13 July 2011

Now burning thro' the Crab he takes his way

I am a bit nervous about today's recipe; crab recipes generally and crab cake recipes particularly are a fraught subject for Marylanders. Opinions are many and passions run high. We did not invent crab cakes here, but we like to think we have perfected them.1

Still, it is summer, we are in the sign of the Crab, and since crabmeat has been on special at the local grocery recently, I've been making crab cakes.  So here goes.

The Maryland philosophy of crab cakes is now, and perhaps always has been, minimalist, with the lack of 'filler' being a particular point of pride for both restaurants and home cooks. 'Filler' usually means bread or cracker crumbs, but can also include onion, celery, and other ingredients. Indeed, the distaste for 'filler' can lead to a reductio which can only be described as absurd, and reminds me of the 'recipes' for martinis that instruct the bartender to think about vermouth and olives while pouring gin into a glass.

Really, at that point, why not just eat a steamed crab, and have a shot?

Nevertheless, one does want the crab to be the central, defining ingredient, and there are far too many 'crab cakes' being sold to tourists in allegedly reputable crab houses that seem compounded mainly of bread and mayonnaise while the cook thought about crabs. Or possibly whitefish.

What follows is my version, which attempts to strike a balance between crab and cake. The idea of baking the cakes in a muffin tin is not my own; I stole it shamelessly from a local restaurant that makes very good crab cakes but where I cannot afford to eat more than perhaps once a year. I use a regular-size muffin tin, which incidentally makes cakes a good size for sandwiches. One could easily use a mini-muffin tin for cocktail party-sized crab cakes though the baking time would need to be shortened.

The real genius of the muffin-tin technique is that it does actually reduce the need for filler. You do not have to glop in a lot of mayonnaise or extra egg in the hopes of making it all stick together. I like a dab of mayonnaise with my crab cake, but too much in the cake overwhelms the crab, I think, so I prefer to leave it out.

To be properly a Maryland-style crab cake, the meat must be that of the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus,2 but you can use the meat of any crab to good effect. Once, in a fit of homesickness, I made crab cakes in St Andrews from the meat of a hulking great partan bought from the local fishmonger. With some bravado, I purchased that crab whole (as opposed to 'dressed,' picked out and the meat packed into the cleaned-out top shell), thinking that if a man's a man for a' that, then so too is a crab, and as a daughter of the Chesapeake I needed no burly Scottish fishmonger to pick my crabs for me. I was not entirely wrong -- the gross anatomy was much the same -- but I was not entirely right, either. Those big North Sea crabs (Cancer pagurus, for the nomenclature enthusiasts) have much thicker and heavier shells than blue crabs. I am not a fast picker by Maryland standards, but I can still clean out a blue in about a minute. It took me closer to an hour to pick that partan, and I was exhausted afterward.

If you are vegetarian or allergic to shellfish, shredded zucchini or yellow summer squash can be substituted for the crab. Grate the squash, sprinkle with salt, let sit 10 minute, and then squeeze the excess liquid out. Weigh to be sure you have about a pound of drained squash before proceeding. Zucchini cakes are sometimes known as 'Poor Man's Crab Cakes' in these parts.


Crab Cakes

makes 8

1 pound picked crab meat
1 cup fresh bread crumbs from a crusty loaf (squishy sandwich bread will not do; if you must use dry bread crumbs, reduce the quantity to 1/2 cup)
1 celery stalk, with leaves, finely chopped
1/2 a small onion, finely chopped (about as much onion as celery)
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp red pepper
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten

If you prefer, you may substitute 2 tsp commercial crab seasoning (e.g. Old Bay) for the spices.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly oil a standard 12-cup muffin tin and set aside.

Tip the crab meat into a large bowl and pick over to remove any stray pieces of cartilage. Add the remaining ingredients and toss lightly with your fingers until the egg is completely distributed.

Place about 1/2 cup of the crabmeat mixture into eight of the muffin cups. (I usually start with the centre rows of cups and work my way out). Tamp the mixture down lightly with your fingers.

Bake for 30-35 minutes or until hot through and golden brown on top. Let stand 5 minutes before turning out of the tin.

Serve hot with a dab of mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon. Refrigerate any leftovers immediately.

1According to the Food Timeline, while the name 'crab cake' appears to date from the early 20th C., crab cake-like recipes date back to at least the 17th C in England. The source cited by Food Timeline for the oldest crab cake-like recipes, Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook of 1685, is available in several formats via Project Gutenberg.

2The blue crab is celebrated in William Warner's Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay. If you haven't read it, you should. I provide a link to a new paperback on Amazon, but there are used copies for as little as $1 on Abebooks.com, or check your local library.

Thomas Chatterton

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