Escovitch Soft-shell Crab

Friday, August 21, 2020


It's been an interesting summer. Difficult in many ways, though like many of you I'm struggling to articulate my feelings as we navigate the layers of grief, stress, and anxiety during this pandemic. Work is keeping me afloat, and that's good enough for me right now. In between the emails and zoom calls, I am simply trying to make space to cook food that brings me joy. This was one of those meals. It reminded me of my vacation to Jamaica ten years ago, and although we can't travel now we can certainly allow the food to transport us there! Escovitch fish is a dish traditionally prepared with fried snapper, marinated with a medley of spicy pickled veggies. The scotch bonnet pepper-laced concoction is so good that it's impossible not to imagine other iterations - as I did for the "Escovitch Fried Chicken" recipe in The Kitchenista Diaries Vol. 1 ebook. In that same collection, I also shared my recipe for a soft-shell crab sandwich, which is a summer classic in the DMV region. Today, it crossed my mind that the crispy fried crabs would make a perfect bed for escovitch sauce, much like fried snapper. That's usually how my mind works. A jumble of ideas, re-imagined recipes, and culinary intrigue. 

Soft-shell crabs seemed a bit strange the first time I heard of them. Yes, you can really eat the shell! They're no different than blue crabs with hard shells, they are just harvested after they have shed their old exoskeleton, while still soft. You get a tiny bit of crunch, in a pleasant way, often enhanced by breading and frying the whole crabs. When you buy them live, they'll need to be prepped by removing  the  face,  gills  and  apron - but it's an easy task, or you can ask the fishmonger to do this for you. The crabs that came today in my grocery order were rather small, so adjust the cook-time based on what you have.

Escovitch Soft-shell Crab

4 soft-shell crabs
1 cup corn flour 
2 tsp Kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tsp cracked black pepper
1 tbsp salt-free curry powder*
1 egg
1/2 cup milk
Neutral cooking oil, for frying
1/2 cup thinly sliced onion
3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
6 allspice berries
1 cup sliced bell peppers or sweet mini-peppers
1 small carrot, julienned
2 or 3 scotch bonnet peppers, sliced*
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp sugar or honey (optional)
A few sprigs fresh thyme
Cilantro, for garnish (optional)

*Substitution Notes:
  • 1/2 cup flour + 1/2 cup finely ground cornmeal can be subbed for corn flour. You can also just use plain flour.
  • Curry powder will work here and is probably something everybody has, but I used Spice Tribe's "Mama Manje" Haitian Blend, which echoes the flavors of the escovitch sauce.
  • Substitute habanero if you can't find scotch bonnet peppers, or use a scotch bonnet pepper sauce.

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Yield: Serves 2 - 4
Recommended equipment (affiliate links): Heavy skillet

The recipe moves pretty quickly, so this is a good one to practice "mise en place" and have all of your ingredients prepped prior to beginning. Clean your crabs per the notes mentioned above.

In a shallow bowl, mix the corn flour, two teaspoons salt, two teaspoons black pepper, and your salt-free seasoning of choice. (If your spice blend contains salt, omit the salt in the corn flour.)  In a separate bowl, whisk the egg and milk until frothy.

One by one, dip the prepped soft-shell crabs into the milk, and then dredge in the corn flour. Shake off excess and set aside. Repeat with the remaining crabs. Raven decided to help with this part, despite her assertion that the crabs felt "gross." (Okay, they are a little weird to hold!)

You don't need a thick dredge, just enough to lightly coat the shells. Meanwhile, preheat about a half-inch of cooking oil in your skillet, over medium high heat. I used grape-seed which has a high smoke point and clean flavor.

When a pinch of corn flour sizzles in the oil, it's hot enough. Fry the crabs a few minutes on each side. The shells will turn red when they're cooked. You will need to do this in batches if all of the crabs don't fit in one layer. As the crabs cook, set them aside on a clean pan and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. 

Dispose of the oil and wipe out the skillet, or use a clean one to prepare the escovitch sauce. Add a tablespoon of cooking oil to the skillet over medium heat and gently cook the onions just until softened. Add the garlic and allspice berries to the pan, cooking another minute until fragrant, followed by the peppers and carrot. Stir the veggies as they cook. You're just looking for them to soften slightly; I think a little bit of crunch left is nice. Deglaze the pan with the vinegar and lime juice. If you'd like, you can add the teaspoon of sugar or honey to tame the heat just a bit. Strip the thyme leaves from the stems and fold into the sauce to finish. You can let that simmer for another minute or two, or if you want a stronger flavor, the sauce is something you can make ahead of time and allow it to cool. I usually double the vinegar in this case so that the veggies pickle.

(By the way, you don't actually want to eat the whole allspice berries. Alternatively, you can crush them before adding to the skillet.)

To serve, plate the fried soft-shell crabs and spoon the escovitch sauce over the top. Drizzle the extra vinegar around the pan. Garnish with cilantro sprigs, and dive in with hands or knife and fork. 

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