Saturday, July 14, 2007

Chesapeake Bay Soft-shell Crab "Sandwich"

Hi there. Can you hang on a sec? Thanks. I'll be right back.


::::: takes a long sip from her glass of wine :::::

Whew. Much better.

It was either a glass of wine or a trip to the mental ward. Why, you ask? Because I just cut the faces off half a dozen soft-shell crabs. Cut their faces off. With scissors. WHILE THEY WERE STILL ALIVE. Do you want to know what happens when you cut their faces off? Do you? DO YOU!!?! Well, read on then. 'Cause I'll tell you. It's not pretty folks. Not at all.

But first, let's talk about the dish as a whole, look at the other elements that went into it, and how I prepared it. As a resident Marylander, I was pleased to do a dish that involved local fare from the Chesapeake. Unfortunately, this has been a bad year for soft-shell crabs. The population is sparse, which means they're expensive. Restaurants aren't really serving them, and most folks are taking this summer off in terms of eating them. Not me. Go figure, I decided to make this dish when soft-shells are at their most expensive in twenty years. I am so awesome. Soft-shell crab sandwiches are a local favorite here in the DC/Baltimore area. They're quite simple -- softshell crab body in between two slices of white bread or toast. Maybe a squirt of lemon. Perhaps a dash or two of hot sauce. Some tartar sauce, if you're feeling lucky. Fries and coleslaw on the side.

People either love 'em or hate 'em. Me? I've always hated 'em. Had a bad experience with them once, was sick for two days, and haven't been able to try them since. Or look at them. Or touch them. Or think about them without my salivary glands acting up (and not in the good way, if you catch my drift).

But, I stepped up and made the big sacrifice for you people, so I hope you'll appreciate it. Plus, I trusted in the almighty Thomas Keller not to steer me wrong, and hoped against hope that this preparation might just change my mind about these little suckers. Last night, I read the recipe many, many times to make sure I had all the ingredients on-hand, and was ready for the prep this afternoon.

This morning, I called a bunch of places to see who carried live soft-shells, and only one place had them -- BlackSalt Fish Market and Restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard. The fantastic fishmonger, Scott Weinstein, hooked me up with six soft-shells. They were fresh, alive, and kicking. Thanks, Scott!

I got home from the fish market, and after doing some work got started on this dish in time for the neighbors to enjoy it before they left for their Saturday night plans.

First up? The sauce. Here's the mise en place:

I mixed the hard-boiled egg yolks, cornichon juice, chicken stock, and dijon mustard in the blender. Then, I slowly added the canola oil. When it was done, I transferred it to a bowl, then added the minced cornichons:

Next, I added the minced shallot, minced flat-leaf parsley, and the brunoise you see in the photo above. I stirred it, and here's the final product:

The sauce on its own was delicious, and I'd make this again instead of tartar sauce or tzatziki next time I make crabcakes. But I digress.

The next item to prep was the tomato confit. I've made this a few times before, so you can read the directions here. But, for your viewing pleasure, here are the before and after photos of the confit:

While the tomatoes were in the oven, I deep fried the capers. I did this once before, too, and you can read about it here. But because I am a giving person, I give you... this photo of the capers boiling in oil:

It's hard to get a photo of those little things once they're done, so you'll see them in the final plating. When I get a new camera (happy birthday to ME!), it'll be easier to shoot things like fried capers and have them come out looking like what they're supposed to look like, so you'll just have to wait a month or so.

Sauce = check. Tomato confit = check. Capers = check. I don't have any photos of the brioche crouton process, because you've seen brioche quite a bit these past few posts, and once again, I bought it at the local co-op and toasted it myself. You'll see it in the final plating.

So let's get to the main attraction of this dish: the soft-shell crabs. There were six of them. If you'll recall when I made lobster in May, I used Canadian lobster and decided to name them all Celine, because what better Canadian to suffer the wrath of being steeped in boiling water than Ms. Dion?

I was coming up with all sorts of names for these crabs when I realized that the prep involved holding a live soft-shell crab, cutting its face off, then tearing off its legs. I wondered, are there six people I would wish this upon? And, are there six people from the Chesapeake Bay region I would wish this upon? And that answer was no. I called in my crack Crab-Naming Squad (previously known as my "lobster-naming strategy team") and asked: Is there a Group of Six known for having their faces hacked up or their legs torn off? After ZERO response to my urgent plea, I was thinking about naming them Greg, Peter, Bobby, Marcia, Jan and Cindy, when once again, the fabulous Catherine came to the rescue.

