Whether you call ’em peelers, softies, or soft-shell crabs, blue crabs that have shed their hard shells in order to grow are a sought-after seasonal luxury. The crabs’ exoskeletons harden again within a few hours, making harvesting them a tricky business. While modern shedding tanks and closed-system production have boosted the soft-shell industry, supply still can’t meet the hot-ticket culinary demand for these fresh crabs, and they remain a coveted delicacy.
A Los Angeles native, Peninsula Grill executive chef Graham Dailey first tasted soft-shells when he lived in New York. His introductory fried softie hooked him with the crispy texture and briny sweetness that seem to capture even the most seasoned seafood aficionado. Since then, he has prepared this warm-weather specialty every way from Sunday. As he shares three of his unique dishes, the chef also offers three different cooking techniques for bringing the crabs to the table.
Dailey’s grilled soft-shell crab with summer field peas, sweet corn succotash, and pecan-parsley pesto offers an easy way to serve a softie alongside the bounty of the farmers market. “Grilling gives the crab a smoky taste that pairs nicely with corn and peas,” he says.
“And it develops the skin’s natural crunch while leaving the meat’s soft tenderness.”
A BLT made from cornmeal-sautéed crab, arugula, and roasted tomato vinaigrette combines two of Dailey’s favorite things—a soft-shell and a BLT—in an elegant but playful way that brings a new dimension to the classic sandwich. “It melds the sweetness and salt from the crab, bite and pepper from the arugula, and richness from the tomato to create a palate pleaser,” he explains. The method for cooking the soft-shell is a simple pan-sauté.
In a third dish, the chef delivers the crab fried in a light tempura crust. A platter of these will quickly disappear, all the more so when accompanied by a seductive Southern side of pimiento-cheese grits. Keeping true to the more sophisticated platings he showcases at Peninsula Grill, Dailey serves the crab with lush tomato butter, succulent spring asparagus, and piquant pickled onions.
Dailey purchases soft-shells from local purveyors including Crosby’s, Lowcountry Lobster, and Oyster Point Seafood. Freshness, he advises, is of the essence. Most seafood stores sell them already prepared for cooking. Refrigerate cleaned soft-shells on ice for up to 24 hours, or freeze them if you must. If you buy—or catch—live peelers, log onto charlestonmag.com/soft-shells for Dailey’s instructions for cleaning them.
Dishing It Up with Chef Graham Dailey
Restaurant: Peninsula Grill
First F&B Gig: Line cook at The Supper Club in New York City
Education: Le Cordon Bleu Paris
Favorite Local Ingredient: Field peas
Recipe he'll never share: New England clam chowder
Dailey's Tips for Cleaning Fresh-Caught Soft-Shell Crabs
1) Using sharp kitchen shears, snip 1/2 inch off the front of the body of the crab, making sure to remove the eyes and mouth.
2) In this cut, find the sack, or abdomen, and remove its contents.
3) Gently lift one corner of the crab’s shell, reach in, and remove the fibrous gills; repeat on the other side.
4) Flip the crab over. Pull down and cut off the crab’s apron, or belly flap.
5) Lightly rinse the cleaned crab in cool water and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Refrigerate on ice. Clean the crab as close to the time you’ll be cooking it as possible.