I met a good friend of mine in Santa Barbara named Andy Sachs. Andy is a native of Maryland and like me, loves to eat and loves to cook. For one reason or another he talked me into moving to Las Vegas with him where we lived for a year. During our time in Vegas I was working for Emeril Lagasse at The New Orleans Fish House. This seemed fitting as I am native to New Orleans.
I remember one day hearing Andy on the phone with his Father Stewart. It seemed that Andy was missing his home state and craving a main staple of Maryland cuisine. Crab Cakes.
Maryland is a beautiful state steeped in rich traditions and the people that are from there are very set in their ways. This fact is especially true when it comes to anything that has to do with the bounty of seafood harvested from The Chesapeake Bay. The king of all seafood in the region is the cherished Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab. I feel safe to say that just as the weather plays a role in our daily lives, the Blue Crab controls the lives of the people who live there.
Back to Andy’s phone call. I don’t know everything that was said between he and his dad, but I do remember Andy (a tall, strong, tough guy with a nice guy’s face), break down and almost start to cry. We were living in Vegas and I thought maybe Andy couldn’t cover a marker and he was begging his dad for money. When he hung up the phone I went to my room and hid my wallet.
Two days went by and a package arrived from Maryland. I placed it on the kitchen counter and when my buddy got home he started running in circles like a dog chasing his tail. It was like the first night of Chanukah / Hanukah for Andy. “Just what the @&*% is in that box man”? Let me open it for you, I said. Like a dog with a bone was the reaction he gave me and I wasn’t going to grab it from him.
Inside the box, his father had placed two cans of fresh picked and packed Maryland Blue Crab Meat along with some ice packs. Andy looked further hoping to find an envelope of cash, but then came to realize it was just crab and he seemed happy enough with that. All I could say was “how in the hell are we going to eat that when we don’t have any money for beer”!? Times were tough for us, but we definitely had our priorities straight.
Andy trusted my skills in the kitchen. I usually do all of the cooking no matter who I live with or what house I’m visiting. Having said that, I was shocked when my good pal asked me if I knew how to make crab cakes. “Uh duh, who doesn’t”? Pleased with my answer Andy handed me his precious cans of jumbo lump and sweet claw meat then he grabbed his car keys and left saying “I’m going to find a way to get us some beer”.
I lied when I said I knew how to cook crab cakes. I like to say that I misled Andy more than I lied to him because I used to make what seemed similar to them in my head. In Louisiana we’ll make a “cake” out of anything. All we have to do it dredge it in something and fry it. That’s where I went wrong and the reason I’m recounting this story.
Thirty minutes after leaving, Andy came back home with beer. I don’t know how, he wasn’t running, and I didn’t hear any sirens so I didn’t ask. It was a good thing that he accomplished his mission because I remember it being 120 degrees out that day and what was coming my way next was going to require at least a six pack each.
I was feeling pretty good. I had everything prepared and now we had cold beer. I told Andy to sit back and I would serve him his plate. “Here you go good pal of mine, enjoy”. Andy looked down at the plate and then back up to me. The color of his eyes changed to red in that very short amount of time and he simply said “what in the hell did you do to my crab you son of a bitch”? “Um, I made crab cakes like you asked big buddy”….
OK, so I got that wrong, but I’m still here to tell you the proper way I learned to make traditional Maryland Style Blue Crab Cakes, but just to piss Andy off once more I’m going to put one tiny little twist to it and smoke the crab first.
This recipe will serve 4 people with 2 cakes each
Mise en place:
· 1 pound of jumbo crab meat
· 1 pound of sweet crab claw meat
· 30 butter style crackers crushed into crumbs (Ritz™)
· 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
· 1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
· 2 teaspoons parsley
· 1 cup mayonnaise
· juice from ½ of one lemon
· 1 teaspoon dry mustard
· 2 eggs
· 1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning (no substitutions)
· 1 tablespoon melted, salted butter
Special Equipment Needed:
§ Large glass bowl
§ Small steel bowl
§ Charcoal Grill (Weber™)
§ Charcoal briquettes
§ Aluminum foil
§ ½ pound of fruit tree wood chips soaked in water for no less than 1 hour*
*If you want to be authentic in the Maryland / Chesapeake region, select either Apple, Pear, Peach or Cherry wood chips. All are indigenous to this east coast region.
OK, nous allons commencer:
The first thing we want to do is check our crab for freshness. It doesn’t matter if you live on the east coast or the west coast. If you live in Maryland you will be lucky enough to buy crabs straight from the boat and pick the meat yourself, but no matter where you live you may have to resort to buying refrigerated crab meat in the seafood section of the super market. If it smells sweet and light, it’s fresh, anything else and it may be bad. Fish and other seafood shouldn’t smell overly fishy. **(I will explain this after the recipe)** The second thing you should do is pick through the crab meat to check for shell fragments and any other physical contamination.
To prepare the smoked crab, prep a charcoal grill with hot, grey coals. Place a small stainless steel bowl of water in the coals in the center of the grill. In a separate bowl, soak a few fruit wood chips for approximately 1 hour. Remove wet wood chips from water, and gently drop them on top of hot coals, the wood chips should begin to smoke at this point. Take grill grate and line it with aluminum foil. Poke a few holes in the foil and place crab meat on top. Then place aluminum lined rack with crab meat on top of grill and cover. Allow to smoke for approximately 30 minutes. Remove crab meat and cool for 1 hour. Mix cooled crab meat into same manner as recipe above
Combine all of the remaining ingredients in the order I listed above and mix thoroughly. Add the smoked crab meat and gently fold in so as not to break the lumps. Portion out into 8 crab cakes of equal proportion.
To finish cooking the cakes, you’ll want to broil them in a shallow baking dish. Spray the dish just slightly with cooking spray and add a very small amount of water. Broil for about 10 minutes. Use caution, check regularly to avoid burning the delicate lumps of pure heaven.
Here’s to you Andy, I miss my buddy!
**Explanation about fishy odors from above**
With seafood, there are two different kinds of “fishy” odors and it helps to learn to differentiate them. One is a sign of spoilage, the other is an indication of the presence of healthy fats. The flesh of all fish contains an odorless, nonvolatile chemical called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). During storage, bacteria on the surface of the raw fish convert TMAO into a volatile compound called trimethylamine (TMA), which produces the unmistakable smell we all know as rotten fish.
The fishy smell of cooked fatty fishes such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna comes from a different source. Salmon fat for instance is highly unsaturated, which makes it susceptible to oxidation when it is cooked. Oxidation causes the breakdown of the fatty acids into strong-smelling aldehydes, which are the source of salmon’s characteristic flavor as an example.
Picked and processed crab meat contains a lot of the crabs naturally occurring fat that is found inside of the shell of the main body. In summary, seafood shouldn’t smell “fishy” when raw. If it does, never ever buy it and I mean never!