For locavores, food marks the passing of time and the changing of the seasons.
This time of year, soft shell crab from the central Atlantic coast and most famously the Chesapeake Bay is the ultimate marker. In fact, you can mark the exact first day of soft shell crab season. Starting in May and throughout the summer, the blue crab abandons its shell and starts to form a new one, making its sweet, briny, delicious meat immediately accessible. Legend has it that crabs, like the ocean, are influenced by the phases of the moon. In their natural environment, crabs begin shedding their outgrown shells on the first full moon of May. At this point, the whole thing is edible, and the combination of tenderness and crunch of the very new shell makes it a delight.
Right now, soft shell crabs are still very young and tender. A cast iron pan set on the hot grill is, therefore, a great way to cook them and kickstart the season (both grilling season and soft shell crab season). Heat it up and then sear the crabs with butter, salt and pepper. Baste with a drizzle of melted butter seasoned with some lemon zest. Do not overcook-when the crabs plump up and become firm, they are done. This should take about eight minutes.
The most important thing with soft shell crabs, of course, is that they be utterly fresh. Plan ahead and talk to a fish merchant you trust. You must buy them the day you eat them (and while you’re at it, ask the fish guy to clean them for you). To select the tastiest, use your nose. When fresh, they smell clean and astringent. They begin to deteriorate rapidly, so keep them on ice. Cook them within 24 hours.
Serve with local grilled asparagus and a glass of a crisp white to capture the romance of the sea and the allure of a full moon in spring.