Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chasing Soft Shells

Last week the soft shells eluded us Down East, on Harkers Island. We were told they had headed north.
And sure 'nuff, on a sailing trip this weekend, a few hours further north where the Rappahannock River meets the great Chesapeake Bay, we found 'em, in the lovely, little historic town of Urbanna, VA.
In a small shack near the dinghy dock, "peelers" were being watched 24/7 in filtered and aerated tanks. As soon as they slipped out of their hard old coats, they were snagged, packed between layers of newspaper, and set into a refrigerator.
We snagged a dozen ourselves, carefully transporting them back to the boat for a gourmet lunch indeed.

Spry at 82, and quite talkative, the silver-haired lady with painted fingernails and in white fishing boots clipped claws and legs from "paper shells," crabs who've shed their hard shells and gone beyond the "nekkid" state of being a soft shell, to building back their crusty armor.
Born on Tangier Island, the island across the bay inside the Eastern Shore that's much like the sandy spits of land that make up NC's Outer Banks, her father, brothers, son and just about anyone in her family have always fished and crabbed.
Clipping the apron, removing the lungs and all the vestiges, she was stripping the paper shells down to their bare innards. Only tender cartilage remained between chunks of that famed, delicate blue crabmeat. The resulting round "nugget" would be deep-fat fried.
"It was something my son came up with," she said. Most paper shells are just tossed back dead into the water, so this was a way to use the still tasty meat. She would freeze what she had prepared that day, adding it to others stocked up for the annual Oyster Festival held each November in Urbanna, when these tasty morsels would be fried and sold under her family tent.

Back on board, we considered our options for cooking our nabbed soft shell treats. My favorite way to cook them is to saute them in butter, but it can be a rather messy transaction with butter splatters when the crabs spit and pop. So we opted for the grill attached to the side of the boat, which would keep any splatters out over the water.
Oh yum. Those soft shells were worth any splatters of rain we endured on our sail, any wind on our nose, any chop in the Chesapeake. Nothing could be finer than soft shells, even if they weren't in Carolina!
Here's the recipe from THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK: Recipes & Traditions from NC's Barrier Islands, by Elizabeth Wiegand, Globe Pequot Press, 2008. (c)


Hot and crunchy is how these soft shells come straight off the grill. This is one of the easiest ways to prepare this seasonal treat, and allows the succulent texture and taste of the crabmeat to shine.

Simply serve 2 to 3 soft shells per person over a bed of lightly dressed greens. We found using a perforated grill pan kept the crab legs from falling through the grates and breaking off. If you prefer to leave out the hot sauce, it will still be delicious.

12 medium soft shells, cleaned

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

12 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 ½ teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco, or to taste

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  1. Preheat grill.
  2. Pat cleaned soft shells dry, and lay them in a shallow dish.
  3. Over medium heat, melt butter. Add garlic and stir for about one minute. Remove from heat and add the hot sauce and lemon juice. Stir to mix.
  4. Brush the butter sauce over both sides of each soft shell, then dribble excess over the legs. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Allow soft shells to sit until the grill is ready, or about 10 minutes.
  5. When grill is medium hot, place crabs evenly over grill without touching. Close the lid and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, depending on thickness. Turn the crabs over, and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until crabs have gotten a bit crisp and golden brown.

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings

Friday, May 6, 2011


I had a big, significant birthday this week. One present I had to open on the spot because it came straight from the fridge. Inside was one of my favorite foods ever......crab claws.
These blue crabs were just caught in pots baited with mullet and thrown over their dock at the mouth of the White Oak River outside of Swansboro, NC. Norva boiled up a mess of them for a magnificent crab dip for her dinner party, and Mike got the job of "picking" the backs, saving the claws for another event - my Birthday Gift! What a great present for this foodie!
Bring out the newspaper and the cocktail sauce and crab crackers and forget the damned candles, the number of which could burn the house down! What a treat!

When the waters start to warm, the crabs crawl out from the mucky muck of the sounds and creeks where they've spent the winter. Folks all up and down the Carolina coast start baiting their crab pots and throwing them into their favorite spots usually sometime around Tax Day, April 15th, or earlier.
This year, the crabs were on the move a bit earlier. On April 8th, I was down in Southern Pines with THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK to "advise" participants on the Sandhills Farm to Table Co-op about what to do with the wonderful bounty supplied by Core Sound Seafood, a wonderful CSF or community supported fishery that delivers all over the state. Eddie and Alison Willis of Harkers Island brought some very active jimmies, male crabs, along with flounder and scallops for co-op members.
Eddie is the fourth generation to fish from Harkers Island. He and Alison tend to crab pots, hunt down clams in the wild (rather than farm), and tend to soft shells 24-7 during the season.
There's an old saying that the soft shells crabs start coming in at the first full moon in May. That would be May 17th, but already the soft shells have headed north from Core Sound toward the Pamlico and Albermarle Sounds. Just this past weekend I stopped in to see the Willis's soft shell operation at Mr. Big's Seafood, to find them gone like the soft shells, in search of more peelers.

"Peelers," what those in the know call crabs ready to shed or peel their coats, have had a very early season.
But the hard crabs are out there and are filling up baskets headed to markets here and further north in the Chesapeake.
There's nothing finer than spending an evening after boiling up a mess of crabs doused with Old Bay, or as the old timers do, with onions and potatoes and sometimes corn. Spread newspapers on the table, melt some butter and dish up some cocktail sauce, then sit, pick and enjoy while sipping on a cold beer.

adapted from THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK: Recipes & Traditions from NC's Barrier Islands by Elizabeth Wiegand, Globe Pequot Press, 2008.

Boil up a big pot of live crabs, spread them on newspapers and provide pliers, lobster crackers, small hammers, and plenty of towels to extract the marvelous meat from the bellies and claws. A meal will take hours and dozens of crabs, so make sure you’ve got some good conversations going.
And picking crabs yourself will earn newfound respect for the art and hard labor required for providing cleaned, cracked crabmeat in one-pound containers. Just decades ago, the older women in outlying communities of the real Down East, like Smyrna and Atlantic, spent hours each day, sitting and chatting and carrying on while cracking crab for commercial distributors. Now, women from the Yucatan in Mexico come up by the busload to spend each season standing for hours at huge metal tables, cracking and extracting crabmeat.

Big pot 2/3 full of hot water
3 Tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper
12 live crabs
melted butter
cocktail sauce

1. Bring water to boil. Add Old Bay and crushed red pepper. Stir. Add crabs, reduce heat to medium. Cover and boil for five to 10 minutes. Drain crabs into sink or pluck from water and place in extra large bowl.
2. On the table, have lots of small knives, forks, pliers, lobster crackers or small hammers and a roll of paper towels. Have small bowls of melted butter and cocktail sauce within easy reach of each person.
3. Place crabs directly on the newspaper. Let guests have at it, let conversations roll, and hope no screaming babies demand attention, for you’ll have to wash up first.

Serves 4 to 6