It feels like the first week of camp at the market, as we check out which of our friends from last summer are back and how they look this year. A few weeks later than usual, some of the most popular warm-weather farmers, like Keith’s Organics and Eckerton Hill, have returned, with tables already full and lots more to come. It’s going to be a good summer, we can just feel it.
We’re coming into prime-time soft-shell-crab season, and we're about to leave ramps behind us. So tonight’s special at European Union, sautéed soft-shell crabs with pickled ramps ($16), is something not to miss. The crabs coming up from Maryland are bigger and fatter than the ones seen earlier in the season, one reason chef Akhtar Nawab put the dish on the menu. Says Nawab, “The soft-shells are so nice right now, meaty, sweet, and really soft. They’re alive when we get them. The pickled ramps really cut the richness and tenderness of the crab with a nice garlicky and crunchy bite.” Nawab freely offers that he didn’t invent the idea of pairing ramps with crabs, but EU makes the dish their own by also adding pickled red onions, baby leeks, and (for a trace of sweetness) cipollini onions braised in red wine and honey. Be warned, though — even the meatiest soft-shell crab isn’t going to sate you. Be prepared to order a couple, and think twice about sharing them. In another couple of weeks the dish will be a memory.
When, in the very first week of March, soft-shell crabs appeared at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, they seemed as unnatural as two-headed kittens. These molted creatures, normally a summer treat, have been appearing earlier and earlier. (The Oyster Bar folks claim they’ve cornered the winter market.) Are they a product of global warming? And are these freaks any good? We asked David Pasternack, executive chef at Esca and our adviser on all things briny.