Summertime cooking has a unique set of demands: Whenever possible, cook outside. Take advantage of farmers’ markets for their bounty of lumpy heirloom tomatoes, juicy peaches and sweet corn. And eat seafood—lots of seafood.
Among summer’s most precious marine delights, and one of its least understood, is the soft-shell crab. Typically from the blue crab species, these just-molted crustaceans have recently shed their hard exoskeleton, leaving behind a thin, soft, edible skin that bursts with flavor. From May through August, they’re abundant along the mid-Atlantic coast, the finest netted in the Chesapeake Bay. Because the pleasure of soft-shells is precarious—they have to be caught at just the right molted moment—you must buy them while they’re still squirming, put them on ice until dinnertime, and eat them on the same day.
Best of all, soft-shell crabs are simple to prepare. Unless your fishmonger has already cleaned the crabs for you, you’ll need to remove three parts. Grab the gills with your fingers by lifting up the top of the shell (they’ll feel feathery and fibrous). Next, flip the crab over and pull off its apron, or hinged plate. Then take a pair of scissors and snip off the eyes and mouth. Don’t worry; the crab did not feel that.
At this point, all it takes is some quick pan-frying (don’t grill them) to get them ready for your table. Bread both sides in flour, cornmeal or some combination thereof. Pour a mixture of butter and olive oil in a skillet set on high heat. When it’s hot, add the crabs. Cook about two minutes on each side, or until crispy. Set on a paper towel to drain.
Purists insist that soft-shells are best served unadorned, perhaps with just a squeeze of lemon. However, if you’re reluctant to let those pan drippings go to waste, you can add some white wine, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper to the skillet, cook the liquid down for a couple minutes, and pour it on top of the crabs.
The resulting dish is one of harmonizing contrasts: rich, delicate meat within a buttery, just-crisp-enough exterior. Eat it outdoors, shell and all, maybe with some of that white wine. As if there weren’t already enough reasons to love summer.