Allow me to introduce Jackie, Marlon, Randy, Tito, Jermaine, and Michael!

It was between the Jackson family and the Osmond family, but the Osmonds have better plastic surgeons so the whole face-hacking angle fell flat. But back to the food!

Naming the crabs and shooting the blurry video was fun and all, but then it came time to actually prepare them. This is where the fun ends, my friends. I thought I was ready for this. I really thought this wouldn't be a problem. I read and re-read the instructions in The French Laundry Cookbook: "Using a pair of scissors, cut off the crabs' faces and discard. Cut off the two large claws where they meet the body and reserve. Cut off and discard the smaller legs, and trim the sides of the body for a smooth edge." Sounds easy, right? It was hell.

With my left hand, I picked up one of the crabs from the platter and held him from behind. In my right hand, I held the scissors. As I got the scissors close to the crab's face, it started twitching and writhing, and I couldn't do it. I don't know if you've ever held or touched a soft-shell crab before, but instead of a skeletal underbelly and a hard shell on top, the underbelly is not very hard, and felt as thin as a shrimp shell. The top shell feels like thin leather, or perhaps fish skin -- probably the same thickness/texture as halibut. So, when the crab started moving around, I could feel his insides moving, too.

I put him back on the platter and paced my tiny, tiny kitchen trying to talk myself off the ledge. I saw a bottle of Ketel One on my wine table and thought maybe a shot of liquid courage might help, but I didn't do it. Instead, I grabbed a pair of tongs and used those to pick up the crab. I opened the scissors and let out a "aaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii'msosorry" as I cut its face off. Things started to ooze out of the front of his head, and I just repeated a mantra of "thisisgross-thisisgross-thisisgross-AAAAACCCCCKKKKK" as I cut off the large claws, then removed the remaining legs. I did this for each crab to get all the cutting overwith at once.

Here's a photo of the crab bodies and claws in a colander, about to be rinsed under cold water:

What you can't tell from this photo is that even though I cut off their faces, claws and legs, THEY WERE STILL TWITCHING.

I'm totally squicking myself out reliving this as I type. ACK! THIS WAS THE WORST! I WILL NEVER MAKE THIS AGAIN. EVER!

Before rinsing them, I removed their aprons and lungs, and cleared out all the other "matter" (which is just a fancy word for "all the yellow and gelatinous crap beneath the apron"). I washed the bodies and claws, patted them dry with paper towels, seasoned with salt and pepper, dredged them in a little bit of flour, and cooked them in a large sautée pan in clarified butter:

People started arriving at this point, so I drained the crabs on paper towels and started plating:

Oh, WHOOPS! That's not the final dish. That's a bag full of CRAB FACES and LEGS that I HAD TO CUT OFF MYSELF. I needed to share this lovely sight with you so that I might be able to transfer the trauma to you and away from me. Ugh.... my shoulder blades are twitching.

Okay. Let's pull ourselves together here. Here's the final plating:

Gorgeous, yes? I put a spoonful of sauce on the plate, topped it with a brioche crouton, then a crab body, then a piece of tomato confit, followed by two crab claws, then topped with baby arugula and the deep-fried capers. Everything smelled and looked great. But the true test was in the taste. And, as reluctantly as I will admit, it was damn good.

When I told my neighbors earlier in the week what I'd be serving today, I had very few takers. Usually, there are four adults and three kids that taste most dishes I make as part of this project, but only one of the four adults likes soft-shell crabs. I found out my neighbor's husband loves soft-shells, so he was required to attend. The rest of us just figured we'd try it and see how it went. We thought the three kids would haaaaaaaaate it. Boy were we wrong. Two out of three loved the dish and nearly cleaned their plates:

Here's "C" mid-repast --

Here's "G" with a mouthful of crab goodness --

And, here's "M" (at least she liked the brioche and the sauce) --

M's mom and I cut apart the crab and ate the meat out of it, along with everything else. G & C took big bites of everything and loved it all. G & C's mom tasted bits of theirs, but ended up being as grossed out as I am about the whole notion of soft-shell crabs. M's dad and G & C's dad? Cleaned their plates. M's dad is a major fan of the traditional soft-shell crab sandwich fan and said he really liked this preparation. High praise, indeed!

Was it good? Absolutely. Would I make this again? Absolutely not.

