Barton Seaver's Sustainable Soft-shell Crabs With Corn and Black Bean Relish

Barton Seaver Soft Shell Crab Photo

Photo credit: Katie Stoops
This guest post was written by Barton Seaver, chef and auther of For Cod and Country.

Ninety percent of cooking fish successfully is buying great quality fish. And yet so many of us do the following: We walk into the store with an ingredient list for a fish dish from our favorite food show or magazine. We step up to the fish counter, read the list to the white-aproned clerk, and walk away with a pound of shrimp, tilapia, salmon, ahi, or whatever the pre-ordained recipe told us to purchase.

Once we return home and follow the instructions, the result is often more "meh" than "yeah!" The truth is that there's no recipe, tip, technique or trick that could ever make up for a lack of quality.Unfortunately we've become so accustomed to the ubiquity of a few commodity species delivered in volume that we've forgotten how to think about fresh seafood. We neglect to consider whether the product we bought was the best one available, or whether it might be of higher quality at a different time of year. Like the first of the spring strawberries, fish has times and places where it is at the peak of freshness and flavor.

Some of my favorite seafood delicacies are only available for a brief moment, such as the first few sparkling king salmon from the spring run in Alaska. As the summer approaches, I look forward to making soft-shell crabs with corn and black bean relish (see recipe, below).

Not all seafood products are seasonal, however. Canning, aquaculture, and quick-freeze technology have made many favorites available year-round. On the one hand, this is a great convenience, and on the other it can obscure the timeliness of our choices. Some fish seasons also extend across ours. For example, the Alaskan halibut season starts in March and lasts through the fall.

Because there are no strict rules about fish seasons, your local fishmonger's expertise is an invaluable resource. Simply introduce yourself and ask, "What's best today?" Getting to know the people behind the counter and trusting their judgment can have a positive ripple effect. When fishmongers steer us toward the freshest option, we encourage stores and restaurants to carry more diverse species, and to focus on the natural bounty of the season rather than making difficult demands of the seas. Seasonally abundant fish options tend to be cheaper as well, so discovering a diversity of delicious options has perks at the cash register.

When we allow ourselves to be wooed by the glistening skin, the sharp clear eyes, the sweet smell of a pristine catch, we set ourselves up for a delicious meal, and possibly a new favorite.

Soft-shell Crabs with Corn and Black Bean Relish

Soft-shells are among the best things about the approach of summer. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what to use to bread soft-shell crabs before frying them--or whether to bread them at all. I prefer a coating of fine cornmeal, as this helps to mellow their flavor and to add a bit of texture. The key with soft-shells is to cook them over moderate heat so that they get crispy but don't burn. The relish is a nice accompaniment, as the lime zest and butter really make the fresh corn shine.

1 cup fine-ground cornmeal
1 tablespoon Seafood Spice Mix 1 (recipe below) or Old Bay Seasoning
4 large soft-shell blue crabs, gills, face, and tail flap removed
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
Grated zest and juice of 1 lime
4 large ears corn, shucked and kernels cut off the cob
One 16-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
Tabasco sauce

For the crabs, combine the cornmeal and spice mix in a shallow bowl. Dredge each crab well in the coating. Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter and 1 tablespoon of the canola oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet big enough to hold all the crabs in a single layer. When the butter is just melted, add the crabs, shell side down, arranging them so they all fit neatly with the claws in their natural positions. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the coating is crisp, about 5 minutes. Turn the crabs over with tongs and add the remaining 2 tablespoons canola oil. Cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the crabs from the pan and pat off any excess oil with paper towels.

While the crabs are cooking, make the relish. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons butter in a large sauté pan. Add the garlic and lime zest and cook for 1 minute. Add the corn kernels, season to taste with salt, and toss to combine. Cook for a couple minutes, until the corn begins to soften. Add the black beans, a few dashes Tabasco, and the lime juice and cook for another 3 minutes to warm the beans through.

Serve the crabs with the corn relish spooned over the top of the shell.

Serves 4

Seafood Spice Mix 1

2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground celery seeds
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika

Combine all the ingredients and mix well. Keeps up to 3 months.

Makes about 2 tablespoons

More from Barton Seaver:
Star Chef Barton Seaver's Sustainable Marinated Clams With Minted Lemon Marinade and Pine Nuts
Barton Seaver's Pink Salmon Cakes With Dill and Mustard
Barton Seaver's Eggplant Stuffed With Smoky Tomato-Anchovy Ratatouille
Images and recipes reprinted with permission from For Cod and Country © 2011 by Barton Seaver, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

Barton Seaver For Cod and Country Photo

Photo credit: Katie Stoops
Chef, author, and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver is on a mission to restore our relationship with the ocean, the land, and with each other--through dinner. He believes food is a crucial way for us to connect with the ecosystems, people, and cultures of our world.

Seaver explores these themes through healthful, planet-friendly recipes in his first book, For Cod & Country (Sterling Epicure, May 2011), and as host of both the National Geographic Web series Cook-Wise and the three-part TV series In Search of Food (Ovation, May 2011).

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and executive chef at some of the most celebrated restaurants in his native Washington, D.C., Seaver is known for his devotion to quality, culinary innovation, and sustainability. In 2008, he was honored as a "Seafood Champion" by the Seafood Choices Alliance and as "Rising Culinary Star of the Year" by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. He was named Esquire magazine's "Chef of the Year" in 2009.

As a National Geographic Fellow, Seaver works on ocean issues with Mission Blue to increase awareness and inspire action. He also works closely with D.C. Central Kitchen, the School Nutrition Association, the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, and Future of Fish.

Seaver's insights have been featured in Cooking Light, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Washington Post, Fortune, and Vanity Fair. He has appeared on CNN, NPR's All Things Considered, National Geographic Weekend, and Bloomberg Radio. In 2010, he gave a TED Talk aboard the National Geographic Endeavor.

Follow on Twitter @bartonseaver and like him on Facebook.

Barton Seaver's Sustainable Soft-shell Crabs With Corn and Black Bean Relish
Ninety percent of cooking fish successfully is buying great quality fish. And yet so many of us do the following: We walk into the store

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