Soft-shelled crabs are one of my favorite shellfish. I love shellfish, especially crustaceans, but you always end up with a large pile of shells that you must dispose of promptly or they will smell the next day. Another problem is that they require you to crack open their shells with your hands, making it laborious and tedious to eat. Which brings me to soft-shelled crabs. You can eat the whole thing, shell and all, because their outer exterior is soft enough to devour.
Soft-shelled crabs in the United States usually come from the Chesapeake Bay, which is where I sourced mine. I purchased a few from Pescatore in Grand Central Market. You can also buy soft-shelled crabs in Chinatown during the summer (other seasons, you can only get them frozen), but they are most likely mangrove crabs from Asia, a decent substitute.
As the crabs grow in size, they molt their old shell (which cannot grow in size) and are temporarily "soft-shelled" for several days. Fishermen who capture blue crabs during this phase usually set them aside for market as soft-shelled crabs.
I have prepared soft-shelled crabs in the past a number of ways, including, but not limited to, spicy soft-shelled crabs with linguine, deep-fried crispy soft-shelled crabs, sauteed with garlic and butter, etc.. Most of these preparations rely on the soft-shelled crab being deep-fried or sauteed until crispy. We will use the latter preparation for today's dish: Chesapeake Bay Soft-shell Crab "Sandwich."
The sandwich is composed of six components.
The sauce! Here's the mise en place for the sauce, egg yolks, minced cornichons and cornichon juice, chicken stock, canola oil, Dijon mustard. (Not pictured: minced shallot, minced Italian parsley, Brunoise, salt & pepper)
I blended the egg yolks, chicken stock, cornichon juice, and mustard in a blender. I then slowly drizzled oil in while it was running to emulsify the mixture. I then stirred in the remaining ingredients and refrigerated the sauce.
The capers! I heated 2 inches of canola oil in a small pot and fried capers for 12-15 minutes.
They were deliciously airy and crunchy after I drained them on paper towels. (Sorry about the white-out in this picture, the flash was on too high).
The soft-shelled crab! The worst part of making soft-shelled crabs, for a lot of people, is cleaning the crabs. Usually you can ask your fishmonger to do it for you, but I have a deep respect for all my food and prefer to do it myself. So, with a pair of kitchen scissors in hand, I cut off the face (and eyes) and removed all the gills under the soft cover and the apron from the back of the crab.
Once they were all clean, I dusted the SSCs with salt, pepper, and flour. I heated some clarified butter in a large skillet and sauteed the crabs in the hot butter for 2-3 minutes on each side. I had different cooking times for the claws, which I fried separately. You can see them draining on paper towels below.
The tomato confit! Tomato confit is delicious and you can eat it straight. I should create a diet which is just tomato confit -- you'd never gain weight -- since it's entirely water content.
Anyway, I cored the tomatoes and cut an X in the bottom of each tomato. I dropped each tomato in a pot of boiled salt water for a few seconds to loosen the skin, then moved them to an ice bath. The skins fell right off. I cut each tomato into quarters and cut away the ribs, leaving a smooth tomato petal.
I prepared a large baking sheet drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and placed the tomato petals on it. Each tomato petal had a small drizzle of more olive oil, salt, pepper, and its own sprig of thyme. I baked this for an hour and a half at 250.
The croutons! I took slices of bread with the crust removed and brushed them with olive oil. I sprinkled some kosher salt on top and baked them for 10-15 minutes. (Not pictured)
I then did the final assembly. A spoonful of sauce, followed by a crouton. Then, a crab body and a piece of tomato confit in half on top. Two crab claws, and some baby arugula on top. Lastly, a sprinkling of fried capers around the plate.
By the way, I am looking for someone who can help me with my food photography skills. I will reward you handsomely! If you live locally, I'll treat you to dinner! If you don't, I can always mail you some desserts or something in a refrigerated cold package. Let me know if you can help or have any tips!
Soft-shelled crabs from Pescatore
Produce from Whole Foods