COASTAL BRUNCH: A delicacy synonymous with spring, crisp-fried soft-shells pair perfectly with the zing of classic hollandaise. (All photos by Kathy Keeney)
Sure, we’re all stuck at home these days. But spring has sprung and there is still a plethora of great local seasonal ingredients to be had for creative home cooking.
In Coastal Virginia, perhaps the most highly anticipated ingredient this time of year are those most succulent but elusive crustaceans, soft-shell crabs—AKA “peelers” if you make your living pulling them up from the rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
So named for the tender but oh-so-brief state of their shells during the spring molting process, soft-shells are prized for their sweet taste and pleasing texture and can be fried, broiled, fried, grilled, sautéed or steamed and eaten whole—yep, legs and all—once cleaned.
Below, local cooking instructor Jacqui Renagar shares a coastal twist on that beloved brunch classic, Eggs Benedict, with soft-shells as the star.
“The crispy breading on the crab works beautifully with the creamy yolk of the poached egg,” Renager explains. “The slight zing of the hollandaise combined with the zang of the cajun seasoning play perfectly together and round each other out. From mouthfeel to balanced flavor profiles, it checks all of the boxes.”
The cleaned crabs are dipped in an egg wash and dredged in a mixture of flour and Cajun seasoning before being gently fried to a golden brown. Along with the traditional hollandaise, this Benedict gets a little extra punch from crispy bacon and fresh avocado slices along with the crabs.
Keep in mind, soft-shells must be cleaned—eyes, mouth, guts and gills removed—before cooking or eating. Many local seafood purveyors will clean them for you, or you can clean them yourself (see instructions at bottom of recipe). Check your favorite local seafood market for availability beginning in April and lasting through the fall. Soft-shells can also be purchased frozen, but fresh is always best!
Soft-shell Crabs Benedict
Recipe by Jacqui Renagar of Fun in the Kitchen with Jacqui
6 soft-shell crabs (fresh or frozen)
3 cups flour
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp kosher salt
3 tsp Cajun seasoning
5 eggs beaten well
Oil to fry crabs: Peanut oil is best (high smoke point and neutral taste)
Put oil in a sauté pan about one inch deep. Heat to 350 degrees or until you drop a bit of flour in it and it sizzles. Preheat oven to 275 degrees as a warming oven.
Rinse and dry your cleaned crabs. Set aside. In a large bowl, mix the flour, black pepper and salt. Set aside. In a separate bowl, vigorously beat your eggs. Mix in the Cajun seasoning. Dip the crab in flour, then in egg mixture, then back in the flour mixture. Before placing in fryer, shake the little guy to separate the legs from each other. Place crab in the pan and fry until golden brown (about two minutes). Turn it over and cook another two minutes. Remove from fryer and place in warm oven on a paper towel lined baking sheet until ready to assemble your Benedict.
4 egg yolks
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted (1 stick)
Vigorously whisk the egg yolks and lemon juice together in a stainless steel bowl and until the mixture is thickened and doubled in volume. Place the bowl over a saucepan containing barely simmering water (or use a double boiler)—the water should not touch the bottom of the bowl. Continue to whisk rapidly. Be careful not to let the eggs get too hot or they will scramble. Slowly drizzle in the melted butter and continue to whisk until the sauce is thickened and doubled in volume. Remove from heat, whisk in cayenne and salt. Cover and place in a warm spot until ready to use for the Eggs Benedict. If the sauce gets too thick, whisk in a few drops of warm water before serving.
Perfectly Poached Eggs
Dash of white vinegar
In a 3.5-quart sauté pan, add enough water to come within an inch of the top of the pan. Heat the pan to a rapid boil. Turn off the heat. Add a small dash of vinegar to help keep the whites intact. Crack eggs individually into a ramekin or cup. Slowly tip the egg into the water. Cover the pan and leave to cook for three minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain onto kitchen paper towel.
6 English muffins, split and warmed in microwave just to soften (15 seconds)
Fresh baby spinach
Slices of bacon
Slices of avocado
Fried soft shell crabs
Chopped chives to garnish
Put split English muffin on plate. Top with spinach, bacon then avocado. Cut your soft shell in half. Lay your warm softshell crab halves on top of each muffin. Top with your poached eggs, one on each soft shell. Smother each stack with your warm hollandaise sauce. Sprinkle some chopped chives on top for garnish.
Soft-shell crabs are regular hard-shell blue crabs that have gotten too big for their shell and have just undergone the molting process. They release an enzyme that tells their bodies to start growing a paper like new shell under the old “too small” shell. They then drink a ton of water that makes them bloat and squeeze out of the hard-exterior shell. They are only soft for a few hours. They are only available for purchase from late spring through September. They can be purchased frozen during the off season.
To Clean: Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut off the eyes and mouth in one horizontal cut. Flip the crab over and cut off the abdomen flap. Flip the crab back over again (right side up) and lift each side of the shell. Locate and remove the gills. Replace top shells back into position. If you choose to remove the guts of the crab, gently squeeze and the guts will come out of the back of the crab. Some people choose to leave those in as they can deliver a very decadent flavor.
Medium: 3.5-4 inches
Hotels: 4-4.5 inches
Primes: 4.5-5 inches
Jumbos: 5-5.5 inches
Whales: over 5.5 inches