As if you needed another excuse to gorge yourself with delicious crustaceans -- the first full moon in May officially marked the beginning of the soft-shell crab season. The blue crab, callinectus saidus, is harvested along the Eastern seaboard of the United States when it sheds its tough shell. Forget the hassle of picking the meat out; a little cleaning, spice and deep frying and you can eat the entire crab whole.
In Florida, soft-shelled crabs can be harvested through almost November, until the water drops below 50 degrees. The famous Chesapeake Bay blue crab can only be found with soft-shell through September at the latest. The crab can be harvested at a length between three and a half and five inches, measured on the back from point to point, with five being considered jumbo blue crab.
In Miami, we are lucky to have dozens of seafood restaurants that attempt to prepare and serve the delicacy. Unfortunately, the wrong technique can seriously destroy the rare taste. Joe's Stone Crab has been getting right in Miami Beach since 1913.
"With the soft shell crab, it is important you cook it for just the right amount of time," says Joe's executive chef Andre Bienvenu. "Otherwise, the texture of the molten shell can be difficult to eat."
At Joe's, the preparation of the dish ($24.95) was described by the chef as "classic traditional" and having a "comfort food" flavor. Stone soft-shell crab is cleaned and battered in a mixture of Japanese bread crumbs and a dash of corn starch before being fried and served on a bed of seafood gumbo and basmati rice. Soft-shell crab is almost always battered and fried, but too much or too little time in the oil can make the molten shell either too chewy or too tough to bite into.
At The River Seafood & Oyster Bar, dishes are served and identified on the menu according to where they come from. Their soft-shell crab ($24) comes from Chesapeake Bay and is only available if it can be acquired fresh. You can have it prepared with your choice of two sides, or enjoy it in a po' boy sandwich with remoulade, pickles and onions on a brioche bun.
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Captain's Tavern owner Bill Bowers uses his vast network of suppliers to get soft-shell crab most of the spring and summer. Here, they season and clean the crab before applying flour and quick-frying it in a deep pan.The appetizer ($10) is served over a cilantro and carrot salad, while the main course ($20) comes with salad and your choice of rice, baked potato or french fries.
A number of restaurants feature soft-shell crab all year long in their sushi rolls and some as a main course. If it isn't spring or summer, chances are that crab was frozen at some point. No matter where you enjoy soft-shell crab this season, hurry and up and get there before its too late to enjoy it fresh.