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The blue crabs are a-moltin'! That's right - it's soft-shell crab season. I'm sure you've all seen them around town, on menus, or in the news...and hopefully on a plate in front of you! Although some may claim to be 'over' the thought of soft-shell crabs, with the right preparation, they really are something. Think about the crab species itself - blue crab! It's not Maryland's state crustacean for nothing. Generally speaking, soft-shelled crab is deep-fried, pan-fried, sauteed, you name it - all with some kind of breading or crust on the outside. Although I do think this is delicious, I also think that it masks the sweet flavor of the crab itself. Furthermore, I wanted to go a healthier route with my soft-shelled crabs! No breading, no frying, no gimmicks. Just straight up soft-shells cooked with our good old friend Fire. Unfortunately, as we all know, I don't have an actual grill, but I can always resort to a grill pan or the broiler - both work just as well! I believe that with any ingredient that's super fresh and delicate, there's not much more you have to do than cook and season it properly to yield amazing results. And that's just what I did. I paired it with a delicious vinaigrette made out of homemade young garlic confit, it's oil, and Fynbos vinegar. And again, here I go with my good old standby - go with what's in season! You can hardly ever go wrong with the pairing.
Spring garlic is garlic in it's adolescence, if you will. The bulbs are yanked out of the ground before they can produce that obnoxious, tough, papery outer layer. They look almost identical to spring onions! Being so young, they have a much milder garlic taste and are even a bit sweet. If you can't find spring garlic, just use regular garlic - just know the flavor will be a bit stronger! When preparing spring garlic, just peel off one outer leave, trim the roots, and you're good to go! They can be thinly sliced crosswise, separated into individual cloves, or simply chopped. The entire plant is edible!
Also, you may not be too familiar with Fynbos vinegar - it's a South African vinegar (Cape Town to be exact) that's infused with honeybush tea, rose geranium, buchu, wild olive, and wild rosemary. These are all strong flavors individually, but the infusion is really quite mellow. Unlike most infused vinegars - the infusion is used to cover up a bad vinegar - Fynbos starts with an amazing vinegar, and adds just a touch of the aforementioned flavors. The result is a sweet, tart, and savory vinegar all in one! Again, if you don't have access to Fynbos, you can use any good, quality vinegar to make the vinaigrette.
Naked Soft-Shell Crabs with Spring Garlic Confit-Fynbos Vinaigrette
Serves 4 as appetizer
For Spring Garlic Confit
3 heads spring garlic, cloves separated
3 sprigs thyme
1 chile de Arbol
Enough olive oil to cover
4 soft shell crabs, cleaned and prepped
Fresh Ground White Pepper
6 T garlic confit-infused olive oil
2 T Fynbos vinegar
To start, make the garlic confit. This can be made a few days ahead of time as well - and if you like garlic, go ahead and make a larger amount of it! In a small, heavy bottom saucepan, combine all of the ingredients together, ensuring that the olive oil is just covering the garlic cloves. Heat the oil over low, and bring to a simmer. Allow to simmer 20 minutes (longer if you are using large, regular garlic instead of spring garlic), or until the cloves are super tender. In addition to the cloves themselves, I chopped a bit of the stem up as well to confit. Allow the mixture to cool and transfer to a jar. Too easy! Not only does this create amazingly tender garlic cloves, but it creates a deliciously flavored, infused oil as well.
At this point, you can either prepare your vinaigrette, or do so while the crabs are cooking. Combine the ingredients in a small jar, and shake away to emulsify. Due to the flavors of the garlic olive oil and the vinegar, no salt or pepper is necessary. If you're using different oils and vinegars, you made need to season with salt and pepper.
On to the soft shells! If you have a grill, preheat over medium-high heat. If you're using a grill pan, start heating it on the stove over medium-high heat as well. With a broiler, make sure that the rack is about 5 inches below the flame. Either you can clean and prep the soft-shells, or you can have your fishmonger do it for you. Simply put, you have to remove the eyes, the gills, the sand sac, and the apron. This is easily done with kitchen shears - snip off about a centimeter worth of the front of the crab...yes, it's face essentially. From there, fold back the front-top shell, and there should be a tiny sand sac right in the middle. Get that out, lest you end up with a gritty crab! Flip it over to expose the apron (like a flap on the crab's rear), and snip that off as well. Finally, fold back the sides of the top shell to expose the gills, and pull those out. Now you're ready! Thoroughly rub each crab with olive oil, all over, and season generously with salt and white pepper on both sides. When your grill, grill pan, or oven is ready, place the crabs top side down and allow to cook for about 4 minutes. You'll start to see that the shell will turn from blue/grey to red as it cooks. Flip and cook for another 4-5 minutes, until the shells are fully red and no longer soft. Remove from heat, and get ready to plate!
To plate, cut each crab in half, right down the center. Be swift with this as you don't want to squish the crab! Place each in the center of the plate, cut side down. Place a few pieces of garlic confit around the plate, and spoon a bit of the garlic oil around as well. Spoon a bit of the vinaigrette around the plate, and serve it on the side as well. Garnish with some thinly sliced spring garlic greens, and dig in! Smash some of the garlic on a bite, dip a leg into the vinaigrette, or try it all on its lonesome. When I tell you that soft-shells prepared like this are outrageous, I may not even be giving them enough credit! The true flavor of the crab comes out - and it really needed nothing more than the olive oil, salt, and pepper. And oh lawd, when you get a bite with the 'mustard', you're really in for a treat! It had the perfect amount of crunch, and an amazing sweetness that couldn't be replicated with anything else. Both the garlic and the vinaigrette helped elevate the flavor of the crab as well. The confit mellowed the garlic flavor out so it wasn't too overpowering, and as stated before, the Fynbos vinegar is quite subtle itself as well. Altogether, they made for a heavenly combination.