The combination of UNC graduation and Mother’s Day weekend always means big business for Crook’s Corner. Add to that the long awaited arrival of soft-shell crabs and you’ll see lines of eager customers wrapping around the block.“I cleaned 39 dozen soft-shells, which took me from 9 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon,” Smith says just before the doors open for business on Thursday afternoon. “I think this should hold us through the weekend, but you never know.”
Standard blue crabs become soft-shells when they molt and shed their hard exoskeleton. They are among a select group of seasonal delights Smith prepares that cause regulars to go wild; others include honeysuckle sorbet, which will follow soon, and persimmon pudding, a delicacy of fall.“I’ve seen fights break out over our soft-shell crabs,” he says, doffing his ball cap and smoothing his unruly hair. “I can’t list it on the menu because it sells out so fast. If we have soft-shells and honeysuckle sorbet at the same time, people will break down the door.”
Smith quietly announces their arrival to loyal followers of his @Chulegre Twitter account and the Crook’s Corner’s Facebook page. No matter how much someone pleased or begs, they will not reserve orders. “Oh, Lord no,” he says. “If you want some, be here at 5:30.”His reputation as an expert on soft-shells, and seafood in general, has earned Smith a volume in the Savor the South series of cookbooks being produced by UNC Press. His entry will focus on crab and oysters and should arrive in 2014.
Smith grew up catching crabs with a chicken neck and string when he was a boy in New Bern. He keenly recalls his first taste of soft-shells with his aunt and uncle, who often took him for Sunday drives.“We would go down to the town of Sea Level in Carteret County,” he recalls. “There was a restaurant there right on the water with a wall that was all windows. It took forever to get there and it always seemed like the end of the world to me.”
On one visit, Smith figures he was around 8 years old, he looked at the menu and told the server he’d have the soft-shell crabs. “My aunt said, ‘No, you mean deviled crabs.’ I wouldn't admit I didn't know what they were,” he says some 56 years later, “but I loved them."Unless ordered in a restaurant, crabs were largely viewed as “free food” at the time by coastal residents, who found and ate them in abundance. “I learned how to catch and clean them when we’d visit my grandmother in the summer. She would make a crab stew that was very good,” he says. “Now, of course, crabs are very expensive.”
Soft-shells are even more costly because of the extra effort involved in catching them just after they molt. While usually available locally by now, Smith had to import his current order from Virginia’s Eastern Shore, which has been warmer that the North Carolina coast.While he’s glad that customers rush to Crook’s Corner to enjoy them, Smith says home cooks should give them a try. If squeamish about dispatching them to crab heaven – for safe consumption, it is essential for soft-shells to be alive when purchased – most bona fide fishmongers will do the deed for you.
Smith recommends seeking out medium size soft-shell crabs. While jumbo specimens may look tempting, they are more difficult to prepare without overcooking. And don’t panic if a claw or leg falls off before the finished dish makes it to the table. “No matter how careful you are, it happens,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes we save the loose claws in a bowl and enjoy them at the end of the night.”Smith is collecting a variety of soft-shell recipes for the Savor the South book, which is likely to include a grilled version tossed with fettuccini that he enjoyed in Venice. Of all the possible variations, there are just two methods he refuses to consider.
“Don't fry them,” he says protectively. “The ones we do here are sautéed in browned butter with lemon juice, garlic and basil.”The other unspeakable practice is to steam them, which a health-conscious customer requested a few years ago.
“Browned and crispy is the way to go, but she thought it wasn’t healthy cooked in butter,” he says, laughing and shaking his head. “I told her I thought they would taste like crickets. It's important to me for customers to be happy, but I wouldn't do it.”
Crooks’ Corner Soft-Shelled CrabsReprinted with permission of Bill Smith from Seasoned in the South: Recipes From Crook’s Corner and From Home (Algonquin Books, 2006).
Serves 48 fresh soft-shelled crabs
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup Maseca instant corn masa mix
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup clarified unsalted butter
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
Juice of 1 lemon (about ¼ cup)
¼ cup thin basil chiffonade
Clean the crabs (if you seafood market won’t do it for you) by first snipping off the face with kitchen shears. They should be soft and squishy all over. Then lift up each side of the carapace and snip out the gills. (These are four or five white, curved, pointed “devil’s fingers” extending from the center of the crab to the end of the shell on both sides.) Flip the crab over and cut off the tail flap – on males it is narrow; on females it is fat. Hold the crab under cool running water and gently squeeze out the yellow guts that are inside and just under the top of the shell. You don’t need to squeeze the main part of the body beneath this shell. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Very appetizing so far, yes?Mix the flour and Maseca together and season with the salt and pepper. It is very important to use enough salt, so taste the flour before you begin.
Dip the crabs in buttermilk and then dredge in the flour. Shake off any excess flour and sauté them in very hot clarified butter – a quarter inch deep – until pretty and brown, turning once. The crabs should be crispy and very hot at the center. Remove them to a warm platter. Be careful, because they pop and spit a great deal, especially when very fresh. My staff refers to this as frying fire crackers.Pour off the butter, but try to keep as much of the crumbs and browned flour in the pan as possible. Put the pan back on high heat and add the 3 tablespoons of whole butter. Begin swirling the pan at once. The butter will begin to melt and smell toasty. When the butter is pretty and brown, quickly add the garlic, swirl to spread it around, and immediately add the lemon juice to prevent the garlic from browning. Remove from heat, add the basil, and pour over the crabs. Serve at once. (They are not good cold.)
This process sounds tricky, but once you have done it correctly it will always be easy because the smell is so divine it will guide you ever after.