Ol’ Softy

by KIM O’BRIEN ROOT
photography by KEITH LANPHER

Usually considered restaurant-only fare, soft-shell crabs really aren’t that difficult to prepare at home.

The key is making sure they’re fresh, says Jerry Bryan, one of the owners of Virginia Beach’s Coastal Grill, where fried soft-shell crabs are popular.

That means practically right off the boat. Soft-shell crabs – sometimes referred to as shedders – are blue crabs plucked from the water right after they molt their hard shell but before a second, replacement shell has time to harden. Coastal Grill gets them fresh from its preferred Suffolk watermen three times a week.

Bryan prefers using the whales – a more mature soft-shell crab that’s about 5 inches across and has more meat. After being cleaned, soaked in milk and dredged in flour, the crabs are deep-fried, drizzled with scallion butter and served with homemade tartar sauce. The soft-shells are so tender, the delicate claws are easily pulled apart. They practically melt in your mouth.

“There’s no real mystery to it,” says Bryan, who’s been a chef for some 35 years and this winter opened Metropolitan Oyster Exchange in Virginia Beach. “A lot of people think we do something special.”

He advises cleaning the crabs as close to cooking time as possible. Care should be taken when frying: The crabs can hold the milk they’re dipped in, which bubbles up and causes the oil to splatter. For easier frying, Bryan suggests cutting the crabs in half, front to back, and then the remaining halves into thirds before frying. They can also be cooked on a grill.

DEEP-FRIED SOFT-SHELL CRABS WITH SCALLION BUTTER
from Coastal Grill

INGREDIENTS

Crabs, allowing 2 per person
Milk
Flour to dredge
Canola oil, enough to fill bottom of a steep-sided pot or frittata pan
Scallion butter (recipe follows)

PREPARATION

Clean soft-shells by lifting the corners of the top shell back and removing the gills (dead man) on both ends. On the belly of the crab, lift and pull off the apron, being careful not to rip the top shell. Rinse the crab in a bowl, then drain the water and add milk to cover.

Heat 1½ to 2 inches of canola oil to 350 degrees in a steep-sided pot or frittata pan; the crab may pop and splatter while cooking. You should have just enough oil that crabs will not touch each other or the bottom of fryer.

Lift crabs out of the milk and place in the flour, shaking the container so that the crab is covered with flour. Shake off any excess.

Place the crab in hot oil, allowing 2 minutes per side. Remove crabs to paper towels to absorb excess oil. Place on platter and spoon on scallion butter.

SCALLION BUTTER

INGREDIENTS
2 sticks unsalted butter
½ cup sliced green onions
1 teaspoon kosher salt

PREPARATION

Melt butter, along with other ingredients, on low, low heat until the butter is just melted. Take care not to heat the butter so long that it separates and becomes greasy, Bryan warns. Add more salt to taste. Pour over crabs.