forward to. The fact that it coincides with my favorite season of the year has a *little* to do with it, but either way, I’m psyched:
Soft shell crab season on the East coast of the US runs from early May to July. These little guys must have been the first batch. Packed in straw, they were still alive and kicking when I found them at Citarella.
Soft shell crabs are simply crabs that have just molted. For those of you who never found a snake skin when you were little, molting is the shedding of the skin. Soft shell crabs have shed their hard shells so they can grow larger, leaving them soft, pliable, and oh-so-delicious. Fun story: I caught a soft shell lobster while diving off Gloucester last summer, which was really weird. It was totally limp, couldn’t pinch a marshmallow, and was delicious sauteed in butter. Lobsters, just like crabs, molt once a year, but you’ll never see soft shell lobster on the menu. That takes away the fun of cracking the claws, right?
Anyway, I digress. Look for soft shell crabs, live, in your fish market for the next few months. I always have the fishmonger clean them for me, which saves the trouble of tearing out the lungs and cutting off the face. Yes, that’s really what you do to clean it. Everything else is edible. If you are cleaning them yourself, see my post about that here.
Today I went with a traditional flour-based breading, fried in grapeseed oil, with a sweet corn salad and chipotle aioli. Let me tell you…this was a great lunch. Super meaty (as all soft shell crabs should be), crispy, spicy, delicious. I will be eating these a lot for the next few months.
Soft Shell Crab with Sweet Corn Salad and Chipotle Aioli (serves 4 as an appetizer)
- 4 soft shell crabs, cleaned
- 1 cup flour
- salt, pepper
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1/2 c neutral oil
For the corn salad:
- 3 ears fresh sweet corn, kernels cut from cob
- 4 scallions, sliced
- 2 serrano peppers, thinly sliced
- 4 T fresh chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 3 T vinegar
- 1 tsp chili powder
- juice from 1 lime
- salt and pepper
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 T adobo (from 1 can chipotle peppers in adobo)
- Squeeze of fresh lime
The first thing to do is to make the corn salad and the aioli, since they can relax in the fridge while you cook the crabs. If you have a grill, shuck the corn and grill it quickly (only a few minutes) and then remove it from the cob. If not, you can quickly blanch it, or just do it raw. I like raw corn, but this part is up to you.
Mix the corn, serranos, scallions, oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, chili powder, and cilantro in a bowl, and sprinkle with the lime juice. Stir to incorporate, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
For the aioli, you will want a can of chipotle peppers in adobo. You will only be using the sauce, so save the peppers and use them for quesadillas, nachos, or any other dish requiring a little smokey spice. They are widely available; I use Roland brand.
Mix the mayo, a squeeze of lime, and adobo together, and refrigerate. If you like a spicier mayo, add more adobo.
For the Crabs:
Pour 1/4 inch of oil into a heavy-bottomed saucepan (I used a cast iron skillet). Heat over medium heat until it registers 375 on an instant read thermometer, or a fleck of batter sizzles and browns when tossed into the oil.
Meanwhile, mix the flour and seasonings together. Whisk the egg and milk together in a separate bowl.
Dredge the crab in flour, then egg, then flour again, and place into the pan. You can cook 4 at once if your pan is big enough. Cook for 4 minutes per side, or until golden brown.
Serve at once on a bed of greens, with corn salad and plenty of the aioli for dipping. And yes, you can eat the entire thing!