A wise man will taste, not test, soft crabs


YOU CAN'T BE QUEASY and enjoy soft crabs. If you flinch at the sight of a half dozen crab bodies camping on the supper table, if you get woozy when crab legs dangle over the edge of the plate, if you can't quite swallow when you put a piece of crab flesh in your mouth, then you had best confine your crab-eating adventures to crab soup.

But if none of the above makes you dizzy, then right now you are one happy fork wielder. The soft crabs are running. The blue crabs in the Chesapeake Bay have roused themselves from their winter slumber - the crab equivalent of "downtime" - and are shedding their old shells. In their shell-free state, the crabs are amazingly rich and flavorful.

Clever Chesapeake Bay watermen have figured out ways to determine when the crabs are about to shed their old, hard shells. Watermen can look at a crab's leg - a joint on its swimming fin - and tell whether the crab is about to shed. If this joint is pinkish, then in the waterman's lingo the crab is a "peeler," ready to lose its old shell.

A few years back, as I bounced on a crab boat near Tilghman Island, a peeler was held a few feet from my face as a waterman tried to show me the telltale color shift. I was never able to see the color change even when the crab was right under my nose. Maybe being that close to a freshly caught, angry crab was one reason I wasn't able to see the color shift. Rather than looking at the crab's fins, I was paying attention to its claws, which were snapping away at my nose. I was content to take the waterman's word that this one was ready to shed.

I have watched watermen feel soft crabs, casually picking them up and tossing them in shedding tanks, the temporary homes where they wait until they are ready to be shipped to markets. The watermen seem to be able to feel which crabs are ready to ship to market, and which crabs need to wait a day or two more. I have occasionally poked some of these soft crabs. But they all felt the same to me. Maybe it is because I was a cowardly toucher.

I know that when crabs shed their shells they become passive and their claws turn soft. But I worry that a few crabs might be playing possum. They may look passive and flabby, but I fear the minute that I put my finger in the tank these crabs will return to their old, aggressive, finger-attacking pasts.

In Baltimore, when the soft crabs appear in the seafood stands at the Lexington and Cross Street markets, I am content to let the merchants pick them up. I have no urge to feel their skin. But I do love to eat them. A fried soft crab sandwich served with a slice of dead-ripe tomato is one of the best things I have ever eaten. That sandwich is one of the highlights of the summer. In the spring and early summer, before the tomatoes are ripe, I usually like to dip the soft crabs in egg, flour and ground nuts and saute them in oil.

Recently I tried a new soft crab treatment, cooking them with white wine and herbes de Provence, and topping them with toasted pine nuts. It was very good.

The recipe came from Kathleen Thomas, who passed it on to me while we were engaged in another springtime ritual - watching our kids play Little League baseball.

Thomas said that she developed this recipe a few years ago after she and her husband, Ron, tasted a soft crab and herb dish at a Washington restaurant called 209. Thomas said she worked NTC with the recipe, cooking in her North Baltimore home until she got her soft crabs to taste like the ones she had eaten in the Washington restaurant.

She told me there were two keys to the dish's success. One was to use small or medium-size soft crabs, not the whales. The smaller crabs get crisp when cooked, she said. She said her family had its own soft crab supplier - "Aunt Vera in Lusby, Md." - her husband's aunt, who provided them with perfect, small, soft crabs.

And the second key to success, she said, is to present the crabs correctly on the serving plate. Thomas serves her soft crabs belly up. She had a simple explanation. "They are prettier that way," she said.

And, I would add, less likely to make the diners queasy.

Soft Crabs

Serves 4

6 small, or 4 medium, soft crabs, cleaned

flour for dusting

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 small clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon herbes de Provence

1/4 cup dry vermouth or white wine

1 tablespoon pine nuts

Dredge crabs in flour. Melt butter and oil in pan. Add crabs and saute over medium high heat for 2-5 minutes. Add garlic and herbs, cooking for about 30 seconds. Then add the wine and cook it down. When wine is completely evaporated, add pine nuts and cook for 30 seconds, stirring. Serve crabs belly-side up, drizzled with pan drippings.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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