Soft-shell crabs are a prized delicacy, tender mouthfuls that are almost all edible, legs and all, just coming into season.

Fresh soft-shell crabs are available from May through September; frozen are available year round. In scientific terms they are Callinectes sapidus, informally known as blue crabs, which have shed their hard outer shell in the process known as molting. Molting usually occurs 18 times during the crab's 3-year lifetime, as it matures and outgrows each hard shell.Soft crabs are found on the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida, and on the Gulf coast to Texas. More than 80 percent of the soft-shell crabs on the market come from the Chesapeake Bay.

Not only are they easy to eat, they are easy to prepare, and may be served as appetizer, sandwich or entree. They cook quickly, and since they have a sweet, delicate taste they are best with a minimum of seasoning. Here are some suggestions for cooking them:

BASIC SAUTEED SOFT-SHELL CRABS

Soft crabs (thaw if frozen)

All-purpose flour, lightly seasoned to taste with salt and pepper

Clarified butter, or butter and olive oil combined

Meuniere Sauce

1/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

Lightly dredge the crabs in seasoned flour. Saute in hot pan with butter or butter and oil. Cook about 3 minutes each side or until lightly browned. Remove from pan and serve at once.

Try these variations:

- Before cooking crabs, saute 1 garlic clove in the pan for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from pan just before adding crabs.

- After crabs are sauteed, deglaze pan with juice of 1 lemon or lime or a little wine. Pour pan liquid over the crabs.

- Saute 1/3 cup slivered almonds in pan after removing crabs; sprinkle over crabs.

- After sauteing crabs, add Meuniere Sauce to pan with cooked crabs. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. (Meuniere Sauce: 1/4 cup melted butter, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce.)

BASIC DEEP FRIED SOFT-SHELL CRABS

Soft crabs (thaw if frozen)

Egg whites

All-purpose flour seasoned with salt and pepper

Prepare batter by whisking egg whites and water (50 percent egg whites, 50 percent water). Sift seasoned flour.

Dip crabs in batter, drain, then lightly dredge in seasoned flour. Shake to remove excess flour. Deep-fry at 375 F for about 3 minutes until lightly browned and crispy. Turn crabs often while cooking.

BROILED SOFT-SHELL CRABS

Soft crabs (thaw if frozen)

Basting sauce (see recipe)

Soft crabs can be broiled using the same sauces as for grilling. Liberally baste crabs on each side, place in pan and set about 3 inches below broiler. Broil for about 5 minutes on each side, basting with sauce when turned.

BASIC GRILLED SOFT-SHELL CRABS

Soft crabs (thaw if frozen)

Basting sauce (recipes below)

White Wine Marinade

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

3/4 cup dry white wine (or white grape juice)

Seafood Baste

1/2 cup melted butter

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons minced parsley

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind

Soft crabs should be liberally and often basted with sauce while grilling over low heat about 12 inches from coals. Grill about 4 to 5 minutes per side.

Barbecue sauce: add oil to a favorite barbecue sauce (1 part sauce to 2 parts oil).

White wine marinade: Combine 1/2 cup vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon chopped fresh basil, and 1 teaspoon lemon pepper. Slowly add 3/4 cup dry white wine (or optional white grape juice) and beat with a whisk to combine. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes, or up to several hours in the refrigerator, for the flavors to blend.

Seafood baste: Mix together 1/2 cup melted butter, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons minced parsley, and 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind.

SOFT CRAB DIJON

Soft crabs (thaw if frozen)

Dijon mustard

Clarified butter or butter and olive oil combined

1 clove garlic

All-purpose flour seasoned with salt and pepper

Brush undersides of crabs with Dijon mustard. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Saute 1 clove garlic in hot pan with butter or butter and oil. Remove garlic from pan. Lightly dredge crabs in seasoned flour. Cook about 3 minutes each side or until lightly browned. Remove from pan and serve at once.