Up Next: Nectarine Salad with Green Tomato Confiture and Hazelnut Sabayon
[because nectarines DON'T TWITCH WHEN YOU CUT THEM]

Brands Used:
Soft-shell crabs from BlackSalt
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farms
Roland brand Cornichons
365 canola oil
Clarified butter by me
Thyme for the tomato confit from my garden
All produce from Safeway
Brioche from the TPSS Co-op

Music to Cook By: Johnny Cash; The Sun Years. It was the perfect accompaniment to making this dish. I can't explain why. It just was. I love me some Johnny Cash.


Anonymous said...

*mumbles to self about being a dork*

Ahem, as I accidently posted elsewhere, I'm sorry that you had to endure the snipping off of the faces. I appreciated every single word.

I didn't realize that the entire bodies were involved; I was thinking more along the lines of lump crabmeat.

I would have named them all Sandra. Lord knows if you drank enough of her 'tinis you'd see six of her.

I bought some nectarines at my regular grocery store, so I'm looking forward to the next dish on the list.

JordanBaker said...

You are so hard core. I don't know that I would have had the stomach even to read this recipe, much less prepare it.

And of course Johnny Cash is the right music for crab-secution. Of course. No explanations necessary.

Unknown said...

Live soft-shells never make it this far in to the midwest... but I have bought and cooked frozen ones a lot. Love them. I kinda scratch my head at someone who can have it all right there any not want it! But, everyone has their own tastes. And I suppose I might think differntly if I had to cut their faces off.

In any case... well done!! (golfclaps)

Sounds like a wonderful dish. Even with all the leftover crab faces.

Anonymous said...

I imagine you suffered this morning's trauma of Aunt Sandy torturing Andy Cuomo's kids on her show, and now this? You are a glutton for punishment, my dear. Better to get it all over with in one go, I suppose.

Kidding aside, this looks good. And I love softshell crabs. I'd eat these, definitely!

Unknown said...

This was a fantastic story, I laughed out loud several times! you have a great sense of drama and comedy, and the dish sounds amazing.. perhaps I'll try it w/ lump crab meat.

Jaye Joseph said...

I love softshell crab, but I'll be damned if I could have prepped them like you did. I would have had to take the instructions to the guys at the fish market and asked them to do it for me. You are a rock star!

And I would have named all the crabs Anne Coulter.

Anonymous said...

The Jackson Crabs look great, not to mention delicious. In hindsight, you could have also named them after all six members of New Edition, but that wouldn't have been as funny.

I'm sure I would have totally yelled the same "IIIII'MMMSOOORRRRRYY!" during the cutting-off of the faces.

Finally, I love me some soft-shell crab and am most sad that I wasn't nearby to enjoy them.

(Aside: Should I ever prepare this dish, I'm going to name the crabs after the Jackson brothers as well and play "Can You Feel It?" while hacking off their faces, because I'm like that.)

pdxblogmommy said...

I love you Catherine. I don't know you but I love you. So perfect.

Shayne said...

That was a cute piece. I had Soft shell crab for the first time last summer and then swelled up and got hives so I guess it was also for the last time.

I love it when the family (mostly the kids) are included in a food blog, it’s not common. Thanks

pdxblogmommy said...

OK, now that I'm done laughing at Catherine's wait...ok, NOW I'm done laughing.

DG, since I know you as well as I do, I would say to you that this project must mean SO MUCH to you (I know it does). Because never in my lifetime would I ever have said that you'd be able to snip the faces and legs off of live crabs without some serious doping up first. I would have had to have been piss drunk before I could handle something like that.

So MAZEL TOV to you!

The presentation was gorgeous and I know my hubby would have LOVED eating it.

By the way...can you tell me where to pick up some "friend capers"?

Anonymous said...

When I used to make these I used a big ole chef's knife behind the eyes and never even thought of faces! I thought of it as a kindness to put them quickly out of it before frying them. (I love the legs, too) However, once at a beach house I made them for 4 Peruvian friends and the greediest of all insisted on watching. The moment I did the necessary, she fainted. She didn't eat much that night.

Anonymous said...

That was very brave of you and even though I don't know you I feel I should have somehow warned you about the face thing. Sorry. Hilarious though, so thanks for suffering through it.

Sharon Delman said...

Kudos to you for stepping up to a rather nasty challenge; I'm sure your efforts were worth it for a wonderful dish. My husband and I are both soft-shell crab fans, having had easy access to them in New York and Chicago. Now in California, we just don't get them or at least I can't find them. However, I must confess when it has come to the nasty bits . . . cutting off faces, ripping out gills, I have consistently abrogated my culinary leadership and asked my dear husband to do the dirty work. Again, congratulations on tackling a particularly tough challenge here.

