Fresh Picked: Exploring this Year's Off-the-Charts Soft Shell Crab Season
Soft shell season arrived early this year. Months early, in fact. Though soft shells usually arrive mid-July, those spindly little crustaceans just couldn’t wait to molt, and warm waters saw our favorite blue crabs ready for consumption by the end of May. Even better? They’ve been arriving en masse, which translates to a high abundance and a (relatively) low price. But enough of this logistical drivel, what matters is how these guys are consumed. We turned to the fine folks at the South End’s The Gallows, Coolidge Corner’s Lineage, and Chinatown’s Gourmet Dumpling House to learn why soft shells are the greatest molten food—lava cake be damned.
Soft shell crab with green curry, parsnips, roasted mushrooms, and pineapple chutney from The Gallows. All photos by Bernie Leed.
“This has been a stellar soft shell crab year,” says Seth Morrison, executive chef of The Gallows. “I’ve been working with them for twenty years and this is one of the best years I’ve ever seen.” So how does he serve his prized crab? With green curry, parsnips, mushrooms, and pineapple chutney, of course. “I find that parsnips are really sweet and have some curry spice undertones to them and work really well with the curry flavors,” explains Morrison of the methods to his madness. The mushrooms, he adds, work well with the parsnips. The pineapple adds something bright. And for the less adventurous eater, The Gallows lunchtime menu features a soft shell po’boy, their version of the famous New Orleans sandwich.
According to Richard Morin, chef de cuisine at Lineage, this soft shell season was not only great, but incredibly strange. “It was actually one of the weirdest soft shell crab seasons that I’ve seen,” he says. The season’s early arrival was to account for the “weirdness,” as were the unusually intermittent molting periods. With Lineage’s menus changing daily, one might find their soft shells pan-seared or fried or almond-crusted. On the day I stopped by, Morin was tempura-frying his crabs, which he likes to do later in the season when the shell is a bit tougher. “Pairing the crispiness of the fry with the crispiness of the shell, I find that it works best,” he says. Morin prepared the dish with an addicting pesto and veggies purchased a day earlier at a Brookline farmers’ market. But the biggest treat of all were of course the soft shells, which had arrived from the purveyor only minutes before being dipped in batter and thrown into the deep fryer.
The menu at Gourmet Dumpling House, one of Chinatown’s most celebrated restaurants, is seemingly endless, but here’s a tip: Order yourself some dumplings, sure—it’s a dumpling house, after all—but don’t miss the soft shell crab, of course. The “D11” on the menu, or soft shells fried and then mixed in a wok, arrives as a towering plate of soft shell pieces—and nothing else. That’s how it should be with these crabs, which are cooked simply with scallions, salt-and-pepper spice mix, and oil. Edward Chen, president of Gourmet Dumpling House, claims the dish has been on the menu since the restaurant opened five years ago. On the oppressively humid, 95-degree day I visited the dumpling house’s narrow, crowded kitchen, I was day-dreaming about coming into contact with a fan and some ice cold water. Then, I bit into a piece of fragrant soft shell crab with watery, succulent juices emerging from beneath the fried skin; suddenly my other concerns seemed a lot less important.
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