When I posted the crab cake, I promised a soft shell crab tempura. It must be getting into summer since my wife found live soft shell crabs in the fish monger's case at our neighborhood gourmet grocery store for the first time this year. Regardless of what we already planned for dinner tonight, it is time for soft shell crab tempura!
I never saw soft shell crabs until I came to Baltimore (which was the first city I lived in after I left Japan). Soft shell crab sandwiches are famous in Maryland and look very strange at first. It consists of two pieces of bread with a large flat arachnoid looking creature between them; spider legs sticking out all over. Despite its appearance, both my wife and I independently developed a liking for soft shell crabs. The most common way to cook soft shell crabs is either battered and deep fried or dredged in flour and sauteed in clarified butter. We first encountered tempura soft shell crabs at one of the sushi bars we used to visit. With just a light tempura crust, it is our favorite way to eat this specialty--with crispy outside and juicy sweet meat inside. Actually, many sushi bars even make a "soft shell crab roll" which is not bad but we like to just eat the crab as is.
First, you have to clean the critters. If you are not up for this task, especially if they are still moving and alive, it is best to ask the fish monger to clean them for you. You need to take off the eyes/head portion, bottom apron, and gills. I sandwich the cleaned crabs between paper towels and press lightly to remove any excess moisture.
Tempura batter: I used to use whole eggs or egg yolks in my tempura batter but, more recently, I just use cake flour and potato starch mixture without eggs. I do not use any leavening agents such as baking powder. Using egg yolks makes a richer batter but I like the simple light texture of a crust made from the batter of just flour and water. Here, I used about a half cup of cake flour (the reason for the cake flour is that you do not need gluten which will make a tough crust) with 2 tbs of potato starch or corn starch and add ice cold water and mix lightly until a desired consistency is reached. Depending on what you are frying, the thickness of the batter should be adjusted. For soft shell crabs, I like a very light crust so I use a bit runny or thin batter.
Oil: For tempura, you need to use fresh oil. I use peanut oil since we like the peanutty flavor it imparts and its high smoking point. The temperature should be around 170C (340F) but, as usual, I use the dropping-bit-of-tempura-batter method of judging the temperature. I use the shallow frying method with about half an inch deep oil. Since it splatters a lot, I took some precautions (see picture). I turned over the crabs once the bubbles around them get smaller (after 5 minutes) and fried another 5 minutes until the surface is lightly brown and crispy and bubbles around the crabs get smaller and "quieter" for the second time. I also made fresh Shiitake and asparagus tempura as accompaniments.
Green tea salt: Tempura dipping sauce and grated daikon will go well with this but we decided to eat simply with lemon wedges and green tea salt for our season's first catch. To make green tea salt, I add 3 tbs of Kosher salt and 1/3 tsp of "maccha" 抹茶 green tea powder in a small plastic sealable container and shake well to mix. It will keep for a long time in a freezer.
I cut the crab into 4 pieces for easy handling and serve. What a treat! I assume it will go very well with cold beer but I seldom drink beer nowadays. Cold sake is called for.