The soft-shell crab is one of the jewels of American waters. Crabs shed their shells everywhere in the world, but only in the Chesapeake Bay and the southeast U.S. is there a massive industry set up to bring the just-molted crabs to market. There are soft-shell crabs marketed from the Adriatic Sea, near Venice, but that industry is much smaller. And that’s why most foreign visitors who come to the U.S., even from Europe, go gaga over this specialty, which they’ve never seen before. They are delicious, of course, and so much easier to eat than their hard-shell cousins. However, there’s always an inherent cooking problem that, unfortunately, many chefs do not overcome. The crabs turn themselves watery to slip out of their shells—and many of the conventional cooking techniques, such as sautéing, lead to a watery result. One of the great ways to avoid this is rarely done: throw the crabs on a hot fire, which, while cooking the crabs, helps evaporate the liquid. Season ’em correctly, toss ’em on a sandwich with some grilled onions and tartar sauce—and you’ve actually got an easy-to-eat sandwich version of the crab house experience.
makes 4 sandwiches
4 large or jumbo soft-shell crabs, cleaned (you can have your fishmonger do this), rinsed and patted dry
1 large red onion, peeled and sliced in 1/4″ thick rounds
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons crab house spice blend (recipe follows)
8 slices of firm white sandwich bread (purchase up-market white breads like Arnold, or Pepperidge Farm)
1/2 cup crab house tartar sauce (recipe follows)
1. Make a hot gas or charcoal fire.
2. Brush both sides of the crabs and onion slices lightly with the oil. Sprinkle a small amount of the crab house spice blend on each side of the crabs.
3. When the fire is ready, place the crabs, top-side down, on the grill, and surround them with the onion slices. Grill the crabs and onions for 3-4 minutes per side; the crabs should be reddish-brown, a bit crispy and just firm to the touch; the onions should be just tender.
4. Towards the end of the cooking time, grill the bread on both sides (if your grill isn’t large enough to hold everything, you can grill the bread before starting the crabs.) Spread 1 tablespoon of tartar sauce on each slice of bread. Sandwich the crabs and a few rounds of onion between the slices of bread and serve immediately.
Crab House Tartar Sauce
makes about 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon finely chopped celery
1 tablespoon finely chopped cornichons
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced tarragon
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon water
lemon juice, as needed
1. Thoroughly mix all of the ingredients (except the lemon juice) in a small bowl. Taste the mixture and blend in a little lemon juice if it seems a bit sweet (some brands of mayonnaise are sweeter or more tart than others). Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.
Crab House Spice Blend
The real joy of the Maryland crab houses, of course, is spiced and steamed crabs. There was a time when crabs from Chesapeake Bay were served without hot spices. But the influx of slaves to Maryland plantations from the Caribbean islands brought an influx of spice as well—which soon worked its way onto the most revered local product. One of the great joys of touring the modern crab houses is discovering the different spice blends used by different restaurants; many of them make their own blends…and are damned proud of them! Now, with the following recipe, you can make your own blend to be proud of. As you’ll notice, there is in it a good deal of Maryland’s most famous seasoning, Old Bay—but that’s because Old Bay is used as a base for many a restaurant blend.
makes enough to spice 24 crabs
1 cup Old Bay seasoning
1/2 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons ground ginger
2 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
1 tablespoon whole yellow mustard seed
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1. Place all of the ingredients into a small mixing bowl. Use a fork to combine them into a homogeneous spice blend. Use immediately or store, covered well, for 6 months.