Growing up with a chef for a dad meant I ate pretty well as a kid. Sure, some dinners consisted of mac and cheese from the blue box, but I think I ate more steamed artichokes and filet Mignon than the average 8 year old.
One of my more resonant childhood food memories was the time dad brought home soft shell crabs. I don't remember how he prepared them, but they were delicious, with a back story that was sad and fascinating, their rarity making them even more appealing. They have lived in my imagination as a singular food experience.
It's the start of soft shell season and I decided to resurrect that childhood moment. Mike, ever the willing food adventurer, was also down for some crab action. I would bring the soft shells; he would pick up some king crab legs.
I picked up four soft shells from Ippolito's, a seafood place a few blocks from my house. I had them clean the crabs for me, which basically entails gutting them, something I wasn't quite ready to take on myself. Mike went to two of the Asian supermarkets on Washington Ave. and neither had king crab, so he got a bunch of shrimp.
I arrived at Mike's house with no clue as to what I was going to do with my crabs. I knew I wanted them to be simple, not breaded or overwhelmed by too many flavors. I referred to Mike's Joy of Cooking for some guidelines. Their recipe was perfection: grilled crabs brushed with melted butter, garlic, salt and pepper. I added some fresh lemon juice to the mix.
Mike has some stellar Asian recipes and used one for his shrimp: cooked with a caramel sauce, served with rice and stir-fried lettuce. And since the grill was still blazing from the crabs, we threw some mango on there for dessert.
The stars of the evening, the crabs, were amazing... perfectly buttery and lemony and garlicky, with crunchy claws and soft, sweet meat. Lacking the tough exterior means soft shells absorb flavors, including the charcoal smokiness from grilling, really well. We had extra lemon butter and figured it could be a dipping sauce, but it went untouched; the crabs didn't need anything more. I could have cooked them a touch longer, slow cooking them on the periphery of the flame, but the claws were getting scorched and I was getting impatient.
Make these now. Soft shell crab season lasts through the summer, but I wouldn't wait till August. I would get them now. And invite me over when you do...
Soft Shell Crabs
adapted from The Joy of Cooking
4 soft shell crabs, cleaned
3 tbls. melted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
About half a lemon's worth of juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Fire up grill. Mix together the last four ingredients. Brush on crabs. Grill crabs for about 6 minutes on each side, keeping them off direct flame, till they are red on the outside.
(I will post Mike's recipes ASAP.)