The Soft-shell Crab

A whole saut'eed soft-shell crab spread-eagled across a slice of bread can be a bit disconcerting to the uninitiated. ``Now what do I do?'' I asked my waitress on my first trip through Maryland. ``Just pick it up and eat it,'' she said matter-of-factly.

``What about those legs? And the shell?'' I queried, poking the creature with my fork.

``Just pick it up and eat it,'' she repeated.

Halfway through the first nibble into the crinkly shell, I still wasn't sure I wasn't being put on. Well into a more daring second bite -- a sweet, nutty, crunchy, buttery mouthful -- I was hooked on this Chesapeake Bay delight: the blue crab in its soft-shell stage.

The main habitat of the blue crab is the Atlantic shoreline of the Americas from Cape Cod to Brazil. Its range extends also into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas and even to the shores of the Mediterranean.

Terrence Conway, president of the John T. Handy Company in Maryland, runs the largest processing plant of the briny anthropods in the United States.

From late spring to early autumn, just after their winter hibernation, Atlantic blue crabs crawl into shallow water to escape the jaws of larger fish and predators while they shed their shells. There, local watermen are lurking in the eel grass. With traps and nets, they gather their bounty of blues.

``That's only the beginning,'' Mr. Conway explains. As all crabs don't shed at once, the watermen who catch them play a waiting game.

``They check the color of paddle fins of newly caught crabs to determine when they will molt. Those that are due to shed in three to five days are taken back to shore and to cages called `peeler floats.' The rest are set loose.''

Every three hours, day and night, the cages are checked. Crabs that have shed are quickly plucked from the water, then packed and shipped around the country. ``Mostly up and down the coasts,'' says Mr. Conway, ``but we also do business with some European countries, the Far East, and Africa.

``Once the blues have shed, there's only a three-hour period when they are edible,'' he says.

``After four to five hours they become what we call `paper shells' and have the texture of a paper envelope. At that point they are no longer considered prime commercial condition. At two days, they are rock-hard again.''

Atlantic blues go through this shedding process up to two dozen times in their three-year lifespan.

This common Atlantic blue most often appears on the dinner table in its hard-shell stage. It's less expensive as a hard shell, running about 20 cents a pound. Dock price of these blues in their soft shell is about $2 a pound, but almost every ounce is edible.

Only 15 percent of the 2.5 million pounds of soft-shell crabs harvested yearly in Maryland are eaten in the Chesapeake Bay area, according to Mr. Conway.

Pesca, a seafood restaurant in New York City, has held a soft-shell crab festival every spring for the last four years. Starting in early May some 36 dozen crabs a day are moved from pan to plate to palate at Pesca's.

Although Chef Skip Dillon of Pesca's has come up with some incredibly exotic and imaginative dishes -- how does Soft-Shell Crab with Fresh Asparagus Tips and Sauce Avgolemono wrapped in Phyllo Pastry sound? -- the most popular is simply soft-shell crabs saut'eed in clarified butter.

Mr. Conway agrees, ``The best thing is not to do anything interesting.''

Perhaps, but no chef worthy of his whisk is going to leave it there. At Pesca's, Chef Dillon will have at least three different soft-shell entrees on the menu at any one time. You'll find crabs on the appetizer side of the menu, too, as well as in a chowder, gumbo, or maybe even a salad with baked eggplant.

Live soft-shell crabs are still difficult to find in supermarkets around the United States, so look for them in frozen-food sections.

Chef Dillon uses only live crabs during the season, but he has some serious advice for people who can get only frozen ones.

``Make sure they are defrosted slowly in the refrigerator on paper towels,'' he cautions, ``and that you blot them thoroughly before you saut'e them. The moisture trapped in the shells tends to make them `pop' when cooking.'' This produces hot splatters. Chef Dillon suggests covering them for the first minute when frying or saut'eing. You may add a tablespoon of vegetable oil with unclarified butter in the following recipe to keep crabs from burning. Soft-Shell Crab Saut'e 2 soft-shell crabs per person Flour for dredging Salt and pepper Clarified butter Lemon or lime wedges Slivered almonds, optional

If crabs are frozen, thaw overnight in refrigerator. Pat dry, and dredge in flour lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. Heat clarified butter in frying pan. Add crabs and cover for the first half-minute to avoid splattering.

Saut'e over medium heat for about 3 minutes on each side or until lightly browned.

Remove crabs and saut'e almonds until lightly browned, if desired.

Serve crabs topped with almonds. Deep Fried Soft-Shell Crabs

Prepare crabs as for saut'eing. Fry in deep fat at 360 degrees F. for 2 to 5 minutes depending on size.

Drain thoroughly and serve with lemon wedges or tartar sauce.

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