05 June 2016

Food Lab 35: Soft-Shell Crabs

It had been some time since your faithful Food Labbers had gathered, so we set a date without a plan for the third weekend of May. As date approached, we debated what to lab. Was anything interesting showing up in people's CSA boxes? The Washington Post had just run a story on making bagels - maybe we should revisit that? What about paella? Or the flambe lab that got canceled? Or alliums - aren't ramps coming into season?

And then your author noticed: that weekend would be the full moon in May. Which means something else would just be coming into season: soft-shell crabs. Assuming the Maine Avenue Fish Market got them in on the first day of season, we had our topic. And they did.

WARNING: if you're squeamish, you might want to skip this particular Lab report.

I love soft-shell crabs. I love them fried, sautéed, in Spider Rolls, in sandwiches, you name it. But I'd never tried preparing them, and the rest of the Food Lab crew hadn't even eaten them much. In short, we bought a dozen and had no idea what to do with them.

Well, it turns out that prep is pretty simple: once they're cleaned and ready to cook, you lightly dredge them in spiced flour, and then deep fry, sauté in butter, or broil. Seeing as we had a dozen, we decided to try all three methods. (Spoiler alert: sauté in butter. Trust.)

The key there is: "once they're cleaned." I'll let Chef Smarty Pants (Erica Wides) explain in more detail:

Yes, you heard that right: you cut their faces off with kitchen shears. When we heard that, we kind of looked at each other like: "Um, who's going to do this?"

If you eat animals - actually, even if you don't - something has to die in order for you to live. But working with creatures you get live, which for most of us extends only to various crustaceans (lobsters, crawfish, crabs, mussels, oysters, etc.), really brings that home. It reminded us of the lamb butchering lab in some ways - confronting what it really means to eat animal protein.

In the end, Chef Spouse plucked up his courage and the kitchen shears, and did the deed. The Executive Committee had to excuse herself, Mad Kitchen Scientist stayed in the kitchen and started the cooking process - because you want to get them on the heat as soon as they're prepped - and I was the sous, helping manipulate the crabs for cleaning and then dredging them to hand over to Mad Kitchen Scientist for cooking. Many inappropriate jokes were told, but it was a sobering reminder to be thankful for creatures who die so we can live.

On a lighter note, obviously, this was not a lengthy process, so we also decided to make a batch of bagels. We used to Washington Post recipe proportions, but not the process. One, I kneaded the dough by hand, because come on! And we did 1/4 whole wheat flour, 3/4 regular all purpose. The WaPo's fussing about protein content is just silly - use King Arthur flour and don't worry about it. Two, we didn't do an overnight rise, but we did do two rises: one as a full boule, the other a short rise once we'd formed the bagels. Then we did the water bath, top (with combos of poppy seed, sesame seed, and onion salt), and bake as the recommended. They came out great. The barley malt syrup, which you can order from King Arthur really does make a difference. Next time, I think what I'll do is make the dough in the evening, rise the boule in the fridge overnight, then let it come to room temp in the morning, form the bagels, do a second rise, and then water bath and bake. The longer the rise, the more complex the flavor.

It's getting to the point that no Food Lab out in Falls Church is complete without a trip to the H Mart, and this was no exception. Chef Spouse has been experimenting with ramen, and there were some ingredients he wanted he'd been unable to find in our neighborhood, and we picked up some lovely yellow mangoes to nosh on while we cooked and some artichokes and green beans to eat with the crabs and hollandaise (another lab thrown back). They also had a good deal on some beautiful mirliton (aka chayote squash) that we ended up pickling in rice wine vinegar, with black and white peppercorns, dried hot peppers, coriander seed, bay leaf, garlic, and salt.

Of course, that left egg whites, and "no egg white left behind!" Having picked up a can of lychee nuts at H Mart, we made lychee rickies to start with, and, once we had the egg whites, lychee silver fizzes - basically just a regular silver fizz with a little lychee syrup in the mix and lychee nuts as garnish.

We had also picked up some salmon and cod at the fish market where we started the salting process for lox, gravlax, and salt cod, and Mad Kitchen Scientist had made lemon lavender sorbet in the morning for us to enjoy after our crabs.

Even with the somewhat gruesome prep method, would I do soft-shells at home again? Yes. But I'm not going to lie when I say it's definitely less disturbing to order them in a restaurant.