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Mastering the Soft-Shell

If it ever came to a last meal choice, what would yours be? Without a doubt, if I had any appetite at all, mine would be a fried soft-shell crab. Fried oysters would be tempting but the blue crab in its most seductive state would win the toss.

It is a shame that fried foods are on my black list for weight and health purposes only. And that fried soft-shells rank low in my cooking skills – that’s because I don’t like to fry so I choose to order these seafood luxuries when I’m out at restaurants. What do I mean “rank low?” Truth be known, I’ve hardly ever fried a soft-shell crab … maybe once or twice.

Until now, that is. After crab season bombed out in the spring, it began to gear up in the summer and those rows of fresh soft-shells looked so good in the seafood market. Then I heard there’s another run of crabs in September, so I’ve set out to teach myself how to fry a soft-shell crab properly – it’s about time!

I want my fried soft-shells to turn out like the ones at Galatoire’s, Mandina’s or the old Sid-Mar’s of Bucktown. They should be crisp, not greasy, and golden brown. Their legs should be spread out and the crab should look like it’s standing up or lying down with its legs curled up. When you take a bite, it should be tender and melt in your mouth. If there’s some fat left in the center, that’s all the better.

I’ve read all the local seafood cookbooks and finally put my own recipe together. I have gotten some assurance that the prices are going down and, barring a major hurricane, we should be in good supply again this month.

Gary Bauer, owner of Pontchartrain Blue Crab in Slidell, says we usually get a run of crabs and a “big shed” around the end of August and September. Another run occurs in May and June, but he describes this year’s spring season as one of the worst he’s ever seen. Sometimes the fall run extends into October, says Bauer, who ships live crabs all over the U.S., including Hawaii.

Bauer also says the opening of the spillway has only enhanced the lake, as far as he’s concerned. “It does more good than anything,” he says, explaining that the fresh river water returns the lake to a brackish state that crabs prefer. Since erosion is so rampant on the Gulf coast, too much salt water is pouring into the lakes and waterways to make the crabs happy.

As for hurricanes, Bauer says crabs were plentiful immediately after Hurricane Katrina but few fishers had boats left to bring them in. The supply dropped six months later but by the next year, crabs were back. What happened last spring? “If I knew that, I’d be rich,” Bauer says.

FRIED SOFT-SHELL CRABS
6 medium to large soft-shell crabs
Salt, black pepper and
      cayenne pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying,
      at least 3 cups
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 eggs
2 cups milk

Buy soft-shell crabs as fresh as possible at a store specializing in seafood. They might be cleaned and ready to cook. If not, lift each side of the back shell and remove the gills (dead-man’s fingers). Turn crab over and remove apron or flap. Cut off about 1/4 inch of the face including the eyes – this is easily done with scissors. Rinse crab under cold water being careful not to tear its delicate shell. Yellow fat and orange eggs, if any, may be left in tact.

Pat crabs dry with paper towels and season both sides with salt and peppers.
Heat oil to 375 degrees in a large pot or deep fryer.

While oil is heating, mix flour with a liberal amount of salt and peppers in a large bowl.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs and add milk.

When oil is ready, dip one crab at a time gently into flour mixture, then egg wash, then flour mixture again. Shake off excess. Using tongs, hold the crab legs down and set the legs into the oil first. Hold them there for about 20 seconds and then submerge the whole crab upside down. This makes the legs curl away from the body. Turn the crab at least once while cooking. Keep a thermometer in the oil and add a second crab when temperature is back to 375. Add crabs gradually, keeping the temperature up. Don’t overcrowd pot.

Turn crabs once or twice and fry for several minutes on each side until golden brown. Take up one at a time when ready and place on a paper towel-lined oven-proof pan or platter. Hold in a 200-degree oven until all crabs are fried. Serve immediately.
Serves 6.

Notes: Homemade cole slaw and cheese-topped twice-baked potatoes make good accompaniments. Tartar sauce or a seafood sauce of ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, lemon juice and Tabasco® are popular choices to serve with the crabs. If you can’t find large or jumbo crabs, consider cooking two smaller ones for each person.

BROILED SOFT-SHELL CRABS
6 medium soft-shell crabs
4 tablespoons butter
Salt, black pepper and
     cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Clean crabs as instructed for fried soft-shell crabs. Season liberally with salt and peppers.

Melt butter in a medium saucepan.

Dip crabs, one at a time, into butter and place on a baking pan belly side up. Pour remaining butter over crabs and drizzle them with lemon juice.

Place under a hot broiler (hottest temperature) about 5 inches from flame and broil until crabs are golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side. Serve immediately. Pour any juices remaining in the pan over the crabs.

Serves 3 to 6, depending on appetites.

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