Blue crab and swimmer crab

From left to right: male and female Blue Crab

Other Names: Blue crab: Blaukrabbe (German); cangrejo azul (Spanish); crabe bleu (French); galázios kávouras (Greek); gazami (Japanese); granchio nuotare (Italian); mavi yengec (Turkish); nalvalheira azul (Portuguese). Swimmer crab: Flower crab; radjoengan (Dutch); sand crab (Great Britain); schimmkrabbe (German); taiwangazami (Japanese). Portunidae.

General Description: The blue crab’s scientific name, Callinectes sapidus, tells us the essentials: callinectes is Greek for “beautiful swimmer,” and sapidus means “tasty” or “savory.” Blue crabs have an olive-green top shell and white underbelly with blue-tipped claws on the male and red-tipped claws on the female. The blue crab fishery has a
venerable history in the Chesapeake Bay. Most are harvested as hard-shells sold by the bushel. Another portion of the catch is steamed and the meat picked by hand, usually by women because of their smaller hands. Pregnant blue crabs carry their eggs in a sponglelike protrustion; to conserve the blue crab population and ensure their future, harvesting crabs with this protrusion visible is now illegal. Over its two- to three-year life span, a blue crab outgrows and sheds its shell about 20 times. Once the crab has molted, the new shell takes about four days to harden. Just after shedding, the blue crab’s shell is soft enough to eat. Watermen harvest soft shell crabs as peelers (about to shed), rank peelers (within hours of shedding) and busters (in the process of shedding). Because of their extreme perishability, soft shells must be alive until they’re prepared for the pan. Soft shells
are almost entirely edible with a salty, sweet taste. Hard shells must also be alive before cooking.

The swimmer crab (Portunus pelagicus) is sold in the United States primarily as less expensive pasteurized crab meant to mimic the blue crab. The males are bright blue with white spots and long pincers while the females are a duller green/brown and are more rounded. They stay buried under sand or mud, coming out to feed during high tide.

Locale and Season: Live blue crabs are in season from April through November. Live soft shells are in season from mid-May through September. More than 90 percent of American soft shells come from the Chesapeake Bay. Swimmer crabs are found in intertidal estuaries of the Indo-Pacific region on the Asian coasts, Australia, and into the Mediterranean where they have come through the Suez Canal.

Characteristics: Blue crab meat has a rich, sweet, succulent, and buttery flavor. The body meat is white, tender, and delicately flavored, while the claw meat is brownish on the outside, nuttier, and rather stringy. Cooked
shells of blue crabs turn orange-red. Pasteurized crabmeat is firmer and darker than fresh crabmeat. Whole swimmer crabs turn brownish red when cooked. Their meat is found in larger lumps ending in a characteristic brown tip. It is a bit stronger in flavor and less succulent and tender than blue crab.

Top: Pasteurized backfin lump

Bottom: Fresh jumbo lump and claw meat

How to Choose: For hard-shell crabs the larger, meatier males, called “jimmies,” are more desirable. The apron, the shape on the belly, of a male is T-shaped and the prong narrow. On a young female, or “she-crab,” the apron is triangular. A mature female crab, or “sook,” has a semicircular apron free of the bottom shell. Soft shells are separated by size, not sex, with the largest called whales, then smaller jumbos, then primes. The smallest are hotels, usually the ones found for sale in retail markets. Fresh-picked blue crab is sold in America in 1-pound plastic containers kept on ice.
Jumbo lump is biggest and most expensive; lump is a bit smaller, with backfin the smallest bits from the body. Packages of claws are the darker, stringier, claw meat, and they may include a partial shell to make them easy to pick up. A bluish tint to pasteurized crab is natural and has no bearing on quality. Canned pasteurized crabmeat is common in retail markets but less desirable because the meat tends
to be stringy. For live crabs, ensure they are alive: They should wave their claws about.

Storage: Store live crabs and soft shells at 50°F, protected
by layers of dampened newspaper. If kept too cold or too hot, the crabs will die. Don’t freeze crabmeat because it will get stringy. Soft shells may be found frozen. Precleaned soft shells are sometimes sold.


For soft-shell crabs:

1. Turn the crab over. Lift up the “tab” from the apron
and bend it back. Twist and pull back to remove both the apron shell and the underlying intestinal vein.

2. Lift up the sides of the top shell and scrape away and discard the inedible gills on both sides.

3. Slice off a 1/2-inch strip at the front, including the
eyes. Squeeze out the greenish bubble from behind the eyes and rinse in cold water.

4. Pat the crabs dry. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook, within 24 hours.

For hard-shell crabs:

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil with crab
boil spices added if desired. Add the (live) crabs and cook 6 to 10 minutes or until brightly colored.

2. To eat cooked crabs, clean as above in steps 1 and 2. Break apart the body sections and crack the claws to
get at the meat.

Suggested Recipe: Sautéed Soft-Shell Crabs with Orange-Tarragon Butter (Serves 4): Combine 4 tablespoons softened
butter with the zest of 1 orange and 2 tablespoons finely chopped tarragon. Sprinkle 8 cleaned soft-shell crabs with salt and pepper and dust with flour. Brown in a large skillet on both sides in a little hot oil starting with the top-side down. (Stand clear because soft shells tend to pop and splatter.) Remove from the pan and keep warm. Pour off any oil from the pan. Add 2 cups orange juice and boil until syrupy. Return the crabs to the pan along with the Orange-Tarragon Butter and swirl to combine.

Flavor Affinities: Almond, butter, capers, chervil, lemon, lime, orange, parsley, red chiles, saffron, scallion, shallot, tarragon, thyme, tomato, white vermouth, white wine.

from Quirk Books: