Recipes

Cracking the crab cake: Improving the dish that’s often more filler than seafood

Al’s crab-lobster cakes are garnished with a Thai hot chili mayonnaise and cilantro.
Al’s crab-lobster cakes are garnished with a Thai hot chili mayonnaise and cilantro. lsterling@sacbee.com

Want to make a crab cake that’s more coarse than couth, more heat than sweet? One that substitutes savor for subtlety, and delivers enough taste and texture to knock you across the kitchen? If so, you’re in the right place. Here’s why:

Crab cakes are almost standard appetizers on mid-level to upscale restaurant menus, and recipes for the Chesapeake Bay classic are everywhere in cookbooks and on food-centric websites. Each version has fans who shout out the same message: “It’s the best we’ve ever had!”

Yet the recipes seem to be from a standard template or close to it: crab, Worcestershire sauce, bell pepper, onion, sometimes garlic, parsley, mustard (wet or dry) and a binder. The binder is what holds the crab cake together, and can be milk and/or eggs and mayonnaise, and a dry ingredient such as crushed Ritz, saltine or oyster crackers, or packaged breadcrumbs, or pieces of white bread run through a food processor, or even – deliver us from such evil – flour.

It’s that binder that’s the source of our longtime crab-cake dilemma: Way too often, the dish is more cake than crab. In search of the real thing, we even paid $54 to have six 4-ounce crab cakes overnighted from an online seafood source in Maryland. The ingredients: “88 percent Maryland lump crab meat, unsalted crackers, Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay seasoning, mayonnaise, egg and parsley.”

We cooked them in the kitchen of a friend’s home. Someone whipped up a Thousand Island-type dressing to go with them, which was great. But, for their cost, the crab cakes were mundane.

“Think you can do better?” someone challenged.

“Maybe,” I thought, though I had never before made a crab cake from scratch. I set out to devise a clunky, ingredients-heavy crab cake with as little binder as possible. Make it big, make it bold, make it original. As for a recipe? Drive the highway of existing recipes as signposts, veer off-road as often as possible and don’t go over a cliff. At least not a steep one.

We haven’t lived in a foraging society for, oh, 12,000 years or so, since the advents of agriculture and domesticated livestock. Yet the hunting-and-gathering process was primevally satisfying for my Crab Cake Pal and me, and a big part of the adventure. Of course, we had little clue of just what ingredients we were searching for, but we would know them when we saw them. Maybe.

First stop was Sunh Fish seafood market, housed in a 17,500-square-foot warehouse. There, we bought live Dungeness crabs, which a staffer cleaned (there’s a “no cracking” policy). Casually cruising the shelves as we waited, we had an “ah-ha! moment. I couldn’t whip up a condiment as well-suited to a renegade crab cake as Dynasty-brand Thai Hot Chili Mayonnaise, so we bought a jar.

Next stop was Corti Bros. Market, where we explored the produce department. Flat-leaf parsley is a common ingredient in crab cakes, but why? To us, it has no distinguishing flavor. So we grabbed a bunch of stuff that seemed to resonate with the spirit of the project – cilantro, green onion, chives, dill, rosemary, sorrel and the standard celery for crunch.

We toured the rest of the store. Hmm. We could coat the cakes in panko (flaky breadcrumbs used in Japanese cooking) for ultimate fried crispness. How about toasting some pine nuts for a nutty flavor, and capers for tang? For heat, Sriracha sauce would be too distinct, so let’s go with Frank’s Original Red Hot sauce and red pepper flakes. Saffron? Why not? Orange zest? Sure. Garlic? Give it a try. Smoked paprika? Could be interesting. Cumin? Can’t live without it. As for citrus, there’s a Meyer lemon tree in my backyard.

Of course, Old Bay seafood seasoning was a must, partly because of its fragrant ingredients and partly as an homage to the naive directness of its original name – Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning. The unchanged 1939 recipe includes mace, cloves, cardamom, ginger, bay leaf and celery salt.

In the home kitchen, we boiled the crabs, cracked them open and picked out the meat. Then we chopped and diced, sprinkled and dashed, hand-molded and coated. Tasted this, tasted that, loved this, gagged on that. It was a messy, stinky, time-consuming process, but a heck of a lot of fun.

One “duh!” revelation came when we realized the crab cakes would not hold their shape in the frying pan without some sort of binder. I had hoped the panko coating would serve as such, but no way. The cakes turned to crab hash when I flipped them with a spatula, and the taste of semi-burned panko was bullying.

That night I tossed and turned, angst-ridden and smelling slightly fishy, visited by visions of cinematic artist Ray Harryhausen’s stop-action giant crab attacking a band of adventurers in 1961’s “Mysterious Island.”

The next day, I grudgingly added two eggs (one was not enough) and mayonnaise to the crab mixture. Then, instead of coating the cakes in panko, I poured it into the bowl. My pal and I formed balls instead of cakes, letting them chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set up before mashing them into cakes in the pan. We eliminated the saffron, orange zest, garlic, paprika, dill, rosemary and sorrel, but later used them in experimental chicken ’n’ rice and salmon dishes.

The next few batches of crab cakes were almost there, but something was needed, an ingredient to add depth of flavor and more texture, something like ... shrimp! We dashed to the Bel Air store in Gold River and bought fresh wild-caught “jumbo shrimp” from the Gulf of Mexico. Cleaned ’em, steamed ’em, chopped ’em up. Using half crab and half shrimp, we made another batch of cakes. As good as the shrimp were by themselves, dipped in cocktail sauce, they added only bland bulk rather than the enhanced flavor we were looking for.

