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.