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    A seasonal delicacy

    THE WASHINGTON POST – “Tell people they can eat the whole thing,” one of my colleagues urged me when I told her I planned to write about soft-shell crabs.

    If you love blue crabs but are daunted by all that cracking and picking, consider this waste-free, less messy and delicious way to eat them. The key is getting the freshest, tenderest crabs you can find.

    Blue crabs molt about 20 times in their lifetime. This is how they grow. They shed their outer shell, then take in water, causing the softened shell to expand and grow. Within a couple of hours after they shed, the new shell begins hardening. Once they reach “paper shell” stage – most experts said that is within about 12 hours – the shell is tougher. In a couple of days, the shells usually are hard once again.

    Soft-shell crabs are easy to clean and prepare, so for home cooks, the toughest part is getting your hands on fresh ones. You can buy the soft shells at supermarkets and from seafood purveyors.

    “Fresh ones are just ambrosia,” said Tenney Flynn, founding chef at GW Fins in New Orleans and author of the seafood cookbook The Deep End of Flavour. He recommends avoiding frozen soft shells because they are so delicate. Once frozen, they have a less-than-fresh flavour.

    Fried Soft-Shell Crabs With Haricots Verts Amandine. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

    “If they are paper shells, you can try to peel off a layer of the shell on the top shell and discard it and snip it off,” he said.

    If the soft shells you are buying are live, Flynn said, you want them to be docile. “The proper attitude of a soft shell is the opposite of a (hard shell) blue crab – cowering passivity as opposed to ‘I’ll fight you’.”

    The crabs I was able to find at Washington-area markets were not as pliable I would have liked, but even at this slightly later stage, I still enjoy them. I just prefer to batter and deep fry them.

    FRIED SOFT-SHELL CRABS WITH HARICOTS VERTS AMANDINE
    25 minutes
    Four to eight servings

    Lightly battered and quick-fried, soft-shell crabs can be ready in a jiffy. Pair them with fresh, thin green beans tossed with almonds and butter for an elegant weeknight supper. Or serve the crabs on toasted rolls with mayonnaise, tartar sauce or remoulade, and lettuce and tomato. The crabs are best eaten immediately after frying.

    INGREDIENTS
    For the haricots verts
    – Two tablespoons salted butter
    – Quarter cup sliced almonds
    – Two cloves garlic, thinly sliced
    – Half pound fresh or frozen haricots verts, stems removed, thawed if frozen
    – One lemon, juiced

    For the crabs
    – One large egg
    – Two tablespoons water
    – Half cup all-purpose flour
    – Half cup fine yellow or white cornmeal
    – One teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
    – Half teaspoon smoked paprika
    – Half teaspoon fine salt
    – Four cleaned large soft-shell crabs
    – Vegetable oil, for frying
    – Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)
    – Remoulade, for serving (optional)

    DIRECTIONS
    Make the haricots verts: In a large skillet with a tightfitting lid over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the almonds and garlic and fry, stirring frequently, until both are just golden, one to two minutes.

    Add the beans and toss occasionally until well-coated. Cook until the beans turn bright green but are still crisp, about two minutes. With the skillet lid handy, add the lemon juice. Quickly cover the beans as the steam rises and remove the skillet from the heat. (The thin beans will continue to cook with the residual heat. If you use thicker green beans, you may want to steam them over low heat until tender, after adding the juice.)

    Make the crabs: In a bowl, whisk the egg with water until combined. In another shallow bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, cayenne (if using), smoked paprika and salt.

    Gently rinse the crabs under cold water and pat them dry, pressing very gently to remove any excess water. Dip each crab in the egg wash, then lightly coat it with the flour mixture, shaking off any excess. Transfer the coated crabs to a plate.

    Place a towel-lined platter near the stove. In a Dutch oven or high-sided skillet over high heat, pour the oil to a depth of about 1 inch, and heat until the oil reaches about 350 degrees.

    Working in two batches, if necessary, use tongs to lower the crabs into the oil. Fry, turning once, until golden and crisp, three to four minutes. Transfer to the prepared platter and drain. Repeat with the remaining crabs, if needed.

    Give the haricots verts a stir, then evenly divide them and the crabs between two plates. Serve with lemon wedges and remoulade, if desired.

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