Contemplating the rare qualities of the softshell crab in Biloxi.
by Julian Brunt
The briny waters of the Gulf of Mexico offer up an abundance of seafood that is unequaled in variety and quality. Thus, the recipes created for that abundance by those lucky enough to live on its shores – gumbo, courtbouillon and etouffée come to mind – are famed near and far. But there is one delicacy that you may never sample unless you visit the Gulf Coast during late summer/early fall and have the good luck to arrive at just the right time.
The blue crab (callinectes sapidus), which is harvested by the multitudes in the shallow waters of the Gulf, must shed its hard shell periodically as it grows into a bigger fellow. When the shell is discarded, he becomes a softshell crab, but for only a few days. Called a buster when his shell first starts to come undone, this crab has three or four days as a softshell and then a few more as a paper-shell (much less desirable, but still edible). Then, if his luck holds and a big red fish has not made supper of him, it is back to life as usual for this crab.
But, oh my, for those few days when the crab is deemed a “softshell,” the opportunity arrives for us to enjoy a delicacy worthy of poetic excess. Nothing compares to a fried softshell crab in my book, nothing at all. Many fishermen search their crab pots for busters and set them aside in holding tanks for the magic to happen, and then race them to the fishmonger. Those lucky few standing in line on that day get to take them home.
If you are in Biloxi, Desportes Seafood and Quality Seafood, both on Division Street, are your best bet for finding softshell crabs. If you do make that big score, you then have to make the weighty decision of how to prepare them. There are an abundance of recipes for sautéing softshells, even grilling them, but no better method exists than deep frying, which produces a crispy and succulent wonder.
The process of deep frying softshells is simplicity itself, but there are a few pitfalls into which, if you stumble, you will be deeply disappointed in your results. If you are unsure at all how to clean softshells, ask your fishmonger and he will happily do the deed. Do not delay in cooking your treasure, as time is the worst enemy of fresh seafood, and softshells do not survive the freezing process well. The last requirement is a good recipe, and what follows is the best I have ever found.
1 large cast iron pot, filled with oil but only halfway (never overfill!)
Softshell crabs, cleaned, but not dried
1 package dry tempura batter
1 package Panko bread crumbs
Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning or other Cajun-style seasoning
Lemon wedges for garnish
Heat the oil to 340 degrees F, and make sure it maintains that temperature by using a cooking thermometer. In a large bowl, season the dry tempura batter liberally with the seasoning (you can add a little black pepper if you like, cayenne if you want to make it really spicy) and toss the crabs until they are well coated. Set the crabs aside until the moisture has soaked through (10 minutes), otherwise the bread crumbs will not adhere to them. If you are in a hurry, spritz the crabs with water until they are gummy. Put the bread crumbs in a brown paper sack and drop the crabs in one at a time, give them a good shake to cover, and repeat until all the crabs are well coated.
It is most important not to overcrowd the pot when cooking. If you do, the temperature will plummet and the crabs will be greasy. Cook a few at a time for 3 minutes, turning halfway through. If you overcook them, even by only a minute or so, they will be tough. Remove, drain and serve immediately with a slice of lemon.
Here’s a very quick and good sauce for any fried seafood: Put one cup of good quality mayo in a food processor, add the juice of one lemon and a small handful of cilantro. Blend until smooth. A little fresh ground white pepper tops it off.
Julian Brunt writes a food column for the Biloxi, Mississippi, Sun Herald. Most of his work concerns Gulf seafood, but he says he always tries to include a historical or cultural twist. He has also extensively covered the area’s Vietnamese community and its restaurants, food and fishermen.