Wine With . . . Soft Shell Crabs with Asian Slaw
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
As with so much else in life, timing is everything when it comes to this seasonal delicacy, a particular favorite of epicures in our neck of the woods in Maryland. Soft shell crabs are the result of a molting process that occurs when blue crabs cast off their hard, inedible shells as they outgrow them. Once the shells have been shed, the crabs are clad only in a soft covering. It begins to harden within a few days, and the window of opportunity for finding crabs whose shells are soft enough to be entirely edible is narrow. The season normally runs only from May to July.
Not too long ago, soft shells were only available at seafood shops near the waters where blue crabs swim. These days, however, they have become so popular that fishmongers far inland carry them. If you don’t mind cleaning the crabs (there are numerous diagrams and videos online showing how to perform this simple operation), live ones are best. But if you don’t want to deal with this, or if you can’t find live crabs, ready-to-cook, pre-cleaned soft shells are readily available from many fishmongers. Just be sure to give them the sniff test. Since they have little protection from spoilage, you’ll be disappointed in their taste if they smell even slightly off.
Once they’ve been cleaned, soft shell crabs should be cooked within a day. Many restaurants and fish stands use frozen soft shells, but most of the opinions we’ve come across indicate that their quality is notably lower. We’ve never bought the frozen ones ourselves, but it’s reassuring to know the option is available should an insatiable craving for soft shells strike in, say, December.
Perhaps it’s because they are so perishable that soft shell crabs are sometimes considered too tricky for the average home-cook to undertake. Truth is, they are pretty easy to prepare. They’re often served battered and fried, and are sometimes sandwiched between two slices of bread or a hamburger bun slathered with tartar sauce and/or (gasp!) ketchup. Deep fried soft shells go well with the kind of wine that’s compatible with, say, fried chicken. (In our April 17, 2007 Wine With column we noted that big, plush Chardonnays were especially suitable with fried food of this sort). But the natural flavor of soft shell crab is so sweet and subtly briny that we prefer them lightly dusted with flour, seasoned with nothing more than salt and a hint of cayenne, and gently sautéed. We often prepare and serve them with a minimum of fussy embellishment; but we’ve discovered recently that this Asian inspired treatment not only is delicious, but also adds flavor elements that broaden the range of good wine matches.
SOFT SHELL CRABS WITH ASIAN SLAW
Serves four as a first course, two as a main course.
FOR THE SLAW
4 cups shredded cabbage, red or green or a mixture of both
2 carrots, peeled and shredded or cut into fine julienne
¼ cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons minced or grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Place the cabbage and carrots in a large bowl. Whisk together the remaining ingredients, pour the mixture over the cabbage, and toss thoroughly.
FOR THE CRABS
4 cleaned, ready-to-cook soft shell crabs
Flour for dredging
Salt and cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Rinse the crabs in cold water and pat dry. Dredge them in flour seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper. Shake off excess flour. Over medium heat, place butter and olive oil in a sauté pan large enough to accommodate the crabs in a single layer. When the butter froths vigorously, add the crabs top sides down. Cook 3 minutes, then turn them over and cook another 2 minutes or so, or until reddish-brown. Be forewarned: as they cook, they will sputter and pop.
Divide the slaw among four serving plates, and top each with a crab. Garnish with a lemon wedge and serve immediately.
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The ginger and sesame oil in this recipe might make you think that wines with fruity sweetness would pair well with it. We tried a few in that camp (an Argentinean Torrontes, New Zealand Riesling, and Washington Gewurztraminer), and they all did fine -- especially with the slaw. Even better, though, were wines with a drier, crisper character. That’s because they harmonized well with both the succulent crab meat and the slaw, making for a trio rather than a duet of expressive flavors. By contrast, the sweeter wines seemed simpler, and the pairings were not as well-proportioned. Nonetheless, both types of wine certainly worked. In fact, among the twelve different white wines we tried, the only pairings that did not succeed were those that included wines that were either too delicate or overtly oaky, notably an Italian Pinot Grigio and a Napa Chardonnay. This dish has lots of flavor but isn’t at all heavy. No matter whether sweet or dry, you’ll want a wine with similar characteristics.