Tuesday, July 5, 2011

F&C Rewind: Feeling Crabby

If there is one item I could live without ever ordering, preparing or seeing on a menu again, it's the crab cake.  It's become the most egregiously made, bastardized dish throughout the mid-Atlantic, with variations so vast, it's no wonder locals are so visceral in their opinions on the subject. 

For me, it begins with what people come to expect in a crab cake.  If there is anything other than boulder-sized chunks of crab in front of them, they complain of "too much filler".  Ughgh.  I'll get back to that, but I think it must stem from what people don't know about making these local delicacies.  The crab cake should be primarily crab with seasonings that complement the sweetness of the meat.  It should be moist and tender, properly seasoned, and it should hold together as it slides off a spatula and onto your plate or bun.  

Smarter cooks know that the fewer ingredients you use in a dish, the more you must respect the ones you do use. All those lovely lumps of precious crabmeat are held in trapezoidal compartments within the crab, and they're delicately extracted and separated into and sold as the valuable categories of jumbo lump, backfin, lump and claw meat.  Experienced crab eaters would never discriminate and abandon all the briny goodness that comes from eating all the various types of meats from their crustacean cronies.  But, try using something other than jumbo lump, and the average Joe screams heresy.  They are unaware that the only way to keep a crab cake bound together is to use complementary ingredients that help hold them into the signature "cake" form.  The intense and sweet flavor is often given from using a combination of the jumbo AND claw meat.  The delicate nature of the claw/leg meat (like that of the Jonah crab) also helps to bind when mixed with the base.  So, my ill-informed filler-fanatics, crab claw meat that binds, is still crab.  It's a wise use of crab meat and if you are going to produce them in volume, it helps keep them at a reasonable price.

Typically a little bit of egg, bread or mousse combination is used to help bind these two flavorful types of crab meat.  Egg alone will not do the trick, but adding fresh white, doughy bread crumbs, like from Wonderbread, help hold the crab together.  Taking the protein of shrimp or scallops and combining in a processor with egg white and heavy cream will give you a delicate mousse that is both flavorful and does the trick nicely of binding the crab.  Beyond that, what else you put in is a matter of taste.  Avoid putting in anything that will detract from the main flavor or cause too much moisture or dryness, and you've got your own personal version of the dish that made Maryland famous.  So, why then do so many of them suck?

For all the crab cakes I loathe, it is mostly because they are mass produced for a homogenized appeal.  Each chef has their own idea of what a good crab cake is, and very often it's one that appeals to the masses.  Nothing wrong with selling a lot of crab cakes, I suppose.  Hey, Yugo sold a lot of cars, too.  But, I'm long since past ordering one in a restaurant, simply because I know I will be disappointed.  Give me a softshell crab, on the other hand, and it successfully captures all the things I love about a properly made crab cake:  crispy, toothsome texture, held together nicely in it's own natural sauce and it's as about as "pure" as it gets.  Slap on a little remoulade or equally gooey-tart sauce on a toasted, buttery bun, and my hankering for a sandwich of fresh crab is satisfactorily sated.

I don't hate the crab cake.  Really.  And I'm certainly not being snobby about it.  In fact, I love them so much, it's out of respect for their uniqueness that I sound off.  So, I guess you could say that I am being a bit of a purist.  And, just to show you how much I care, I'm going to share my recipe as long as you promise to make them for only two people.  Four, at the most.  And not another crab cake more.

The main concept behind making this version of a crab cake for only a few people is that it forces you to concentrate on following the recipe and to not cut corners.  Additionally, when you've mastered making these, you'll feel as though each time you make them again, it will be for people you really love and want to spoil.  You'll be giving them something they can't get anywhere for any price!  Now you know why some chefs don't give up recipes.  So, for you, my faithful Fork-N-Corkers, I am willing to make an exception, all in the name of respect for that little puck of tide-water goodness: the regal crab cake.

Robear's Secret Crab Cake Recipe
Makes four 5 oz. crab cakes
  • 8 oz. fresh jumbo lump crab meat
  • 8 oz. fresh crab claw meat
  • 1 small onion, small dice
  • 2 ribs celery, small dice
  • 4 oz. whole butter
  • 3 leaves fresh basil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 dash or two of Tabasco
  • 1 dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise 
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 2 pieces fresh white bread, broken into small pieces
  • Salt and White pepper

In 2 oz. of butter gently cook the celery and onions until soft.  Do not brown.  Add the Old Bay and basil.  Remove the mixture including the butter and set aside to cool.  

Combine the wet ingredients in a bowl and mix until just combined.  This is your base.  After you pick through your crab to remove shells, you will use it to bind the crab together along with the bread crumbs.  Season with salt and dashes of white pepper.  TASTE!  If you feel as though you could eat the whole thing right there, it's ready.  Fold the crab, fresh bread crumbs and some of the base together until it can hold it's own shape.  Resist using the entire mixture.  You are meant to have extra, but this is where people screw up:  when they add all the base, they try to compensate by adding more bread to dry it up, and this is where the perception of "too much filler" comes from.  You can always add more if you really need it, but the key concept here is to barely bind those ingredients together without turning it into a seafood meatball.

Form four cakes onto a plate, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.  This is also a key step: don't skip it!

When it's time to cook, turn your oven to 355F.  In a non-stick pan, put a couple tablespoon of oil and heat the pan to medium hot (only lightly smoking).  Use a spatula to gently lift the crab cakes and place them in the pan.  Add the remaining 2 oz of butter now.  First, the pan will sizzle, then it will subside.  It will build back up to a hiss first (that's the steam) and then finally return to a sizzle.  When you see that the edges are beginning to brown, use your spatula and with both hands slowly turn the cakes.  Place the whole pan in the oven for 12-15 minutes.  Serve immediately from the pan.  

Open some pinot blanc, Macon chardonnay or other white to complement the sweetness of the crab.  Bon appetit! 

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