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