I learned to eat blue crabs when I first lived in Baltimore, Maryland decades ago.
It’s still done the same way: diners are seated around a sturdy, newspaper-covered table. The crabs, steamed with Old Bay Seafood Seasoning, are heaped by the dozens in the center of the table. They’re quite a sight. Each diner is supplied with a paring knife, a wooden hammer, and lots of paper towels. Grab a crab and you have all you need.
Blue crabs (which are actually bright orange once they’re cooked) are the ultimate finger food. You might eat a small green salad and some rolls while you wait, but once the crabs arrive there’s no need for side dishes.
Just about the time I got used to steamed hard-shell crabs, I was introduced to their younger siblings, the soft-shell crabs. When blue crabs outgrow their shells, they molt. This happy state of affairs happens once a year, from the first full moon in May through the summer until early fall. During this time, the entire cleaned crab is edible, soft shell and all. They are the most abundant outside their coastal habitat during June.
Soft shell crabs have a fresh, slightly lemony flavor. I like them best prepared very simply and served as a sandwich on lightly toasted Italian bread with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.
My children know how much I prize soft shell crabs. They’re pricey, so when my daughter Heather announced she was going grocery shopping at a large specialty market likely to have them, I asked her to bring some back. When she got there, she found that the market had the largest size soft shells (known as whales) that are from 5 to 5 1/2 inches across their backs, point to point. The price was right, so she bought 10 to bring back.
When Heather called on her way home from the store to tell me she had 10 whale-size soft shell crabs on ice, I was delighted. I was a little less so with her answer when I asked if they’d been cleaned. She wasn’t sure. A sobering thought when one realizes if they aren’t cleaned it means they’re alive.
When I picked them up from Heather’s house, the crabs were on ice. This meant they were very still, thereby giving me false hope that they had indeed been cleaned. Hoping against hope that they weren’t alive, I picked one up to study the situation. As I held it up to look more closely, the heat from my fingers awakened him, and he started a slow-motion wave with all his legs. Must have either been a film star or trying to win a beauty contest.
I have never killed anything for the express purpose of eating it. I don’t even boil my own lobsters. However, I reasoned, how hard could it be to clean a crab? Looking to my ancient copy of “The Joy of Cooking” to find out how to do the deed, I quickly decided it’s not for me — no way, no how.
When I called Heather to tell her she had brought me 10 live crabs to deal with, she took pity on me (once she stopped apologizing and laughing) and offered Rodney’s services the next morning. He showed up early the next morning with daughter Susanna in tow and cheerfully did the deed. We froze most of the crabs to last through summer.
And the lesson to take away from this experience? Have your soft shell crabs cleaned before you take them home. I don’t think Rodney’s willing to make very many more (if any) house calls to clean crabs. Do get some and fry them for sandwiches. They’re easy to cook and well worth the expense. After all, how many times do you get the chance to eat a sandwich with legs?
4 soft shell crabs (cleaned)
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
Vegetable oil or peanut oil
Using two pie plates pour buttermilk into one and mix flour and cornmeal in the other. Place crabs in buttermilk for a few minutes until oil is ready.
In a large, heavy skillet or Dutch oven heat 1/4 inch oil until hot but not smoking. Remove crabs one at a time from buttermilk; shake off excess. Dredge in flour mixture. Place into hot oil. Repeat with other 3 crabs. Do not crowd the pan. Fry crabs two at the time if necessary. Fry, turning once, until golden brown and crisp on both sides about 5 minutes.
Crabs can be kept warm on brown paper (to drain oil) in a 175 degree oven until all are done.
Make sandwiches with lightly toasted Italian bread or sandwich buns, lettuce, sliced tomato and mayonnaise. Sandwiches are good with coleslaw on the side.
Makes four sandwiches.
Linda Conway Eriksson can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.