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May 31-June 6, 2006

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Shelling It Like It Is

By Stett Holbrook

CALIFORNIA'S Dungeness crab season generally opens in November and runs through late June, dates set by state regulators. On the East Coast from Florida to Maryland, the much-anticipated soft shell crab season has a far more romantic beginning.

After a long winter's nap, blue crabs (known by their scientific name as Callinectes sapidus—"beautiful swimmers" in Latin) begin to stir in the warming spring waters and to shed their shells to allow their bodies to grow. This process (called molting) typically coincides with the first full moon of spring. Fishermen catch crabs and watch anxiously for signs of molting. Once the crustaceans have slipped out of their shells, they're scooped up and sent to market. The new shells quickly harden but for a day or so the soft exoskeleton is delicate enough to eat. If you find picking the meat out of your crab shell too labor-intensive, soft shell crab is for you.

Like asparagus and morel mushrooms, soft shell crabs are one of the delicacies of spring. They're available frozen year-round, but for a brief couple of weeks you can get them fresh. And right now is the time to get them.

Maybe it's global warming at work, but Rhonda Simon, sales manager for Pacific Harvest Seafoods in San Juan Bautista, one of Silicon Valley's biggest seafood distributors, said the soft shell crab season started about three weeks early this year. Warm Atlantic Ocean temperatures spurred the molting and the season is in full swing now. But she said the soft shell crab fishery can be unpredictable.

"Within a very short period they're gone," she said.

Sushi restaurants are where you're most likely to encounter soft shell crab. They're typically featured as "spider rolls" or simply served lightly fried with a ponzu dipping sauce. Unfortunately, they're almost always frozen. Given the importance sushi restaurants place on fresh fish I find this rather odd. Frozen soft shell crab isn't bad but the fresh stuff is sweeter and more delicate.

For a taste of fresh soft shell crab, you've got to go to a white tablecloth restaurant. A few South Bay and peninsula restaurants are starting to feature them on their menus. But supplies are limited so be sure to call first to see if they're in stock. Spago Palo Alto serves soft shell fried in a light tempura batter with a sesame ponzu sauce and marinated cucumbers. John Bentley's in Woodside put the shell(less) fish on the menu this past weekend. And at Santa Clara's Parcel 104, executive chef Bart Hosmer has been serving them for lunch dusted with flour and quickly fried with a roasted corn salad and for dinner in a bread-crumb batter paired with Copper River salmon tartare.

"It's a nice product to work with," says Hosmer. "I think people appreciate that delicate flavor."

Of course, you'll pay a premium for these little delicacies at a restaurant. A cheaper way to go is to cook them yourself. Just dust them in flour and fry for a couple of minutes in a mix of butter and peanut oil. Last week Whole Foods Market in Los Gatos was selling them for $4.99 each and Draeger's in Menlo Park had them for $6.98 each. At that price, they're probably best for special occasions. But if you've got a hankering for this spring treat, you'd better make your move before they're gone.

Draeger's Market 1010 University Drive, Menlo Park. 650.324.7700.
John Bentley's 2991 Woodside Road, Woodside. 650.851.4988.
Parcel 104 2700 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara. 408.970.6104.
Spago Palo Alto 265 Lytton Ave, Palo Alto. 650.833.1000.
Whole Foods Market 15980 Los Gatos Blvd, Los Gatos. 408.358.4434.

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