These few weeks of May are a really special and inspiring time of year for anyone who loves to cook. Or loves to eat, for that matter. In North America, our tender spring vegetables like asparagus, ramps, fava beans and morel mushrooms make their decidedly long-awaited but fleeting appearance. I usually celebrate them in a blog posting but this year, I wanted to remind you of another delicacy that is in its "peak" during this wonderful pre-summer warmup: the soft-shelled crab. Now, I hesitated posting this because I know how much eating these really turns some people off. If you're one of them, I apologize and please just look away and move on. But, for those of you who love the Maryland-style Soft-Shelled Crab, read on! This is my fantastic "Soft-Shelled Blue Crab with Mango and Arugula".
It's really a very simple recipe, the hardest part is finding the soft-shelled crab and doing it before they disappear some time in July. They're available now, because the growing crabs have just shed a harder exoskeleton and are growing their adult shells. So, they're tender and fully-edible, every last piece. the key is to get them fresh as possible, (read reputable fishmonger) have them cleaned by that fishmonger and to cook them hard and fast for a short time. I went with a pretty traditional method; dredging them in flour and my own home-made spice mix redolent of the famous Old Bay Seasoning. Then a quick flash in the pan with a little oil to fry them up super crispy. I tossed up a gorgeous little arugula and mango salad as a bed for the little guys. It was delicious combination! The sweet and fruity mango really tastes awesome with the oceanic and spicy crabs. I sprinkled the spice mix directly on the mango slices to and wow, was that good!
Typical soft-shelled crabs from the East Coast of the United States are blue crabs. You can see in the photo below, the tinge of blue on their bodies. When you're frying them, they turn varying shades of orange, red and brown. Similar to shrimp, that's when you know they're cooked -- they go from bluish transparent to full opaque and a red, orange, pink tints. You want the shells to be crispy and crunchy too so watch them carefully, there is a perfect moment when they're "done" and it depends on your pan and stovetop. Opaque, red-orange everywhere and crunchy are the guidelines.
Here's how I made them:
Serves 2 as first-course
For the spice mixture similar to Old Bay:
1 T. ground dried bay leaves
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp. dry mustard like Coleman's
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 tsp. ground fennel
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
For the dish:
2 fresh soft-shelled crabs, rinsed and thoroughly patted dry with paper towel
2 T. flour
2 T. Old Bay seasoning or spice mixture above
2 pinches kosher salt
2 c. fresh arugula, washed and dried
1 mango, peeled and diced
2 T. lemon juice
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 pinches kosher salt
4 grinds black pepper
1. (Optional step, making the spice mix) Note: if you're going to toast whole spices and then grind them, you will need to back off the winter spices like cardamom and allspice. I used pre-ground for speed. In a spice grinder, grind up the bay leaves and red pepper flakes to a fine powder. Dump into a small air-tight plastic container. Add the remaining spices and stir together to incorporate. Remove two tablespoons and store the rest in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard.
2. Add the arugula and mango to a bowl. In another small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper for a quick vinaigrette. Pour over the mango and arugula salad and let it sit while you finish the crabs.
3. Put the flour and spice mixture onto a plate and stir with a spoon to mix evenly. Dredge each of the crabs in the mixture, making sure to coat all sides and pieces and then shake off any excess. Set aside for a few minutes.
4. Heat a very large non-stick skillet and add 3 T. extra virgin olive oil or canola oil. When oil is shimmering hot, gently add the crabs shell-side down using a pair of kitchen tongs. Beware: they will splatter and pop as they're cooking so stand back! Fry each crab until orange-red-brown and crispy and fully opaque, about 2-3 minutes. Flip and repeat on the second side. When both sides of each crab are fully crispy and cooked through, remove from the heat.
5. Place a mound of salad on the plate, add one crab on top and sprinkle with more kosher salt and spice mixture. Serve immediately and enjoy!