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With Just One Bite, Soft-Shell Crabs Convert Palates

IF you ask people if they've eaten soft-shell crab and they respond with, ``Mmmm. I think so,'' they haven't.

You don't soon forget your first encounter with a plate of these crispy critters. First of all, how often do you eat something shell and all? OK, besides snow peas. But with these side-crawling creatures, we're talking real shells. Although your first experience may be a bit daunting, it doesn't take more than a bite or two to make you into a convert.

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Soft-shell crabs are actually Atlantic blue crabs that are harvested just minutes after they have busted (or literally, backed) out of their stone-hard carapace. They are then plucked from the water before their new soft shells have had a chance to harden. They go through this growing change-of-shell operation about 25 times in their 3-year life span. Professional watermen capture adult blue crabs and keep them in holding tanks, watching them day and night until the crabs go through this shedding process. If allowed to remain in the water, their shells harden within 48 hours.

At this soft-shell stage they are particularly plump and meaty and especially appealing to a number of predators on land and sea including their cannibalistic, hard-shelled relatives, as well as toque-topped chefs and gourmets. They are perfect fare for lovers of crustaceans who don't have the patience to pound, pick, and tease the sweet meat from boiled hard-shelled crabs.

To the marine biologist, the crabs are known as Callinectes sapidus - Callinectes is Greek for beautiful swimmer; sapidus is Latin for tasty or savory. The Greek part? You'll just have to take the Greeks' word for it; you'll have a delicious time proving the Latin for yourself.

Soft-shell crabs may be deepfried, sauteed, or grilled. The result is a moist, sweet, meaty meal encased in a slightly crunchy, almost cellophane-like skin.

Crabs may be simply prepared by sauteing them in a little butter and oil and served on toast spread with tartar sauce, mayonnaise, or salsa, or grilled while being brushed with melted butter to which a little olive oil, lemon juice, garlic powder, and pepper have been added.

Soft-shells are available fresh from the first of May through September, and they also may be purchased frozen throughout the year.

Frozen crabs arrive cleaned and dressed and may be kept frozen for up to two years.

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If you purchase crabs fresh and alive, they must be dressed by killing and cleaning them. The easiest way to accomplish this rather nasty business is to have your fishmonger do it; otherwise the task is up to you.

Rinse crabs under cold water. With scissors, cut off heads about 1/4 inch below eyes; lift up pointed tips of shells and scrape out spongy gills. Turn crabs over, lift up, and tear off triangular-shaped ``apron.'' Rinse crabs again under cold water and pat dry before cooking.

And remember, everything is edible: legs, claws, shell, and body.

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