Features On StarChefs.com
by Heather Sperling

Beyond their versatility,
crunchy-soft texture, and
sweet sea taste, the soft
shell crab has a special appeal—
a mystique, almost—that stems from
their fleeting, seasonal nature. While other
hallmarks of spring are procured year-round
from convenient grocery shelves, the magic of
soft shell crabs abides. Though available through-
out the year in the warmer waters of East Asia and
the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic soft shells are elusive as
ever, thrilling chefs and diners alike with an early spring
debut, and teasing them with sporadic appearances
throughout the summer months.

Crisp Buttermilk Soft Shell Crab with Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette
Chef Brian Voltaggio of Charlie Palmer Steak – Washington, DC
» Open Ravioli of Soft Shell Crab with Fava Beans, Cipollini
Onions and Applewood Bacon

Chef Ethan McKee of Equinox – Washington, DC
» Sautéed Soft Shell Crab with Roasted Shiitake Vinaigrette and Pickled Ramps
Chef Mark Andelbradt of Morimoto – New York, NY

When the salty waters off the coast of Maryland and the Carolinas grow slightly warmer, the mid-Atlantic’s blue crabs literally burst from their shells, experiencing a 30 percent growth spurt that leaves them protected by only a thin, pliable exoskeleton. Timing is critical; the crabs must be harvested within hours of molting for prime texture and to prevent their being eaten by predators. Their limited availability, along with the vigilance their harvesting necessitates, results in an average wholesale price of $2.50 -$3. But the cost is well worth it; they are a popular, high-return ingredient that can fetch $14 a plate as an appetizer.

Soft shell crabs are shipped live but often perish in transit. Live crabs should be stored at 50ºF before cleaning; afterwards they can be refrigerated as usual. The crabs have a shelf-life of 5-6 days from the time of shipping. To clean, lift both sides of the top shell and remove the feathery gills. Trim the head below the eyes with a pair of scissors and scoop out the soft material behind the cut. Lift and remove the triangle-shaped flap, known as an apron, from the underside, and rinse well before using.

Often pan fried or deep fried, soft shells pair well with flavorful, acidic sauces that cut through the oil. Chef Mark Andelbradt of Morimoto in New York pairs the crabs with earthy, tangy and sweet roasted shiitake-shallot vinaigrette. Seasonal produce like fava beans, basil, arugula and tomatoes are natural accompaniments to crab on the menus of Chef Brian Voltaggio of Charlie Palmer Steak and Chef Ethan McKee of Equinox, both in Washington D.C.

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   Published: August 2006