The first time I ate soft-shell crabs was at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. Looking back, I can’t imagine where I found the nerve to try them. I didn’t even like fish. But try them I did, and I was knocked out by the sweet crabmeat and that crispy edible shell. Unfortunately, soft-shell crabs were a rarity in the Northeast in the sixties, and years went by before I got to try them again. I didn’t really begin to get my fill of them until I started working at La Tulipe in the early eighties, where the menu featured soft shells in season.
Soft-shell crabs should still be alive and wriggling when you buy them at the fishmonger or supermarket. Have the fishmonger clean them for you while you wait and then be sure to cook them that night. With soft shells as with lobsters—which are also extremely perishable—the fresher the better.
Finally, soak them in milk to take out any overly fishy taste. (Soaking anything in milk—anchovies, game, fish fillets—pulls out strong unwanted flavor. It is a good trick to know.)
One last note: Soft shell crabs spit like crazy when you cook them, so use a long pair of tongs to turn them and be sure to stand back from the stove when you do.
8 small soft-shell crabs, cleaned
About 1 quart whole milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small shallots. minced
One 1/4-inch thick slice country ham, about 2 ounces, julienned
4 to 5 small cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more as needed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons snipped chives
Additional kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Place the crabs in a large shallow bowl and pour on enough milk to cover. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring often, until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the ham and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook, stirring, until the liquid has reduced by half.
Cook the crabs in batches (or cook them in 2 skillets.) Heat the vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat until almost smoking. Combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and mix well. Remove the crabs from the milk and dip into the seasoned flour. Turn to coat on all sides, shake off the excess flour, and add the crabs to the skillet. Cook, turning once, until golden, 3 to 5 minutes per side. Continue until all the crabs are cooked, adding more oil as needed. Transfer to a large platter/
Heat the sauce over medium heat until just warmed through, 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk in the remaining butter, add the chives, and season with salt and pepper. You should have about 1 cup of sauce. Pour the sauce over the crabs and serve at once.