Jimmy Sneed estimates he's cleaned and cooked several hundred thousand soft-shell crabs over the course of his career. Currently, the Executive Chef at SugarToad, inside the Arista Hotel in Naperville, he tells his crab guys to pack them up as soon as they molt from their shells.
"The moment they shed out of their shell, I want them taken out of the water right then and right there," said Jimmy Sneed, SugarToad.
Soft-shells are ranked by their dimensions. Palm-sized ones are called "hotels" a little larger are considered "primes." Sneed says too many fisherman - and chefs - are worried about pulling the crabs out of the water too soon.
"But in order for this crab to arrive alive, they've got to let the cartilage harden 8 - 12 hours in the water. I don't want that crab," said Sneed.
That's because the shells are too hard. He's looking for what he calls "velvets" - nice and soft to the touch. He quickly cleans them with a pair of hefty scissors, then dredges them in a bit of wondra flour, placing them into a hot, cast-iron skillet with a few tablespoons of clarified butter.
"And it's just enough sizzle to give it a little bit of nuttiness, and it basically steams itself until it's done," said Sneed. "People that look at it and say 'oh, I don't know if I want that or not,' once they taste it they'll love it, but a lot of people never give soft crabs a chance. They never try 'em."
With harder shells, he'll snip them in half, then dip them in a light tempura batter, frying them for just a minute or two. Fisherman call them "dead man's thumbs," but Sneed simply refers to them as crab nuggets. All they need is a light dusting of salt and they're good to go.
"Please don't ask for tartar sauce," said Sneed.
Sneed says the crabs are a sure sign of Spring, and best of all, there's nothing on the crustacean to waste.
"It's one of the best foods in the world... it's pure crab," said Sneed.
Now Sneed says we are in the midst of the very first crab run of the year, which means soft-shells are going to be on his menu for several months; good thing about soft-shells, they'll be in season through October.
Any self-respecting seafood restaurant should have soft-shells on the menu now through the end of the summer.
2139 CityGate Lane
Naperville, IL 60563