Sunday, May 25, 2014

Grilled Soft Shell Crabs

It has been almost three years since I professed my culinary love for the soft shell crab in a post entitled Much Ado about Molting.  My beautiful Angel and myself had just been introduced to Endurance Seafood in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.  We had to depart the Croatan Highway (Route 158) down Colington Road, which ran along the contour of the island.  As we drove down this winding road, we were presented with some of the island's beauty, such as the views of the Pamlico Sound that are otherwise unavailable to those who remain on the beaten path. Turn after turn, we continued our drive until we saw the Endurance Seafood sign. 

A turn down a gravel driveway, a quick drive past a house, and we reached our destination.  Endurance Seafood is a family run operation that sells blue crabs in both of their majestic forms ... hard shell and soft shell.  We made our trip specifically for the latter form of blue crabs.

Endurance Seafood in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina
As we exited our car, we faced a building surrounded on two sides with white tubs.  Those tubs were filled with water and blue crabs in the various stages of molting.  As we approached, we could see people working to box soft-shell crabs for shipment to distributors and restaurants across the eastern United States.  Fortunately, we arrived just in time to purchase some soft crabs.  As the crabs were gathered, we were allowed to walk through the rows of white sinks and see the blue crabs in the various stages of the molting process.  After the crabs shed (or molt) their shells (or exoskeleton), they become soft-shell crabs.  They will remain in this state until that shell hardens once again.  We were able to purchase two dozen soft shell crabs to enjoy during our trip to the Outer Banks. These were the largest and meatiest soft shell crabs that I had ever seen.  Most importantly, they were the freshest soft shell crabs because we got them directly from the source.

The soft shell crabs from Endurance Seafood.
When we arrived at our vacation spot, I sauteed some of the soft-shells for everyone.  One can eat almost the entire crab.  To prepare the crab, you have to remove the eyes, the tail and the gills.  This can be done with a pair of scissors, cutting off the face of the crab, as well as snipping off the tail and the gills.  It is gruesome, but necessary task, in order to enjoy these delicious crabs. 

The easiest way to cook a soft shell crab is to coat it in a light coating of flour and pan fry (or saute) it in a combination of oil and butter.  That is how I first prepared the crabs. However, I had several crabs left over.  I prepped those crabs (that is, I removed the eyes, tails and gills), and then froze them.  Unlike hard shell crabs, soft shell crabs can be frozen and enjoyed later.

This is exactly what we did.  Once we returned from our Outer Banks trip, some of those frozen soft shell crabs began to thaw, despite my best efforts to keep them frozen for our return home.  I decided to cook those crabs in a way that I had never done before.  I cooked them on the grill.  I looked over a few recipes to get some basic ideas as to how to grill soft shell crabs.  I then proceeded to grill them by first preparing a butter that can be basted over the soft shell crabs before they went on the grill.  The butter is melted in a pan and then some garlic and shallots are sauteed briefly in the butter.  The butter is removed and allowed to cool, and then it is ready for the soft shells.  The soft shells cook quickly, needing to be grilled only for about four to five minutes per side.  (Less time is needed for smaller crabs.)

In the end, I have to say that grilling these beautiful crabs is now my favorite way to prepare them.  By grilling them, I used far less oil or butter than the more conventional ways, such as a deep frying or pan frying them.  The grill also crisps them in a way that provides a better taste, one that cannot be replicated in a deep fryer and is difficult to replicate in a pan. 

One last note ... the grilled sot shell crabs can be served by themselves.  Personally, I think that the grilled crabs are perfect for a soft shell crab sandwich (especially if you have guests who may have a difficult time with the fact that you are eating an entire crab, as opposed to a crab cake).  You can use whatever toppings you like.  I kept it simple: lettuce, tomato and onion.  No condiments.  In this case, less is better because you want to taste as much of the crab as possible. 

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2-4

6 soft shell crabs, cleaned and rinsed
4 tablespoons of butter
1 shallot, minced
1 clove of garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
Ground black pepper, to taste

1.  Prepare the butter.  Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium high heat.  Add the shallots and garlic and saute for a couple of minutes.  Remove from the heat.  Baste the soft shell crabs generously with the butter.

2.  Grill the soft shell crabs.  Heat the grill to a medium high or high heat.  Apply some vegetable oil to the grill grates to ensure that the crabs do not stick to the grates. Grill the soft shell crabs until they turn bright red and begin to crisp along the edges, about four to five minutes per side. 


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