Perhaps one of the most seasonally driven seafood delicacies in the South (right up there with stone crab season), soft shell crab season traditionally begins around the first full moon in May but varies depending on water temperatures. Blue crabs molt their hard, external shells, and the soft exterior in its place is meaty and entirely appropriate to eat whole.
Matthew Chaplin, the executive chef of Florence’s Lowcountry Kitchen in James Island, South Carolina, grew up in coastal South Carolina. From a young age, he learned that the abundant fresh and seasonal seafood deserves a keystone role in the region’s cooking. It’s a style that matches the foundation upon which Florence’s was built. The restaurant’s eponymous Florence Moseley was known for her down-home cooking, and shrimp, crab, and fish were staples in her kitchen. When the coveted, yet fleeting, soft shell crab season returns each spring, Chaplin swings into action to celebrate the coastal specialty.
“When we get [soft shells] in and people start talking about them, you better go get them fast because these things fly out of kitchens,” he says. His go-to preparation makes it a temporary best seller at the restaurant. By breading and frying the softies, Chaplin pairs crunchy with soft textures in every bite. The sauce Chaplin has always liked to serve with his soft shells is a quick lemon-dill aïoli which adds tangy creaminess to the dish.
Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2 as a main
1 cup mayo
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 cup chopped fresh dill
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups house Autry seafood breader
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
2 cups buttermilk
4 soft shell blue crabs, de-gilled and cleaned
2 cups buttermilk
1½ cups vegetable or canola oil
1 romaine heart, sliced into shreds
1 heirloom tomato, sliced across the width
- Make the aïoli: In a small bowl, whisk to combine mayonnaise, lemon juice, zest, and dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
- Make the breader: In a shallow bowl or large plate, gently whisk to incorporate all ingredients. Prepare another shallow dish with buttermilk.
- Make the crabs: Add oil to a skillet and bring to high heat.
- Working one crab at a time, dredge through buttermilk and then breading. Gently place into skillet and let cook for about 1½ to 2 minutes before flipping. Cook other side until golden brown, about 2½ to 3 more minutes. Transfer from skillet to paper towels and drain excess oil.
- To plate crabs, arrange a layer of shredded romaine on a plate and cover with tomato slices. Arrange soft shells over tomatoes and top each with a generous dollop of aïoli.
Video by: Jonathan Boncek
Edits by: Jack McAlister
Production by: Maggie Ward
Location: Charleston Wine + Food
Recipe ByMatthew Chaplin of Florence's Lowcountry Kitchen, James Island, South Carolina