“Ya intrasted in soft shells?” the crab man hollered to Chef. “I’ve got the first of the season, extra large.” Chef immediately gave a nod and thumbs up to Chef Jeremy, the chef de cuisine.
“Yes, sir,” Chef Jeremy responded, “we’ll take everything you’ve got.”
And so begins soft shell crab du jour.
In our region, soft shell crabs are blue crabs in process of molting their shells. They must molt their shell since they’ve grown over the winter season and require a larger size, usually about 30% larger. Perfectly timing a molting crab’s adventure from fisherman to feast is paramount as it only takes hours before a crab begins to develop a “paper shell,” which will affect its taste and texture.
In the Chesapeake, molting occurs from now through September. Procuring soft shells is hard work. Generally, fishermen catch “peeler” crabs, which are crabs on the brink of molting. A “peeler” can be distinguished from a non-peeler by the color of the crab’s swimming fin; a pale pink or red color indicates molting is eminent. The peelers are then held in molting tanks and carefully watched. Once a crab molts, it is swiftly plucked from the tank and sent out to local kitchens that day.
When it comes to soft shells we are traditionalists at Eve and deep fry our softies in tempura batter. They are served with ramp aïoli, marinated red onions and violas – yum.