The following is an account of a woman teaching her man to cook soft-shell crabs. A bold move. Below that, the steps to give it a try yourself. But wait, there’s more! There’s also a recipe for crispy Maryland soft-shell crabs, courtesy of the most excellent chef Laurent Tourondel.
Scissors in hand, he cut the eyes off.
Soft-shell crab season runs only a sliver of time in the spring, when crabs have shed their exoskeleton and are soft while regenerating their shell. Soft-shell crabs are about 95 percent edible, but there are some body parts that must come off. Starting with the eyes and mouth. When I worked in a French restaurant in New York’s Theater District, I used to wait with anticipation for the seaweed-filled boxes to arrive from the supplier. My favorite sous-chef would pull me aside with a glint in his eye, hand me a pair of scissors and we’d go to town, creating a crabby massacre.
The first time I decided to bring my culinary blood sport home my husband grimaced, not particularly thrilled with such ritualistic murder happening in the confines of his squeaky-clean sink.
Hesitantly he snipped the tail end off. Using the back of the scissors, he scraped the white webbing out from the underside of the flailing crab. It could no longer see, could no longer breathe.
For my husband, cooking was something that seemed necessary to survival but didn’t necessarily need to happen in the home. He happily grew up on meals culled from quick-concept and fast-food joints, with the occasional home-cooked chicken parm dinner (breaded and fried chicken topped with Prego and melted Polly-o over spaghetti) thrown in for good measure.
One after the next, the crabs are mutilated. Sludgy, fishy water runs down his wrists to his elbows. As the pile of dying crustaceans grows, so does his confidence.
When he was 27 years old, it became clear to my husband that it was time him to learn to cook, and increasingly he was becoming anxious to do so. He was used to living with a food freak who could easily talk about cheese or pickles for hours. He had tasted his way through enough $250-per-head dinners to know his way around a menu. It was time for him to take matters into his own hands. When my husband announced he was ready to learn to cook, I was thrilled, and honored that he trusted me to guide him.
Flour, salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of chili powder are whisked together. Not yet used to the figure-eight motion of using a whisk, flour flies into the air and onto the counter. I show him how to dredge the creatures in the mixture to create a crisp fried crust. Like a good soldier, he dredges them into the mixture, happy that they no longer squirm.
With a sizzle they go into the hot pan. A few minutes on one side. Flip. Cook a few minutes on the other side. Remove. Repeat.
In order to avoid unnecessary strain on our relationship (although the teacher/student situation sounded pretty sexy, he’s certainly not used to me giving him instructions or critiquing him), we came up with a regimen of cooking activities to ease my husband into the realm of food self-sufficiency. One night a week we would have a “lesson”; another night he’d squeeze some time into his busy banker’s schedule to watch me cook. We’d start with how to make pasta and work up to dishes like beef Wellington and matzo ball soup.
Which is how, one day last spring, we found ourselves squeezed into our tiny Manhattan kitchen, pan-frying soft-shell crabs. Now we can’t wait for the season to roll around so we can grab a bag of at one of the markets in Chinatown and take out our scissors.
A couple of lemons are rolled on the counter, halved and squeezed over the crustaceans still cooking on a paper-towel-covered plate. He grabs a piping-hot specimen in his hands, juggles it until it’s cool enough to hold, and takes a bite, the gory scene of the assassination long forgotten. Delicious.
To cook your own soft-shell crabs:
- When buying crabs, look for live crabs that still have their soft shells. The crabs need to be cleaned just before you cook them (ask the fishmonger, or try it yourself with steps 2-4). Avoid crabs wrapped in cellophane—that is a definite sign that they have been frozen.
- To clean the crabs, snip off the mouth and eyes with a pair of kitchen shears. This will kill the crab immediately and painlessly. If you are squeamish about this, you can put the crabs in the freezer for a few seconds to stun them.
- Next, remove the gills. Just clip them off.
- Turn the crab over and remove the apron—the bell-shaped flap on the underbelly. Then the crab is ready to cook. Soft-shell crabs are best served simply.
- In a wide bowl combine 3/4 cups flour with a sprinkling of salt, pepper, and chili powder.
- Dredge the crabs in the flour, which means basically drag them through the flour until each side is lightly coated with the flour mixture. Shake off any excess.
- In a pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons butter, and sauté the crabs until they are golden brown, about 4 minutes per side. And yes, you can eat the whole thing.
Ready for a tougher challenge? Try Laurent Tourondel’s Crispy Maryland soft-shell crabs, or a couple of our other favorites: