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Credit: John Ross
Credit: John Ross

A soft-shell crab is a blue crab that has recently molted and, therefore, has a soft, edible shell. Unlike other crustaceans, you can eat the whole thing — almost.

Blue crabs grow wild and are farmed in the Chesapeake Bay, primarily along the coast of Maryland. The season for live soft-shell crabs is from May until August. They are available frozen all year. They are sold in four sizes: Whales are the largest and measure 5 1/2 inches and up; jumbo crabs are the most popular and measure 5 to 5 1/2 inches; primes are 4 1/2 to 5 inches; and hotels are 4 to 4 1/2 inches.

Live crabs used to be available only to restaurants in our area, but now you can purchase them live at our retail fish markets — and they’ll be cleaned for you. I used to like to sauté them in my restaurant with toasted almonds, butter, lemon and parsley. But in order to get a crisp outer shell and a soft inside, you need to bread them first, then deep-fry them as restaurants do or pan-fry them in a small amount of oil.

In the following pan-fried recipe I covered a brick in foil and used it as a weight to place on top of the crabs as they cooked. I also experimented with grilling breaded crabs over charcoal by breading them in cornmeal, running skewers through them and brushing them with oil before placing them on the hot grill. It worked pretty well.

Pan-Fried Soft-Shell Crabs with Fresh Pea Risotto

Have 4 jumbo crabs cleaned at the fish market.

Place 1 cup flour in a pie pan and stir in 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning.

Whisk 2 eggs in a shallow bowl and add 2 tablespoons water.

Add 2 cups cracker meal to a shallow casserole and stir in 1 tablespoon smoked paprika.

Dredge the crabs in the flour, then in the beaten egg mixture, then press them into the cracker meal. Place them on a tray and refrigerate.

For the risotto, add 3 cups chicken stock to a saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Heat another saucepan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Stir in 1/2 cup chopped shallots and 1 cup arborio rice. Continue cooking at medium high heat and add 1 cup white wine. Let it reduce until almost evaporated and begin adding the hot chicken stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

Toast 1/2 cup pine nuts (pignoli) in a dry omelet pan for 5 minutes and add to the risotto.

Chop 2 cups snow pea shoots and add to the risotto and stir in 1 cup fresh peas. (If unavailable, substitute frozen peas.)

Finally, fold in 2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter and salt and pepper to taste.

To cook the crabs, place a large sauté pan on high heat and add 1/4 cup canola oil. When it is hot, but not smoking, add the breaded crabs, belly side down, and reduce the heat a little. When they are golden, about 3 minutes, turn them over and brown the other side. If your pan is not large enough for all the crabs, cook them in batches to avoid crowding.

To serve, place a large spoon of risotto in the center of the plate and put the crab on top. Garnish with a lemon wedge and serve.

Makes 4 portions.

Grilled Breaded Soft-Shell Crabs with Corn Polenta

Have 4 jumbo crabs cleaned at the fish market.

Begin by preparing the polenta. Dice 1 onion and mince 2 cloves of garlic. Cut the kernels off 2 ears of corn and chop 1/4 cup parsley and 2 tablespoons fresh thyme.

Heat a sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the onion, garlic, corn, parsley and thyme. Season with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and the zest of 1 lemon. Cook until the onions are soft, about 3 minutes.

Bring 2 cups water and 1/2 cup milk to boil in a saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon salt and stir in 1 cup cornmeal. Reduce the heat and cook until very thick, about 5 minutes. Stir in the onion mixture along with 1 tablespoon cold butter and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.

Spray a shallow casserole with no-stick and transfer the polenta to it. Refrigerate for 2 hours.

Add 2 cups buttermilk to a shallow bowl and put 1 cup cornmeal and 1 cup flour on a sheet pan. Stir 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning and 1/2 teaspoon pepper into the cornmeal mixture.

Soak the crabs in the buttermilk for 5 minutes and then dredge them in the cornmeal mixture. Line them up on a cutting board and run 2 long skewers through them, making sure to run the skewer through the claws to hold them tight to the body. When finished, they will look like a rack of crabs.

At service time, light a charcoal grill, let the coals turn white and rub the grill with an oil-soaked paper towel. Cut the polenta into squares and brush them with olive oil. Brush the breaded crabs with olive oil also.

Place the polenta around the edges of the grill and place the rack of crabs in the middle. Cover the grill and cook for about 5 minutes before turning the crabs and the polenta. Cook another 5 minutes and remove.

Place the polenta in the center of the plate with the crabs on top. Sprinkle with lemon juice and chopped parsley and serve.

Makes 4 portions.

John Ross