Soft-shell crab season begins, according to lore, with the first full moon of May, which happened to come last Thursday, just in time for Memorial Day weekend. I've been looking forward to that full moon ever since I read the uplifting news that the harvest limits put into place a couple of years ago in Virginia and Maryland had worked. The blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay is higher that it has been in ten years. There's a lot of crab out there, and since Memorial Day is one of the grilling holidays, why not eschew the traditional batter and messy deep frying, and get right down to business with a good bed of hot coals?
I've done some experimenting and come to the following conclusion: wood fire is better for crabs than charcoal or gas. The other two fuels will work, of course, but the flavor imparted by a medium-hot cook over a bed of glowing hickory chunks is really special. If you've got a venue for it, use a wood fire, but by all means grill them anyway you want. They will be great.
I had a dozen crabs on the counter last night, and after cleaning them I prepared them for the grill in three ways.
To clean a soft crab, cut each crab across the face with shears, remove the eye sockets and the lower mouth, and then carefully lift up the top shell and cut out the gills. You can have your fish monger do this if you (understandably) don't like the idea of cutting something's face off.
I say "soaked" rather than marinated because it is important not to let the flavors of these marinades overpower the flavor of the crabs. You really just want to toss them in the liquid in mixing bowl and walk them out to the grill. In the five minutes it takes to get them there, the flavors will have come along.
Arrange the crabs carefully on the grill and cook until the edges of the claws start to turn from translucent blue to whitish pink, about 6 minutes. Then flip them and cook for slightly less time on the other side. Cooking time here is incredibly variable, and I am loathe to suggest that crabs will be finished after any specific amount of time. Temperature, grill height, and the size of the crabs are all going to make for different results. You want them to look done, that is, they should be white on the bottom with pink notes and a little char on all the edges. The top shells should be red. They should be firm to the touch when poked. Use your fingers, if the crab feels squishy, like there's jelly inside, it isn't done.
After I took them off the fire, I cut the crabs in half and put three halves of crab (one of each of the marinades) on each plate. I don't think they need any garnish at all. They were met with gusto and gone quickly. A crab and a half is the perfect portion for a two course meal -- slightly more than an appetizer, slightly less than an entree. If you don't want to make another course, give each diner two crabs. Hungry people from Maryland can eat three.
The classic worcestershire soak was brackish and familiar, with some good extra umami flavor, but it almost overpowered the delicate crab and wood smoke combination and it was the least favorite. The rice vinegar soak was light and slightly sweet, and rounded out the crabs really well. But the best of all were the four crabs with nothing but salt. Perhaps this is because they were also the biggest and brightest crabs, but I think it comes down to the simple beauty of a good crab grilled over a good fire. Why add anything to distract from the flavor of that?
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