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Saturday, May 31, 2014


I've pulled countless blue crabs from the murky marsh waters of Swan Cove on Assateague Island. I spent most of my childhood summers vacationing in Chincoteague, a small island on the Eastern Shore that's famous for its annual pony swim benefitting the local fire department. Assateague Island, a barrier island that protects Chincoteague from the Atlantic Ocean, is flanked by the ocean, fresh water marshlands, and salt water marshlands. Rippling alongside the causeway that connects Chincoteage and Assateague, Swan Cove was my summer crabbing paradise. From mid to late summer, we'd spend hours in the intense sun dangling chicken necks into the water to lure the crabs ashore. When we had our limit (a bushel), we'd mosey back to the house to cook and eat them up. Little boy heaven.

While Michael and I still make occasional trips to the Eastern Shore, it's been years since I've gone crabbing. It's not so dreamy without the trappings of childhood, I guess. The next best thing here in landlocked Kentucky is to let The Lexington Seafood Company do the crabbing. It's crab season here in Kentucky and The Lexington Seafood Company makes a concerted effort to have fresh Maryland Blue Crabs flown in once a week. They sell out fast.  Very fast. I missed the first few weeks of crab mania because I was waiting for the softies to arrive. They finally made it to the party. For a couple of months in late spring and early summer, blue crabs molt and shed their shells. During the short period it takes for the new shell to harden, soft shell crabs are entirely edible (except for a few parts). Not only is it crab season here in Kentucky, right now, it's soft shell crab season. Booya.

Soft shell crabs have to be very fresh and alive. They should be eaten soon after they've been cleaned. Because they sell out quickly I ordered and reserved 6 jumbo soft shell crabs from The Lexington Seafood Company. I forgot to request cleaned soft shell crabs. Thinking I'd be cooking a few crabs on different days, I asked to have half of them cleaned while I enthusiastically watched and learned the process. They were alive. Good to know. How hard could it be?

My brief bout of enthusiasm waned a bit as I watched the fishmonger methodically snip off their faces, remove the aprons, and clip out the gills before tidily stacking them into carryout containers while the faceless crabs still fluttered about. "Are you sure the others will stay alive in the refrigerator for a couple of days?", I asked. Hoping to hear him say "Hell no. Let me clean them all. Eat them now. Eat them raw. Eat them in the car before you get home", he simply replied, "Oh sure, they'll last. The refrigerator might slow 'em down a bit, but they'll last." Slow them down a bit? I knew it wasn't going to happen. "Go ahead, clean the rest of them.", I said.

It was my fault. I didn't have to watch. That said, I grabbed my bag of crabs and happily headed to the farmers' market for slaw stuff. Crabs and cole slaw. I was head on for a basic cabbage slaw until Elmwood Stock Farm bok choy and  gorgeous Stonehedge Farm kohlrabi entered the mix. I wasn't expecting those cabbage-like things so soon at the market. Game changer.

Game on.

Sauteed Soft Shell Crabs with Kohlrabi Bok Choy Slaw.
I kept it simple. Normally, I would have pulled out the mandolin and used the julienne attachment to shred the bok choy and kohlrabi. Nope. I peeled the kohlrabi and set it aside. After slicing off the root end of the bok choy, I rinsed the stalks, cut them into 6 inch batons, reserved the leaves, and set them aside. Using the shredder attachment on the food processor, I shredded the kohlrabi lengthwise into fine ribbons and tossed it into a mixing bowl. After trimming a few radishes, I shredded them and added them to the kohlrabi. Because bok choy is too fiberous to shred, I simply julienned it into equal sized lengths and added it to the mix. For color, I julienned a red bell pepper and tossed it with the radishes, kohlrabi, and bok choy.

To counter the richness of the crabs, I wanted a tangy slaw. Sweet tang. Sour tang. I poured 1/3 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar into a small mason jar before adding 1 heaping tablespoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil. I sealed the jar with a lid, gave it a good shake to emulsify the dressing, poured it over the slaw, and slid the slaw into the refrigerator to marinate/macerate while I worked on the crabs.

Typically, I fry soft shell crabs for the crunch factor. Didn't happen. I took an easier and gentler approach. Seriously, it was so simple. I placed a large cast iron skillet over a medium high flame before adding equal amounts of unsalted butter and canola oil. While the skillet heated up, I mixed 1 1/2 cups flour with 2 heaping tablespoons of Old Bay Seasoning. When the butter started to sizzle in the oil, I dredged the crabs with the seasoned flour, placed them top side down in the skillet, and sauteed them for 2 1/2 minutes before turning them to cook for an additional 2 1/2 minutes. When the shells turned red beneath the browned flour dusting, I pulled them from the heat, drained them on paper towels, and stacked the crabs onto a large platter lined with Elmwood Stock Farm red leaf lettuce. I filled small coffee cups with the kohlrabi bok choy slaw, scattered sliced lemons over the crabs, and finished with Stonehedge Farm fresh spring pea shoots.

It's difficult to eat and moan at the same time.  I've had my share of crabs over the years. Steamed. Baked. Stuffed. Fried. Casseroled. Ceviched. Raw. In my crab world, I've only eaten fried soft shell crabs. Deep fried. Throw that ball and chain out the window. Don't get me wrong, I love them fried. Crunchy. Sweet. Classic. That said, a light saute took them into another realm. Without the intense heat of a deep fryer, they didn't have a chance to overcook. With a slight crisp bite from the flour-dusted soft shells, the barely cooked sweet meat remained incredibly tender and moist. Each lemon-splashed bite popped, squirted, and dripped through my fingers. It felt familiar. Smelling and tasting like the sea, the softies transported this Kentucky boy back to Swan Cove and paradise.



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