Soft-shell crab season has arrived.
Every spring, mature crabs shed their old shells and start growing bigger ones. That natural process temporarily transforms them from hard-shell crustaceans that are eaten by die-hard fans with the patience to crack them open and pick the meat out, to soft-shell delicacies easily consumed with a knife and fork.
“Soft-shell crab is a seasonal treat,” said Scott Kinsey, chef-owner of two-unit Taqueria Tsunami in Atlanta, who is serving soft-shell crab tacos as a limited-time offering this spring. The crab is breaded in panko, fried, quartered and served in warm flour tortillas with hoisin lime aïoli, watercress and heirloom tomato salsa at $4.50 per taco, each of which contains half a crab.
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Will Reed, a chef at Phillips Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore, said the mild weather this year means soft-shell crabs have been available earlier than usual. Instead of waiting until the restaurant’s usual “soft shell celebration” in mid-May, he has the crabs on the menu already.
Currently, the soft-shell crabs at Phillips are breaded, fried and either served with tartar sauce on a $16.99 sandwich or as a $34 platter. The platter is comprised of two large blue crabs that are each 7 inches in diameter and referred to as “whales” in the industry. They’re dusted in flour and sautéed in clarified butter with seafood seasoning.
During the soft-shell celebration, Reed is planning to broil the soft shells and stuff them with crab imperial, made with jumbo lump crabmeat mixed with mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and seasonings. Phillips hasn’t set the price for it yet, but Reed expects it to be around $36.
Many chefs are pairing the soft shell crabs with other springtime specialties this year. Jeffrey Power of Dettera’s in Amber, Pa., is serving crispy soft-shell crab with fennel marmalade and local dandelion for $28.
John Conlin III, chef of Tangled Vine in New York City, is dusting his soft shells in cornmeal, pan-frying them and serving them on house-made montadito rolls with ramp aïoli, pickled spring onions and upland cress for $16.
Danny Bortnick of Firefly in Washington, D.C., is serving ramps with his crispy soft-shell crab. His are pickled and accompanied by roasted asparagus, smoked ham, grits and a tomato-tarragon purée for $25.
Ed McFarland uses other springtime specialties at his two Ed’s Lobster Bar locations, serving his stout-battered crab with lightly fried slices of sunchoke and a salad of parsley, red onions and chopped garlic. A single-crab appetizer costs $15 and a two-crab entrée runs $28. “Any time you bring crabs in early in the season they fly out the door,” he said.
Francesco Palmieri, chef of The Orange Squirrel in Boomfield, N.J., is taking a more tropical approach. He serves blue corn-dusted, pan-seared soft-shell crab over a mosaic of papaya, pepper, mango and roasted corn and dresses it with Sriracha aïoli. The dish costs $13.
Michael Gilligan, executive chef of the Rusty Pelican in Miami, said soft-shell crab season is a special treat this year. That's because the Japanese-imported frozen version of the crab that he and many other chefs use in spider rolls — a sushi roll made with batter-fried soft-shell crab — has been unavailable since that country was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami.
He serves the soft-shell crabs, breaded in panko and fried, on a sandwich with an Asian slaw of red cabbage; red, yellow and green peppers; snow peas and carrots dressed in yuzu juice, soy sauce and sesame oil. He spreads lemon pepper aïoli on a brioche bun for the sandwich and serves it with a salad of spinach, blackberries and passion fruit vinaigrette for $16.