Put a bite on soft-shell crabs

Soft-shell crabs can be a little daunting the first time they're set in front of you. "What do I do now?" is a common refrain.

Nothing could be easier, really. You grab a knife and fork and dig in. You eat the whole thing - shell and all. Unlike hard-shell crabs, there's no tedious, time-consuming ordeal in cracking the claws and groping for elusive bits of meat with a pick.

Soft-shell crabs - in season now until September - are not a separate species, but the common blue crab, Callinectes sapidus, that has molted its hard, protective shell. The species is most common in the Chesapeake Bay area.

During the vulnerable two-day period before their new shell hardens, they are pulled from the water and shipped to gourmet restaurants around the world, and, if you're fortunate, to your local supermarket.

The simplicity of soft shells is not only in the eating, but in the preparation. Dust with seasoned flour and sautee in melted butter - flavor with a clove of garlic, perhaps; sauteed for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, and sprinkle with a few drops of lemon juice. That's it. Slip them between a couple of pieces of bread, with a piece of lettuce and, if you really want to be fancy, a bit of tartar sauce and you have a sandwich.

The recipe (right) is simple, too.

Deep-Fried Soft-Shell Crabs

6 large, or 12 small soft-shell crabs

3 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup water

3 cups fine

fresh bread crumbs

1 cup all-purpose flour

Freshly ground black pepper

Vegetable, canola, or peanut oil for frying

1 lemon cut in wedges

Chopped fresh parsley

Tartar sauce (optional)

Rinse crabs and pat dry with paper towels.

Mix eggs, water, and pepper in a shallow bowl. Place bread crumbs on a plate, and the flour and pepper in a third.

Pour oil to 1/3 depth in a heavy skillet. Heat oil to 360 degrees F., or until a small cube of bread sizzles when dropped in the oil. (Oil must be very hot to cook crabs properly.)

Dredge crabs in flour, then in egg mixture, then in the bread crumbs. Fry crabs a few at a time until crisp (about 3 to 4 minutes depending on the size of the crabs). Careful, crabs spatter when cooking.

Drain crabs on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and more pepper, to taste. Garnish with lemon wedges and parsley. Serve with tartar sauce if you wish.

Serve with small new potatoes, or white rice and asparagus, or a simple salad.

Serves 6.

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