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A few years ago, my friend Alix turned me onto a Mark Bittman recipe for soft shell crab pasta. I’d never cooked with crabs, and found them inherently intimidating. But for Father’s Day that year, I tested out the recipe, and it was too simple and delicious for words.
Soft shell crab season is so short, it always seems to pass me by. Since that first foray in crab cooking, I had yet to try my hand again–that is, until last week, when I was determined to do so. On Sunday, I went to three different seafood stores, only to find that they were all sold out. The next day, I went back first thing in the morning, and got my paws on some crabs.
I like my seafood crispy, so although his recipe was delicious, I decided to look beyond Bittman’s version, which gently sautés the crabs and creates a sauce for the pasta out of all their juices. Most of the recipes I read said to soak the crab in milk or buttermilk for a short period before pan-frying them. This process plumps up the crabs and makes them extra luscious and juicy. Since this is a once-every-two-years affair, I wasn’t going to let a little milk get in the way of my crab-tastic perfection. And the result was just that.
I used a Cilantro-Ginger Pesto (inspired by a cod special at Café Asean) to give the pasta flavor, and to spoon on top of the crabs. (I mean, what is pan-fried seafood without condiments to go with?). The Napa cabbage gives the dish some extra crunch, if the shells aren’t enough for you.
Though they’re a special treat, and certainly not the cheapest option at the fish counter, if you are lucky enough to stare down a bucket of soft shell crabs, I urge you to take it as a sign, and grab them while you still can. If you do, this pasta will help you stretch your crabs to treat not just you, but your friends too.
From my kitchen, cooking crabs (finally!!), to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Soft Shell Crabs with Squid Ink Linguine and Cilantro-Ginger Pesto
Makes 4 servings
You can use any type of linguine or spaghetti for this dish, but it really tastes great if you use fresh pasta.
4 soft shell crabs
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 pound fresh squid ink (or regular) linguine
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions (about 8), thinly sliced, white and green parts divided
1 head Napa or Chinese cabbage, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
1 cup cilantro ginger pesto
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
In a baking dish or rimmed plate, soak the crabs in the milk for 20 minutes, flipping once or twice.
Place the flour on a shallow plate. Remove the crabs from the milk, one at a time, shaking off an excess, and dredge them in the flower.
Heat the oil, butter, and chili flakes in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the crabs in batches until golden brown and crispy, about 4 minutes per side. Remove to a plate.
Return the heat to medium-low. Add the shallots and the white parts of the scallions to the pan. Saute for 3 minutes, scraping up any brown bits from the crabs. Add the cabbage and saute until wilted, about 5 minutes.
In the meantime, cook the pasta until al dente. (If using fresh, this will only take 2-3 minutes). Drain and toss together with the scallion-cabbage mixture and 1/2 cup of the pesto. Taste for seasoning.
To serve, divide the pasta between 4 plates, top each with a soft shelled crab and a generous dollop of pesto. Garnish with cilantro, and dig in!
Makes 1 cup
1/4 cup cashews
One 3-inch knob ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 bunch cilantro
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon siracha
Pulse the cashews, ginger, and garlic until minced. Add the cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, sugar, salt, and siracha. Puree until smooth, adding extra oil until the texture is silky. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or siracha as necessary. Store in an airtight container for up to a week.