A few years back, a colleague took me to a tony restaurant where he was a regular diner. Crab cakes were on the menu that day, so he ordered them. When they arrived, they resembled no crab cakes either of us had ever seen. The meat was vegetable-studded and heaped into small mounds, topped with slivers of pimento, a cherry tomato and something green that could have been kiwi fruit for all we knew.
"What are these?" my colleague demanded.
"They are your crab cakes, sir," said the waiter.
"They don't look like anything like your regular crab cakes."
"We have a new chef, sir. He's trying to make his mark."
My colleague's voice turned icy. "Tell him to make his mark on someone else," he said. "And bring me some regular crab cakes."
Quite right, too. The tangy, slightly sweet meat of the blue crab needs no help from ambitious chefs. It's delicous eaten steamed, right out of the shell, its only accompaniment the seafood seasoning that comes off on your hands as you crack the carapace open. And in the traditional Chesapeake Bay crab cake, the meat requires nothing more than a modest amount of seasoning along with something to bind it. There are countless variants on the basic recipe, but typically the binding includes egg, mayonnaise and either cracker or bread crumbs. A few recipes include something to add crunch, such as chopped green pepper. And every now and then, an accident leads to discovery: I once knew a short-order cook in Annapolis who knocked an open half-bottle of Angustora bitters into a large bowl of prepared crab meat, enough for an entire lunch period. He cooked up a cake to see if he really needed to throw the meat out. It was pretty good. Crab meat can adapt to many seasonings--in moderation.
Here's a reliable recipe. It will serve four.
MARYLAND CRAB CAKES
1 pound crabmeat (fresh or pasteurized)
1/2 cup cracker crumbs (Saltines are good)
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Old Bay or Wye River seafood seasoning
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
If available, buy crabmeat from the Chesapeake Bay, preferably lump or backfin. Pick through the meat for bits of shell and cartilage, and remove them. Set aside meat. Place all other ingredients but the cracker crumbs in a large bowl, and mix well. Add crabmeat, mixing gently: crabmeat doesn't like overhandling. Add cracker crumbs and mix gently. Shape the mixture into small patties. Do not pack. Refrigerate, covered with wax paper, for an hour.
Fry the cakes in vegetable oil until they turn golden brown, about four minutes per side. Remove with a slotted spatula and place on paper towels to drain. Serve with tartar sauce or Dijon mustard. French fries, coleslaw and buttered corn on the cob are classic accompaniments. Wine? Forget it. Drink beer or iced tea.
MARYLAND STEAMED CRABS
If you want to try steaming crabs yourself, it's easy. You'll need live hard crabs, available in-season in Atlantic states from New Jersey to Florida and in Louisiana and Texas on the Gulf coast. Specialty markets in large cities may have them, too. You may also be able to have companies like the Crab Place in Crisfield, Md. ship live crabs to you. The later in the season, the fatter the crabs. Three dozen can feed six to 12 people, depending on your guests' enthusiasm for "picking" the creatures-breaking them apart with hands and mallets, and extracting the meat with their fingers.
3 dozen live hard crabs
3 cups white vinegar
3 cups water or beer
1/2 cup Old Bay seasoning
1/4 cup salt
Mix the liquids with the seasonings. Inside a large, high pot with a tight-fitting lid, place a rack tall enough to keep the liquid from touching the crabs. You do not want them to boil; only barbarians from the Gulf coast boil crabs. Place half the crabs in the pot, remembering that they are still alive, and their claws are weapons. Use tongs or wear rubber gloves. Pour half the seasoned liquid over the crabs. Repeat the process with the remaining crabs. Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Steam for 25-30 minutes, or until the shells have turned a fiery red. Serve hot or at room temperature, preferably spread on newspapers, with plenty of beer. Extra points for authenticity to those who use the Baltimore Sun, the Annapolis Capital or other Chesapeake region paper.