The sweet and subtle briny flavor of fresh blue crab is truly the essence of the sea. Legend has it that blue crabs, like the ocean, are influenced by the phases of the moon. In their natural environment, blue crabs begin shedding their outgrown shells on the first full moon of May to become the highly prized and much anticipated restaurant darling―soft-shell crab.
Delicious as they are, picking the small bits of meat from the normally unyielding hard shells of the blue crab is best reserved for the patient and the skilled. The rest of us can wait for this springtime moon and let the crabs do all the work. Once molting is complete, most of the crab is edible. They are so succulent and juicy they seem to be a tiny piece of the ocean itself.
But timing is everything. If the crabs are left in the water, this blissful state lasts only a few hours before they begin growing another hard shell. To prevent this, they are caught just prior to losing their shells and closely monitored in holding tanks until the molting is complete. At that time they are whisked from the water and either frozen immediately, or packed in wet paper or straw and shipped live, via seafood purveyors, to restaurants and markets. All this must happen quickly as these crabs can only survive a few days out of water.
Seasonal soft-shell crabs may be a popular restaurant item, but-because of the need for precise harvesting and shipping-the markup is extraordinary by the time they are plated at a restaurant. Luckily, soft-shell crabs are easy to prepare and cook at home. Cleaning them is as simple as a couple of snips and a rinse.
Because the crabs need direct heat to give them their characteristic outer crispness, they should not be boiled or steamed like hard-shell crabs (they'd end up a soggy mess). Soft-shell crabs take only minutes to cook, so they're traditionally simply pan-fried or sautéed. But they do lend themselves nicely to the broiler or grill, as well. From there they can be taken in any direction, from sushi to a salad. They're most commonly served sandwiched between two slices of bread.
When buying soft-shell crabs, live ones are the best but they're not always easy to find. To select the tastiest, use your nose. When fresh, they smell clean and astringent, like sea mist-a fitting aroma for a delicacy that both captures the romance of the sea and the allure of a full moon in spring.