By Chef Spike Gjerde, as told to Francine Maroukian
Getting soft crabs to market takes a waterman's art and experience. As the water warms up, the dormant crabs get the signal to move, and as they do they molt their shell, like a snake shedding its skin. That's what creates the window: The waterman must catch and then hold the molting hard crabs in tanks until they lose their shell, and then pack the soft crabs under wet newspaper before the shell hardens again. Like oysters, clams, and lobster, soft crabs must be alive when you buy them. When lifted, the crab should still move a bit rather than limply hang. Buy the softest crab you can find. To test, don't press down on the center, as the gills are located under the surface and too much pressure can crush them, killing the crab. Instead, gently pinch the tips of the claws. If they're still soft, that's perfect. The fishmonger will clean the crab for you in three steps: 1) Snipping off the eyed side with a scissor; 2) lifting each side of the soft shell and removing the gills with a paring knife; and 3) turning the crab over to remove the apron (the hingelike tab that resembles a zip top on a can, which you lift and discard when you're eating a hard shell). Cook the crab on the same day you get it cleaned.
The salad I use changes with the season. In early spring, I start with frisée and slivered fennel and radish because that's all there is around. As the weather warms, I layer my sandwich with heartier leaf lettuces, cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes. But I always go open face; too much bread can overwhelm the crab - and also, I like to show it off.
Chef Spike Gjerde, the Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore
• 1 cup all-purpose flour mixed with 1 tbsp cornstarch 1 and a pinch each ground dry fish pepper, 2 black pepper, and coarse salt
• 1 large soft crab (or 2 small), cleaned
• 3 tbsp unsalted butter 3
• Tartar sauce
• 1 thick slice high-quality white sandwich bread, lightly buttered and toasted until golden in a hot skillet or under the broiler
• About 1 cup mixed seasonal salad greens, seasoned with salt and pepper and lightly tossed in vinaigrette
Place the seasoned flour in a pie tin and gently press the crab into the mixture, coating both sides and as much of the legs as possible, shaking off excess. (If there's too much flour, it will fall into the butter during cooking and burn.) Transfer to a rack.
In a ten-inch skillet over moderately high heat, melt the butter until foaming. Add the crab, top-side down, and shallow fry until golden brown. Carefully turn crab over and brown the other side. The total cooking time is about 5 to 7 minutes.
Drain briefly on a rack or paper towel to remove excess butter.
Place about 1 tbsp tartar sauce in the center of the plate and top it with the bread. (The tartar sauce will prevent the bread from sliding around.)
Spoon tartar sauce over one edge of the bread, letting some drip onto the plate. Top the bread with the dressed salad and arrange the crab on top of the greens. Serve with extra tartar sauce and hot sauce on the side. Serves 1.
1 Cornstarch brings some extra crunchiness to the simple light flour coating.
2 Fish pepper is an heirloom variety that was grown by African-Americans in the Chesapeake area in the 19th century and is widely prevalent in our regional fish cookery. You can substitute a pinch of cayenne.
3 In the restaurant, we use clarified butter, which can get extremely hot without burning. When you are using unsalted butter at home, watch the heat. The crabs need to brown, but the butter can't burn.
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