Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fried Soft Shell Crab Sandwich

The iPhone has no flash, and this sandwich was made during a thunderstorm Thursday that took out a nearby transformer. The picture is dark, but the sandwich was sublime.

I'm journaling this to remember the cool, dark house on a summer's day, a shelter from the threatening thunder and lightning, and the almost solid wall of rain that pelted down for more than an hour. The sandwich, and the memory of cooking it, is the sensory anchor for my memory. This is summer in New Orleans where most days are bathed in brutal heat and light, but some days are wrapped in cool, dark clouds. The price for those respites from the heat is scary, bombastic weather. For two summers after Katrina, I couldn't enjoy such a day.

Well, that's somber.

But we're here, and it's home, because where else can you spend about 10 minutes of casual effort and end up with a fried soft shell crab sandwich just because it's time for lunch, and that's what you have in the fridge?

I picked up two frozen soft shell crabs from a vendor at Tuesday's Uptown Farmer's Market. Another vendor had 'em fresh, but they cost more and these were just fine. I could put them in the fridge to thaw slowly, and knew I'd get to them a day or two down the road.

First, I just covered the bottom of a cast-iron frying pan with vegetable oil. I left it over a medium-low fire to heat while I prepped the crabs.

Crabs must be cleaned before they're eaten. It's a quick process: lift the flap on each end and remove the dead man's fingers (the lungs), then turn the crab over and pull off the flap underneath. (If that flap is slender and pointy, the crab is male and while they're plenty tasty, if you can check them before buying, look for the wider, rounded flap that indicates a female, because they're fatter, and fatter means tastier.) Finally, take some kitchen scissors and snip off the face: the eyes and jaws are not edible.

They must be dry before going into the hot oil: thawed crabs are full of water, so pat them well with paper towels.

I mixed an egg in a bowl with 1/2 cup of milk, put a cup of flour in another bowl, and stirred in kosher salt, some Tony Chacherie's, and a little white pepper. I've just rediscovered white pepper and can't figure out why I haven't used it always and forever.

After cranking the fire to medium-high, I dipped the crabs in the egg wash, put them in the flour, and shook the bowl till each was covered. I held each crab above the bowl and shook off the excess flour. I like fried foods lightly dusted, never thoroughly encased. Even in the bad light available for this photo, you can see the colors of the cooked crab under the flour - I find that appealing to the eye, but what's important is that the flavor of the food isn't overwhelmed by the breading.

The electricity went out right about this time. But no matter - that's why you gotta be cooking with gas.

It took about 3 minutes on each side for the crabs to reach perfection. We enjoyed them on white bread - I browned mine over the burner since the toaster oven was out of action. We dressed our sandwiches with butter on one side, mayo on the other, lettuce, dill pickles, lemon and hot sauce.

If you're in New Orleans during soft shell season, find a good po'boy shop and try one of these on a bun or toast if the menu allows. They're good on French bread, but better on a smaller, softer stage.

In the drama of the storm, a shaggy dog story unfolded, but that's another post.