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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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Soft-shell crab season, that is.

One of the region’s most coveted delicacies, soft-shell crabs are blue crabs in their molten state, a process that happens approximately 18-23 times during their three-year life span. During shedding, crabs increase by one-third in size, backing out of their shells to make room for their new girth. It’s a soft-shell for only a few hours, though, and must be harvested from the water immediately in order to prevent the shell from becoming hard.

Late spring to early fall is considered high season for blue crabs in the nude, who, unlike fellow crustaceans, are meaty and large enough to make the harvesting worthwhile. You can buy them frozen, but just like eating tomatoes in January, it’s just not the same thing.

Soft-shells are split up into five basic sizes: whales, jumbos, primes, hotels and mediums. Prices can be as high as $8.50 early in the season and as low as $4.50 later on.

They are measured across the back, point-to-point. The molting process means an abundant supply of soft crabs from late spring to early fall, with May through September ranking as the most productive months.

And yes, you do eat the entire crab.

Around the Line, we have pretty good access to soft-shells. Generally, though, I shop at Hill’s in Newtown Square or Seafood USA in Wayne, but occasionally, I will pop into Philadelphia Fish and Company in Wynnewood. All three try to keep their soft-shell supply up during the season.

Sure, they’re a little creepy looking, but isn’t most food when in its raw state? Freshness is key, so knowing how to clean soft-shells is important. You can have your seafood monger do it for you, but if you are chilling on the Chesapeake and want to bring some up live, simply tuck them between wet newspapers or paper towels to keep them moist and store them in a cooler until you can get to a refrigerator.

Cleaning soft crabs is pretty darn easy, just a little disgusting. I got a lesson from a guy on the Chesapeake that I will never forget. The first step is the “face off,” which means cutting the face off behind the eyes. (He used a scissor the size of a small saw.) Then, you need to remove the gelatinous goo (unofficially called a “feed sac” by my Hill’s source, Andrew) with your finger. I don’t really like touching the stuff, so I kind of scrape it with the scissor. Next, you have to cut off the “apron,” which I dimwittingly call the tail, then lift the top shell and snip out the lungs on each side. Run under cold water to clean. Pat dry and voilà, they’re ready to cook.

Sometimes, even the best-looking crabs can be deceiving. I had some over the weekend that seemed waterlogged (a result of sitting too long after harvest), and despite exuberant patting and a hot grill, wound up on the mushier side of things, rather than fluffy, lumpy crabmeat chunks just like you get in a typical hard shell crab. (You want that plumpness and that “pop” when you cook and bite into them—it’s almost like they swell up.)

Most people pan-fry the crabs at home, in some type of coating. Personally, I like them any way, as long as they’re meaty and sweet, and not mushy, as mentioned. But the coating should be light so as to not overwhelm the crab. I find it easiest to throw a simple marinade of olive oil, lemon and garlic on them—or occasionally, soy and olive oil—and toss them on a hot grill, about three minutes per side. If you like anything grilled, you will like the soft-shells grilled—they get a nice char to them, with the smallest of their legs turning into crispy, almost potato chip-like bites.

Here’s a yummy-looking recipe I found while perusing the Web last week. I haven’t made it yet, but I am definitely planning to:

Pasta with Soft-Shell Crabs
Recipe written by Mark Bittman, writer for the New York Times and nytimes.com
Published: May 28, 2008

Prep time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or a little more
3 or 4 cloves garlic, slivered
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, or to taste
4 soft-shell crabs, cleaned (at fish market if you like)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound long pasta, like spaghetti or linguini
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves

Directions:
1. In a very deep skillet or broad saucepan, warm oil, garlic and chili flakes over low heat; do not let garlic brown. When garlic is soft—at least five minutes—add crabs and cover (keep heat low to medium-low; liquid in pan should barely bubble). Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it.
2. Let the crabs cook until they give up all their liquid and become firm, about 15 minutes. When crabs are almost done, begin cooking pasta. When crabs are done, use tongs to remove them and hold them while cutting up with scissors. Return to pan.
3. Drain pasta when it is barely tender, a little short of how you’d want to eat it, reserving some cooking water. Add pasta to crabs and toss together over medium heat with pan juices and black pepper, adding some cooking water and a little more oil, if necessary—the amount of each will depend on how much more cooking the pasta needs, and how much liquid the crabs have exuded. Add parsley, taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. When pasta is perfectly cooked, serve.

And, here’s how they’re being served around town:

Maia: Tempura-fried in a light batter, and served with celery root slaw and a truffle rémoulade. 789 E. Lancaster Ave., Villanova. (610) 527-4888

Stella Blu: Sautéed with English pea and crawfish risotto and reduced balsamic vinegar. 101 Ford St., West Conshohocken, (610) 825-7060; stellablurestaurant.com

Gypsy: Flash-fried with grilled Jersey tomato, asparagus salad and pine nut basil pesto. 128 Ford St., Conshohocken, (610) 828-8494; gypsysaloon.com

Feel free to post a comment with any other notable menu sightings …

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