Jo said...

I am not sure I could do what you did. But then again, I have no problems hacking apart a live Dungeness crab. Feeling it's insides squish around is worse than digging guts and gills out of a larger cousin? I'm passing on this recipe, because I think soft shell crab are a waste of time. Barely any meat for all that work.

Unknown said...

OMG........This is the first time I've read your post, and I am AMAZED by what you did! There is no way in HELL I'd ever make this dish! I have dropped live lobster in boiling water, and that made me cringe. But snipping faces off something live? Nooooooooo...No amount of alcohol would have been sufficient.

Funny thing about that? I would have no problem ordering this in a restaurant. And if it was served at the French Laundry itself? Heaven!

Anonymous said...

As traumatic as this sounds like it was it looks fantastic.(Why do I keep hearing Anthony Hopkins? "You still wake up sometimes, Carol, don't you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the crabs.")

I'm amazed the kids liked them - I couldn't get some of my (allegedly) grown-up friends to even try them last time I made them. Very cool.

to MrsVJW: I'm a midwesterner too. There are a couple places online that will overnight live soft shells to your very doorstep. Although given the prices this year it would cost you an arm and a leg (a face and some legs?). I've done this in the past and it beats the daylights out of the frozen - if you don't mind the price.

Unknown said...

I am in awe that you cooked this dish, I have yet to read that recipe in the book, but I have seen soft shell crab sandwiches and they did nothing for me.

As always very entertaining post and I'm sorry it grosed you out, but made for a great read :)

Anonymous said...

I just came upon your blog and this was a very...interesting first post to read. You managed to gross me out, but entertain me at the same time, and make at dish that looked amazing. Your project has me very interested. So I've bought the book and will try out a few of the recipes, but this will definitley not be one of the.

You're definitely braver than I am!

Darcey said...

Kudos to you, ma'am.

I tried a soft shelled crab sandwich last fall in New Orleans. I wasn't a fan.

That fact was only solidified with the description of the process.

But still, kudos to you.

Unknown said...

How brave to snip off the faces. You should have a merit badge.

I read this entry when I got home from Yountville. (Yes, that Yountville. 32 miles from home and I’ve only eaten at FL twice and long ago at that). Oh, Gawd I too would be screaming while defacing those crabs. Reminds me of fixing Dungeness crab a couple of years ago. The SF Chronicle food section had a comparison of steamed vs. boiled vs. microwaved crab. They claimed microwaving worked well and intensified the flavor with less fuss and I was sooooo tired of the vats of water, so, sure, I was game.

The technique involved stuffing the crabs into an oven bag (novelty in itself) and then into the microwave. They didn’t go quietly into the bags. That should have been the first hint that I might have had it wrong. When I turned on the microwave in addition to the usual hum was this arrhythmic scuffling sound on the metal turntable. It didn’t stop right away. I found myself cowering in my minute pantry. Then I closed the pantry doors. Then I put my fingers in my ears. I was shaking when I ripped them out of the microwave and into the sink full of ice. I don’t even remember if they tasted better (they were destined for chowder or some such). Of course I should have dispatched them with a quick jab before even venturing near the oven bag. Now I never complain about large vats of water and crab-steamy kitchens and I have no reservations about using tongs to fling them into the vat.

sarahsouth said...

my dad is taking me to french laundry in october, for the first time, to celebrate his retirement. i'm so glad i just discovered your blog - it will be a great appetizer for us prior to our grand debut there!

Kitt said...

Wow! Ick! You're a brave woman.

When I was 14 my dad took me to the New Your Stock Exchange dining room and suggested I order soft shell crabs. I didn't realize they'd be whole, and when they arrived, I tried to eat them but just couldn't.

He let me order something else and I've never tried them again.

Your dedication is amazing.

Anonymous said...

Yuck. Beats my cleaning cow's brains when I was a kid for soup. Yuck yuck. You are to be commended for going through with this. Did I say yuck?

Carol Blymire said...

Holy crackpipes, Batman -- 23 comments already?!!? Wow. Thanks everyone for the kind words.

And, MetaBute -- you actually microwaved dungeness crabs? The clacking of their claws would've sent me over the edge. I would have had to throw away my microwave after that.

After making these crabs, doing the pig's head and whole lamb will be easy. Who woulda thunk it?!

mary grimm said...

I commend your bravery! I will never never do this though.

Unknown said...

Here's the SF Chron article about microwaving crustaceans. I just wonder how many others had similar cowering experiences. BTW I DO have a new microwave!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this so I will never, ever have to.

stef said...

