Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cleaning Soft Shell Crabs.

At the coast, we know it's truly spring and summer's nigh when it's soft shell crab season. And Mr. Hawthorne loves his soft shells.
We stopped at Billy's Seafood yesterday and Judy handpicked and packed 20 soft shells for us.
At $2.00 a crab. Gone are the days when we could get these buggers for $8/dozen.
Almost every crab we had was a female. You can tell by the apron. This crab is a mature female, known as a sook. On an immature crab, called a Sally, the apron is more triangular.

The males, or Jimmies, have a more phallic-looking apron, or as the crab sites I visited say, "It's shaped like the Washington Monument." For more information on sexing crabs, please see here. With these twenty crabs, Mr. Hawthorne first cleaned them, then wrapped them in plastic, put them in freezer bags, and froze them. They'll be good for 3-4 months in the freezer and now he's a happy camper since if he gets a hankering for a soft shell crab, by golly, he can have one. These crabs are blue crabs. Their name, Callinectes sapidus, comes from the Greek calli for "beautiful" and nectes for "swimmer," and from the Latin sapidus for "savory." All crabs shed their shells to grow, but only a few species of crab can be eaten in the soft shell state, and the blue crab is the only commercially available soft shell product. During the lifetime of the blue crab, it goes through several growth stages. The blue crab may shed its hard outer shell 18-23 times during its three-year life span. Each time the crab molts, it's a soft shell for only a few hours and must be removed from the water immediately in order to prevent the shell from becoming hard. Commercial crabbers harvest the blue crabs and place them in water-fed troughs, waiting for them to shed. There are many crabbing troughs on Colington Road, the single road in and out of Colington Harbour. And when you drive this road at night during soft shell season, you'll notice a string of light bulbs over these troughs as the crabbers wait throughout the night for the crabs to lose their shell. Crabbers look for a faint line next to the backfin. The color of this line determines when the crab is ready to shed. When there's a white line on the backfin, the crabbers refer to the crab as a "green" crab, which will most likely shed within 7-10 days. A pink line indicates the crab is likely to shed within 2-7 days. A red line means shedding is imminent. The crabbers separate the crabs according to their progress in the molting process. When the crab molts, it's very vulnerable. They should be kept alive until immediately before cooking, so usually, crabs must be eaten within 4 days of shedding. The soft shell season generally lasts from May to early July. General folklore says the soft shell season traditionally begins with the first full moon in May, but water temperatures and conditions really determine when the crabs start the molting process. At that time, the crab begins to shed to accommodate its summer growth, usually about a 30% growth spurt. The actual shedding can take anywhere from one to three hours, after which the crab must be removed from the water or the hardening process will continue. Thus, the reason for the lights over the crabbers' troughs. The crabs need to be monitored around the clock. The crabs are sized and packed, with the largest, of course, commanding the premium prices. The crabs are measured across the back, point to point. Mediums are 3 1/2 to 4 inches. Jumbos are 5 to 5 1/2 inches. Hotels are 4 to 4 1/2 inches. Whales are over 5 1/2 inches. Primes are 4 1/2 to 5 inches. Here are our crabs, waiting for Mr. Hawthorne to clean them.

A face only a mother could love ...
... which Mr. Hawthorne promptly cut off.
To dress or clean a crab, you first cut off the mouth and face behind the eyes and cut off the apron. (On these crabs, the apron had already been cut off.)
Next, Mr. Hawthorne peeled back the soft shell and snipped the lungs out on each side.
Then he made a slit down the middle and cleaned out some organs. The first batch we got were all female crabs, so I think these are some kind of female parts.
Here's a video showing how to properly clean a soft shell. I noticed the chef just sauteed his soft shells. We like a light batter on ours. Next time, I'll video Mr. Hawthorne as he deftly dresses his soft shells. And I also like to rinse off the yellow gunk, also known as the "green gland," or "mustard, or "tomalley." Contrary to popular belief, this is not fat. It's actually a main component of the crab's digestive system - the hepatopancreas - which acts as both liver and pancreas. It serves to produce digestive enzymes and is also responsible for filtering impurities from the crab's blood. Research has shown that colorless, odorless, and tasteless chemical contaminants such as PCBs, dioxin, and mercury accumulate in the fatty tissues and concentrate in the hepatopancreas and can increase one's chances of developing cancer, having neurological impairments, or miscarrying. Many people consider this mustard a delicacy. I do not. It has a strong (unpleasant to me) taste and I consider it "yellow gunk."
Mr. Hawthorne individually wrapped each soft shell, placed them in freezer bags, and froze. And I just can't wait (for that watermelon fizz) for some delicious soft shells.


Marilyn said...

Interesting. But I'm with Carol on the ick factor of cutting a critter's face off when it is still using it.

Marilyn said...

Oh, and I also love the first picture. Brilliant job, dear.

Kathy said...

That's the same reason I don't eat liver - the repository of toxins is not very appealing to me.

Hairball T. Hairball said...

Thanks Rosie, that was really interesting!