Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Softshell Crabs

Yesterday, the long awaited first softshell blue crabs of the year arrived, and last night during dinner service, I took some photos while cleaning crabs to help answer the inevitable questions I get every year*.

*May 23, 2008 Update: yes, you eat the whole thing, legs and all. It's so obvious to me having eaten them all my life, that I failed to mention that.

I've grown up here in Virginia, right on the Chesapeake Bay, crab central in the US for blue crabs, so working with crabs is second nature to me. Working with blue crabs is apparently fairly alien to a lot of people. But, I can understand that. Would you believe that I have never had any Alaskan crab in my life?

This post is about how to prep softies for cooking. For more information on soft shell crabs, refer to the article I wrote some years ago and by all means, read the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William Warner. It sums up pretty well Virginians and our relationship with the blue crab.

First, crab 101. The crab at the top of the photo is a female, called a sook. Look at her apron, the part that is shaped like the US Capitol dome. The crab at the bottom of the photo is a male, called a jimmy. His apron resembles, well, male parts, or the Washington monument.

When buying softshells, look first for crabs that are alive: that will be your key to freshness. Next, feel the shells, especially the points on either side. The shells should be very soft and supple, not dry and papery. The points should be soft. If they are not, the crab has shed too long ago and is not going to be the most enjoyable it could be.

To prep a crab for service, it is customary to take off its eyes and mouth. This is certainly not necessary, but American squeamishness with food demands it, for the most part.

I use a knife to cut behind the eyes. Two of my cooks use scissors. Whatever works for you.

Next, pull up the edges of the soft shell to expose the gills. Remove the gills. I use the tip of my knife to scrape them out; the rest of my cooks pull them out with their fingers. In a fresh crab, this step is entirely optional as every part is edible.

Clean out the gills on both sides.

Then flip the crab over and pull the apron away from the crab and cut it off. It's perfectly edible, but it will blow up like a balloon in the pan and finally explode, splattering you with very hot grease. Not pleasant. Better to remove it before the crab takes its revenge on you.

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