That’s when I happened to notice the artwork on the box that holds the metal claw crackers and picks we’d used to clean the crabs. Why, isn’t that an image of a Maine lobster? The eureka! moment had come: The ideal cake would be half crab and half lobster.

Later, we steamed and cracked a live lobster and made a last batch of cakes. Wow! We finally had produced a firm, rich, succulent seafood cake with unusual flavors, contrasting textures and an aggressive vibe, and, at last, one with more crab (and lobster) than cake. It was time for dinner.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CRAB CAKES

▪ 1. Crab meat is delicate, so go “gently” when mixing it with other ingredients, when forming the balls or cakes, when flipping the cakes in the pan, and when plating them.

▪ 2. You want firm crab cakes. After forming them into balls or cakes, refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before placing them in the frying pan.

▪ 3. If possible, use fresh crab meat, not canned or frozen. Though you may have to go frozen or canned if you use Chilean rock crab or Maryland blue crab instead of Dungeness.

▪ 4. You can refrigerate crab cakes or crab meat overnight, covered, but crab is highly perishable. If you don’t use all the meat for the cakes when you’re making them, the best advice is to eat the remainder on the spot. If you insist on refrigerating the cakes and/or leftover meat, give them a good smell the next day. The nose always knows.

▪ 5. There are no rules governing what ingredients to use. “Home cook goes wild!” is the headline you’re looking for.

Al’s crab-lobster cakes

Yields 6 cakes

This recipe is the result of much experimentation, trial-and-error and some luck. But the work paid off.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup hand-shredded Dungeness crab meat

1 cup coarsely diced Maine lobster meat

1/2 cup panko

21/2 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Juice of 1/2 Meyer lemon

1/4 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped chives

2 tablespoons chopped scallion (green onion)

2 tablespoons capers

1/4 cup whole toasted pine nuts

1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

Pinches of cumin

A few grinds peppercorn

Several shakes red pepper flakes

Several squirts Frank’s Original Red Hot Sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons butter

Thai hot chili mayonnaise

INSTRUCTIONS

Put all ingredients (except cumin, olive oil, butter and hot chili mayonnaise) into a bowl. Using a wood spoon, gently but thoroughly blend them together.

Divide the mixture into six equal parts. Using your hands, shape them into balls. Place, covered, in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a heavy frying pan (black cast iron is ideal) over medium to medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and butter.

When butter is melted and sizzling, gently place three balls in the pan and gently press them with a spatula or spoon until they form “cakes” about an inch thick.

Sprinkle a pinch of cumin over each cake. Cook 2 to 3 minutes and carefully turn them over. Cook another 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown and crisp.

Transfer to a platter and serve with Thai chili mayonnaise or a condiment of your choice (garlic aioli, tartar sauce, chutney or the like). Don’t forget the lemon.

Rick’s crab cakes

Yields 8 cakes

Rick Mindermann, store director at Corti Bros. Market, makes a delicate cake using frozen Chilean rock crab, a relative of the Dungeness.

INGREDIENTS

1 pound Chilean crab meat

2 stalks diced celery

2 green onions, cut into small pieces

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 eggs, beaten

2 teaspoons bittersweet Spanish paprika

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs

Panko breadcrumbs for coating

Light, fruity olive oil

INSTRUCTIONS

In a large mixing bowl, add crab, celery, green onion, mayonnaise, eggs, paprika, pepper, garlic powder, salt and plain breadcrumbs and blend well.

Put a thin layer of panko on a plate. Scoop blended crab mixture with a tablespoon or ice cream scoop into the palm of your hand. Press together and form a patty 3 1/2 inches in diameter and about 1/2 inch thick. Place patty on thin layer of panko. Sprinkle panko over patty. Press panko into cake and into its sides while rotating the patty on the plate. Place patty on a sheet of wax paper. Make all the patties and let them set up in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or more, until they hold together firmly.

Heat olive oil in large skillet. Fry cakes until golden brown, turning once. Place finished cakes on paper towel-covered plate to drain. Serve.

Note: Cakes can also be broiled in a greased pan, turning once until golden brown.

Garnish with thin avocado slices and lemon pepper aioli. (Lemon pepper aioli: 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon lemon zest, ground black pepper to taste. Blend and chill.)

Buggy Whip’s crab cakes

Yields 6 cakes

Luis Gomez of the Buggy Whip restaurant uses lump meat from Maryland blue crabs, considered more flavorful than Dungeness crab meat. The three Fins seafood markets stock 1-pound tins of blue crab meat.

INGREDIENTS

2 cups crab meat

41/2 tablespoons mayonnaise

Juice of a quarter-lemon

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

Panko

Olive oil

INSTRUCTIONS

Mix ingredients together and form cakes. Bury with panko and pat cakes with panko until the breadcrumbs stick evenly to the cakes. Cook in olive oil until both sides are golden-brown, about 1 minute per side. Serve with Asian coleslaw.

Asian coleslaw

INGREDIENTS

Shredded green and red cabbages

3 tablespoons chopped toasted pine nuts

1/2 tablespoon mayonnaise

3 tablespoons pineapple juice

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon “prepared” horseradish

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil blend

INSTRUCTIONS:

Blend ingredients to make a dressing. Pour dressing over shredded cabbages and toss.

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