By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The term "soft-shell" describes a growth stage of crabs when the crustaceans shed their shells, or molt, in order to grow larger shells. This means crab lovers can eat everything on the plate, without worrying about cracking and picking over shells. Soft-shell blue crabs, from the East and Gulf coasts, are the species most commonly eaten in the United States.
Buy: Soft-shell blue crabs are available fresh from about May until August, but taste best in May and June. When buying fresh soft-shells, ask fishmonger or store clerk when the crabs arrived. Most stores that sell soft-shells offer them cleaned or "dressed." For the freshest soft-shells, buy fresh crabs and ask the fishmonger to clean them for you. Soft-shells are generally available in three sizes: hotels, primes and jumbos. The price in Greater Cincinnati ranges from about $3 to $4.50 per soft-shell.
Store: Dressed soft-shell crabs can be refrigerated several days before cooking. If you buy live soft-shells, you should clean them as soon as possible and then refrigerate them. Like other fish and seafood, store soft-shells in the coldest part of the refrigerator and use as soon as possible.
Prepare: If you buy live soft-shells, you can clean them yourself by using scissors to snip off the eyes and mouth, then the gills under both sides of the shell. Then turn the crab over and pull off the little apron flap that looks like a "T" on the male crab and a bell on the female. (This is optional, but the apron can be a little chewy.) It's much easier and less squeamish, of course, to ask the fishmonger to clean the soft-shells for you.
The preferred way to cook soft-shells is sauteed or grilled, although they can also be stir-fried, deep-fried, roasted or baked. When serving, allow two to three soft-shells for an entree serving, one crab for an appetizer.
Grilled Soft-Shell Crabs with Butter and Hot Sauce
4 to 8 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
1/4 cup butter
Salt to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Hot sauce to taste
Prepare charcoal or gas grill to medium heat. Melt butter and add salt, lemon juice and hot sauce. Grill crabs about 4 inches from heat, turning and brushing with butter sauce frequently. (Don't worry if claw-tips begin to burn.)
Crabs should cook in 6 to 10 minutes. When done, they are bright red and firm. Makes 2 to 4 servings.
Fish (MacMillan; $27.50)
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Serve it this week: Soft-shell crabs