savoring the season of the soft shell crab…

While the late spring is usually associated with fields of sapphire strawberries, another, less discussed, seasonal delicacy begs to be partaken of: Soft-Shell Blue Crabs. Blue Crabs, whose Latin name ‘callinectes sapidus’ translates to “savory beautiful swimmer”, thrive in-shore in brackish water and have large, intimidating claws that inflict real damage on their prey. Vulnerable to predators and environmental changes, the Blue Crab is at its most fragile, and most delicious, during its so-called “Soft-Shell” stage.

The Soft-Shell state is a stage of growth that Blue Crabs in the wild remain in for only an hour or so after “Shedding”, the molting of their hard outer shell, which the crabs, like all arthropods, must do in order to grow. Shedding season for the Crabs, takes place from late May to early September, but is at its peak from early June to mid-July. To assemble Soft-Shell Crabs in marketable quantities, watermen trap hard-shell “Peeler” crabs and confine and nurture them in seawater pens, known as “shedding tanks”, while they slowly develop into “Buster” crabs and eventually push out of their hard shells to emerge as soft-shell delicacies. This molting process is reputed to peak at full moon.

Those on the hunt for Soft-Shell Crabs in the Boston area should pay a visit to New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, which boasts good prices, a friendly and helpful staff, a presence in Cambridge since 1928, and has occupied its current location on Cambridge Street since 1943. I walked into New Deal as soon as it opened at 10 am on a recent Friday morning – be sure to check the Market’s hours online before you pay a visit, as they vary day to day – and was treated to an excellent lesson on Soft-Shell Crabs by New Deal Fishmonger Garrett. Garrett told me that New Deal’s Soft-Shell Blue Crabs are from the Chesapeake Bay, and recommended that I purchase two crabs per person if serving them as an entree, or one per person as an appetizer. Once I ordered, Garrett expertly cleaned the crabs I bought, explaining as he worked that he was cutting off the few inedible parts of the crab – the face, the “apron”, or underbelly, and the grey gill tissue, ghostly white stuff known to Fishmongers as the “deadman’s fingers”.

Full of good advice for preparing Crabs, Garrett suggested drenching them in a little flour, sauteeing for about three minutes on each side, and seasoning with a little bit of Old Bay Cajun seasoning for the most traditional taste. If you’re looking for something a bit more updated, fried crabs in a tempura batter or grilled crabs (be sure to clean and dry both the grill surface and the crabs thoroughly) are also favorites of New Deal regulars. However you chose to prepare them, Garrett recommends serving them with a light and refreshing side dish – a fresh melon salad would be a good bet. Such an unassuming side won’t cover up the taste of the crab, which is easily obscured by heavy sauces or over-cooking. Nutritionally speaking, Soft-Shell crabs are higher in fat than many other seafoods, due to their cold-water environs, and are also extremely high in protein, Vitamin B, and copper. All together, they make for a filling, nutrient-dense and tasty meal.

I chose to prepare my crabs with the sauteeing method recommended by Garrett, and everyone agreed that they were delicious served hot with a simple green salad on the side. For those of you I haven’t convinced to try this seasonal delicacy, I recommend stopping by New Deal anyway. Garrett promises that the staff are always excited to chat about what is seasonal, about sustainability issues, and about preparation – especially when there isn’t a line out the door. Furthermore, the Fish Market specializes in providing unusual delicacies, such as Hake and Pollock, which may not be familiar but which are often very reasonably priced and are always delicious. Make this the week to introduce some new, seasonal seafood to your repertoire.

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