I just happened on your blog recently and now I am addicted. I actually love EATING soft-shelled crab but uh...yeah....

For all of us that admire Thomas Keller but don't have the energy to attempt these recipes, you are a true inspiration!

Xani said...

Just discovered your blog-- I love it! Hilarious. I'm a big fan of soft-shells but I don't know if I could go through the de-facing process...

When we cook lobsters we refer to whoever has to put them in the water as "Team Murder." You were way past that, onto "Team Maim and Dismember!" Makes me think of the time my Dad cut up a whole live lobster for Lobster Cantonese-- it kept moving around too. Gave all of us the shivers and we vowed to never cook that dish at home again!

Great post!

Mercedes said...

I always buy my softshells pre-cleaned (at our market in Bmore), but ironically last week I asked my fish guy to show me how to do it. He'd just gotten in a big bunch and happily demonstrated "now you cut off the eyes." I was mortified. They were still twitching when I went to fry them several hours later.
But cutting off the legs? That's just wrong! Soft shells are best enjoyed whole. I adore them, pan fried and eaten with knife and fork. I was so glad to read this and hear someone else share the trauma. Next time get your fish guy to do the prep!

Anonymous said...

Love your blog! You should have made a crab stock with those crab legs! Freeze it for gumbo. Yum!

Denise said...

Of course it was Johnny Cash...
"You cooked a crab in Reno, just to watch him die..."


Meghan Valerio said...

I know that lobsters still twitch after they're dead in the water, but yeech. I bought some soft shell crabs yesterday at The Lobster Place, a fantastic seafood market in New York. I asked for them cleaned and watched them attack the things with the scissors... I had no idea "cleaning" meant "guillotining" in seafood speak, and found it difficult to just WATCH, let alone DO. I am in mucho admiration that you did it yourself.

Anonymous said...

Great site! The Soft Crab sandwich is a great idea! Blue Crabs make great crab cake as well. We recently featured a few recipes using Blue Crabs and Dungeness Crabs. If you would like to check them out visit our site at
We are sure you will enjoy them.

-The Crab Cake Guy

Alisonian said...

Too funny--I was reading this entry, then went to Wikipedia to read some more about soft shell crabs. They're intriguing, right? At the end of the entry, Wiki has a link to a cook preparing them. I clicked on it and ended up right back here. You're famous!

Duncan said...

I saw an ad at a local restaurant for SS crabs and thought to try them our tonight. I live on the Hudson river and I am constantly seeing crab fishers pulling 'em up by the dozen. After reading your adventures I think I'll stick to less horrific meals. Do zuchinis twitch?

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with your trauma over face-snipping with scissors. My cousin, who has crab pots in Puget Sound, has a quick and efficient murder method. Wearing gloves, he grasps the wriggling beasts by the claws on both sides. He then cracks the body belly down over an upright shovel blade set in the sand. He rinses the halves in the surf and tosses them in a bucket on the beach to await further prep.

Anonymous said...


It was the same when I had to kill some lobsters. ;D

Basically shrieking like a girl the whole time. Aaaaaaaaa! Eiiiiiii! Aaayyy! Eiiiyaaaaa!

I think it really was all the wriggling!! Those stupid lobster tails kept wriggling like it was doing the buttterfly and those mini-legs kept twitching and twitching and twitching.


Jan 2008

Julie said...

oh my! my friend just sent me a link to your blog-- because we have both spent many an hour drooling over the french laundry cookbook, without, as far as I can remember, ever trying to make anything inside.

i'm not quite sure how I managed to wind up here, but this? is absolutely hilarious. I achieved my obnoxious-laughing-in-public quota for the week just on this post!

and... i love soft shells...those looked fantastic.

Carol L. Skolnick said...

Fine writing throughout your blog, which I found through Annie's New York Eats, where she praises you highly. Your description of de-facing the crabs mirrors how I felt about dispatching a lobster, for the first and last time, years ago. The guilt stayed with me for days, and honestly I don't enjoy eating lobster as much as I used to. I suppose if we all had to kill our food on a regular basis, we'd either turn vegetarian or dissociative...

Jason said...

Oh man, I deep fried some soft shell crabs this weekend, and I experienced the whole face-cutting-writhing thing too!

I read in Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking that you can anesthetize crustaceans in salted ice water for 30 min before cutting them, so I tried that. What a relief--no twitching, no movement. Maybe the ice water killed them, but hey, I'd rather have that then have crabs moving around while I'm cutting them up!