The crab is the king of the Chesapeake Bay, resplendent in a brilliant blue color and, in the case of females, bright red tips on the end of pincers.
Crabmeat is sweet and succulent and found in many forms on menus in Hampton Roads; it has a mild, sweet flavor and compliments many other ingredients.
The crustacean can turn up in the form of crab cakes or in dishes like Crab Imperial, Crab Norfolk and She Crab Soup. Many folks also enjoy crab boils, where the crab is steamed in large pots of water peppered with spices and seasonings, then cracked open and the sweet, delicate meat picked, dipped in melted butter, and eaten. Soft shell crabs are also favorites in season, typically prepared fried or pan-sautéed.
Soft crabs occur when crabs shed their modesty – and their shell – during molting, traditionally after the first full moon in May and until late summer and early autumn.
Old shells are shed so the crab can grow, and the new one starts to harden right away if the crab stays in water; soft crabs are the result of the crustaceans being plucked out of water before this happens.
Soft crabs are cooked, and eaten, whole. Soft crabs are usually served dressed and pan-ready.
Here is some soft shell terminology to be aware of:
Jimmies – male crabs, identified by the long, narrow shape of the apron on their underside.
Sallies – immature female crabs.
Sizes – for soft crabs: whale (also known as slab or counter – 5.5 inches or more); jumbo ( 5 to 5.5 inches); prime (4.5 to 5 inches); hotel (4 to 4.5 inches); medium (3.5 to 4 inches.)
Sooks, she-crabs – mature female crabs, identified by the wide, round shape of the apron on their underside.
The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach publishes a pocket guide outlining recommendations from their Sensible Seafood program; blue crab is on the “good alternatives” list.
Regional seafood will also be celebrated at the Virginia Aquarium’s annual Sensible Seafood Fest, held at the museum on May 24, 2012.
SOFT-SHELL CRABS WITH TARRAGON DIJON-CREAM SAUCE
8 soft-shell crabs, dressed
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cups flour
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup course grain mustard
2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 green onion leaves, chopped
1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
Prick legs and claws of crab with tines of a fork. Season crabs with salt and pepper, dredge in flour and shake off excess.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil and butter and, once butter melts, place crabs, a few at a time as not to crowd, back-side down. Cook about 2-3 minutes, or until golden, turn, and cook the other side another 2-3 minutes, or until golden.
In a medium saucepan, combine cream and mustard and heat over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes or until warmed. Add salt, pepper and tarragon and stir to incorporate. Drizzle over crabs. Garnish with chopped green onion and parsley.
Yields 4 servings
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales-trained chef, is a food authority on Chesapeake Bay regional cuisine and author of the upcoming book, “Dishing Up Virginia.” His work appears in print, television and radio. Read more of his adventures at food at www.PatrickEvansHylton.com