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Crispy Soft Shell Crabs

Courtesy Dean Neff, executive chef/owner, PinPoint Restaurant, Wilmington, NC

Dean Neff developed this dish to showcase crabs from Figure 8 Island, just east of Wilmington, North Carolina, though other lean flatfish will also work. His shallow-frying technique gives the taste and texture of deep-frying for these soft shell crabs, minus the mess.

About Dean Neff 

Dean Neff
Dean Neff / Illustration by Brian C. Clark

Savannah native Neff worked in some of the South’s best restaurants, like 5 & 10 in Athens, Georgia and Rhubarb in Asheville, North Carolina, before he opened Wilmington’s PinPoint Restaurant in 2015. Inspired by culinary pioneers like Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and Edna Lewis, whose books used food to connect people and places, he calls the highly acclaimed spot a “coastal community restaurant” showcasing local ingredients on a menu that changes daily.

“PinPoint’s food is defined by the location, season and food that the farmers and fishermen bring through our doors,” says Neff, who often uses unexpected ingredients such as yacón root, vermilion snapper and Austrian winter peas. “It shows the ever-changing landscape of food and farming in our region.”

Crispy Soft Shell Crabs

2 cups buttermilk
2 cups fine cornmeal or masa harina
Kosher salt, to taste
4 medium soft shell crabs, cleaned (or 6-ounce pieces boneless flounder or skate wing)
Neutral oil, like corn, safflower or peanut, for frying
Creamed Cope’s Corn (recipe follows)
Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc (recipe follows)
Fresh tarragon or celery leaves (for garnish)

Directions for Crispy Soft Shell Crabs

Lightly season buttermilk and cornmeal with salt. Coat crabs (or fish) in buttermilk. Dredge in cornmeal to coat evenly, and shake off excess. Let rest on wire rack.

Pour 1 inch oil in large, deep, heavy skillet. Warm over medium-high heat until it registers 365˚F on candy thermometer. Cook crabs 3 minutes per side, or until deep golden brown and crisp. Work in batches, if necessary, and adjust heat to maintain oil’s temperature. Drain on paper towels. Serve over Creamed Cope’s Corn, topped with Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc. Serves 4.

Ingredients for Creamed Cope's Corn

2 cups John Cope’s Toasted Dried Sweet Corn*
2 cups milk
1 cup vegetable or corn stock
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
½ cup fine-chopped leek (white part only)
3 tablespoons coconut milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons fine-chopped tarragon

Directions for Creamed Cope's Corn

Cope’s Corn is a Pennsylvania Dutch dried corn available from Hanover Foods Outlet.  

Combine corn, milk, stock and cream. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours. In medium saucepan over medium-low heat, add butter and leeks. Cook 5 minutes, then add corn mixture. Stirring often, cook for 15 minutes, or until thick but still easy to stir (add more stock, if needed). Stir in coconut milk, salt, sugar and tarragon before serving.

Ingredients for Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc

½ cup white wine
1 tablespoon fine-chopped shallot
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves
1 cup low-sodium vegetable or fish stock
1 tablespoon Louisiana-style hot sauce (preferably Texas Pete or Crystal)
1 tablespoon heavy cream
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

Directions for Hot Sauce Beurre Blanc

In small saucepan over medium heat, boil wine, shallot and herbs until reduced by half. Add stock and reduce by two-thirds (about ½ cup liquid). Whisk in hot sauce and cream, and reduce heat to lowest setting. Whisk in butter, piece by piece, allowing each to fully incorporate before next addition. (If sauce gets too hot, it will separate—turn off heat, if necessary.) Strain and serve at room temperature.

Pair It

“The wine I think works best here is Domaine des Schistes’ 2015 Essencial Blanc from Côtes du Roussillon, which is equal parts Vermentino, Grenache Gris and Macabeu,” says Neff. “It’s zippy enough to balance the creaminess of the corn and hot sauce beurre blanc, with enough body from the Grenache Gris to hold up to the sweetness of the corn. This wine has hints of herbs and is balanced enough to match the rich flavors of this dish without falling into the background.”