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July 20, 2006

Soft Shell Crabs

Dominic Armato
Blue crabs are such gracious little fellows.

They're the very definition of a high maintenance food. What with the tiny limbs and hard shells, the work to yield ratio is frustratingly high. But every so often, a crab will generously offer to do the work for us, molting his hard shell and leaving himself almost completely edible for a few days. So, for a couple of months every year, crabby nirvana is almost too easy. It seems that a great number of folks are intimidated by soft shell crabs, which is really too bad. I understand it, I suppose. We're not generally conditioned to consume whole beasts here in the States. But while there's a part of me that wants to grab the squeamish by the shoulders, shake them and make them understand what they're missing, there's another part of me that's happy to let the demand -- and the prices -- stay as low as possible. In any case, I came to the realization this past week that soft shell season was rapidly slipping by, so today I decided to get some while the getting was good. I was craving a nice, crispy soft shell po' boy, but I wanted to have a little fun with it. Tomatoes seem to be a little ahead of the game this year, and I found some fennel that was looking mighty nice, so this recipe was the result.

Dominic Armato
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C. finely chopped fennel
1/4 C. minced yellow onion
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 1/4 C. chopped tomato
1/2 tsp. coarse salt
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 C. vegetable oil
1 lemon
salt, to taste
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/4 C. chopped fennel fronds
4 soft shell crabs
1/3 C. flour
2 tsp. paprika
vegetable oil
French baguette

Soft Shell Crab Po' Boy with Tomato-Fennel Relish and Fennel Frond Mayo
Makes 2 sandwiches

The relish is best at room temperature, so you want to make it first and give it time to cool. Stem and seed the tomatoes before chopping them. For the fennel, use only the white bulb portion, but hang onto the fronds so you can use them for the mayo. Once your vegetables are all set, heat the olive oil in a small saucepan over medium-high. Once the oil is hot, toss in the fennel and onion, and saute for about one minute, stirring constantly. Add the balsamic vinegar, and continue cooking for about another minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and continue cooking, stirring frequently so the mixture doesn't scorch, until most of the liquid has cooked off and it has taken on a nice relishey consistency. It should take about 5-7 minutes. Transfer the relish to a bowl, adjust the salt and vinegar if you like, and let it cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, you can make the mayo. If you're feeling particularly lazy, you could use store-bought mayo and mix in the garlic and fennel, but making it fresh isn't hard, and the crabs have done their part to make your sandwich as tasty as possible... don't they deserve better? To make the mayo, combine the egg yolk and white wine vinegar in a mixing bowl, and whisk until the mixture gets a little frothy. Then, start dribbling in the oil a drop at a time, whisking away the whole time. As more of the oil is incorporated, you can start adding it in a thin stream, but don't add it too quickly. If the emulsion starts to separate, stop adding the oil and whip the thing like crazy until it comes back together, then continue. Once you've added all of the oil, you should have a nice, creamy, fresh mayo. 3/4 of the way through, you might be thinking that it looks more like a sauce than mayo, but keep adding the oil... it'll suddenly thicken up and get all fluffy right at the end. Add a little salt and fresh lemon juice to taste, and then mix in the garlic and fennel fronds. For the fronds, you don't want the light green stems... just the thin, dark green, wispy bits. Toss the mayo in the fridge until you're ready to use it. This makes way, way, way more mayo than any sane individual should use on two sandwiches (this coming from a mayo lover), but it keeps for a couple of days, so you can put it to good use later on.

Finally, the crabs. If your crabs weren't cleaned by your fishmonger, no biggie. It's easy, and instructions are everywhere on the net. Frankly, it's better to clean them yourself and keep them as fresh as possible, and it just takes a moment. Once clean, give them a light rinse and pat them mostly dry. Toss together the flour and paprika, and dredge the crabs to coat them all over, shaking off any excess. Put a large skillet over high heat and fill with enough vegetable oil to generously coat the bottom. When hot, drop in the crabs and fry until they're browned and crispy, about 2-3 minutes per side. Pull 'em out and let them drain over paper towels for a couple of minutes while you build the sandwiches.

Cut the bread to whatever length you deem appropriate, then slice in half and scoop out a little bit of the inner bread so your bread to filling ratio isn't way off. Slather with the fennel frond mayo, add two crabs side-by-side, top them with the relish and finish with a little bit of fresh arugula. Dig in and lament the fact that these little fellows are only available for a few months out of the year.


I love soft shell crabs too! I have a great post on my blog, www.epicurista.com, on Maryland Crabs, along with a great Maryland crab cake recipe that is to die for!

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