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The first time I ever tasted soft-shell crab was on an early summer night at The Grill on the Alley in Los Angeles. The sweet yet mildly briny flavor and soft textured crab was unique and memorable.
Living in California has its benefits, but you won't find fresh soft-shell crab at many places. I returned recently to The Grill on the Alley for their 30th anniversary and enjoyed these sautéed crabs just as much as the first day I tried them. The restaurant has been buying its crab from the same purveyor since it opened. The quality of the catch is paramount, and I recommend buying from a specialist fishmonger to get the freshest crabs.
What is a soft-shell crab? It's an ordinary blue crab that has shed its hard outer shell during the normal process of seasonal growth. The crabs have an entirely different taste when they are in this state, and the delicate soft shells add a nice crunch. The peak of the soft-shell crab season is in July and August. This delicacy is most delicious when sauteed quickly.
Make sure the crabs are fresh and, if possible, that they come from Maryland. You'll find soft-shell crabs in different sizes. Look for the crabs to be at least 2 1/2 to 3 ounces. If you can find jumbo ones (4 ounces), that is even better. Save yourself extra fuss by having the crabs cleaned at the fish market so they are ready to go. If you can't find the jumbo size, just cook a few more.
This recipe is a mash-up of my usual rendition with how The Grill on the Alley prepares the crabs. They do a buttermilk wash that adds a tangy undertone of flavor. I season the flour with a bit of cayenne pepper and paprika to add some peppery zest. Serve these with coleslaw and baby roasted potatoes as a main course. For a first course, you'll just need some lemon garnish. What to Drink? How about a crisp and snappy white Soave, dry Riesling, medium to lightweight chardonnay or Australian semillon. All of these will provide just the right balance.
Soft Shell Crab with Lemon Butter
Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a first course.
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
1/8 teaspoon paprika
4 jumbo (4 ounces each) soft-shell crabs, cleaned and dried
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, sliced
1. If the crabs are not cleaned, remove the feelers underneath the shells on both sides. Wash the crabs and dry carefully.
2. Combine the buttermilk and egg in a shallow container and whisk to combine.
3. Combine the flour, pepper, salt, red pepper and paprika in a shallow medium dish, and mix well.
4. Place the vegetable oil in large nonstick skillet on medium-high heat.
5. Dip each crab into the buttermilk wash and then dredge in the flour until well coated.
6. Place the crabs in the skillet, top side down, and saute about 3 minutes per side, turning once. When they have finished cooking and are pink in color, remove to a side platter and loosely cover with foil.
Heat the butter in the skillet over medium heat. Saute the shallots for about 1 minute or until slightly softened. Add the lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper, and cook another minute or two. Taste for seasoning. Arrange the crabs on serving plates, drizzle over the sauce (or serve on the side) and garnish with lemon and parsley. Serve immediately.
(Diane Rossen Worthington is an authority on new American cooking. She is the author of 18 cookbooks, including "Seriously Simple Holidays," and also a James Beard award-winning radio show host. You can contact her at www.seriouslysimple.com.)