I thought crab cakes were an invention of the modern world until I realized we’d been making them all along. Here in Louisiana, ours were a little different; we just stuffed them into crab shells.
About 10 years ago, I attended a food writers conference in Baltimore. To hear those Baltimore people talk, you would have thought that a blue crab couldn’t live anyplace else. But then I learned that most of the crab meat we were eating while in Baltimore had come from Louisiana. The crabs from the Chesapeake Bay, they said, had been shipped to New York.
Well, I didn’t know whether that was a compliment or not, but I have to hand it to them. They do know how to make a good crab cake whether using our crab meat or theirs. The secret? Use almost all crab meat and very little of anything else.
Crab cakes are now all over the menus in New Orleans restaurants, but when it comes to crab, chefs don’t have anything on the home cooks who used to pick their crabs and stuff the shells for a Friday-night supper on the bayou. Some family member probably caught those crabs earlier in the day, so their crab meat would be fresher than you could eat in a restaurant.
That was and still is the beauty of cooking in Louisiana. You just can’t beat the fresh ingredients we have in the water around us. In the city, where few of us catch anything ourselves, we only have to stop in a seafood store to buy crabs, shrimp and oysters that scuttled around the marshes the night before. The peak season for crabs is May through October, and Louisiana is second only to the Chesapeake Bay area in the production of blue crabs.
Another thing about Louisianans is that we appreciate the whole crab – none of that throwing away the delicious yellow fat in the center. I’ve heard it said many times: “That’s the best part.” Nor would we discriminate against the claw meat or backfin meat. It’s not inferior, we just use it in different ways. Many cooks prefer claw meat for stuffing crabs because claw meat is sweeter, not to mention less expensive.
Seafood stores around town offer three types of crab meat by the pound: jumbo lump, backfin lump, and claw, and prices fluctuate according to availability. But you can usually get a good pound of backfin lump for around $15. All of it must be examined closely for pieces of shell, which could ruin a good dish. Because the shell and meat are both white, you almost have to do this with your fingertips, a job for which you might as well pull up a chair and sit down because it’ll take at least 15 minutes. Spring for the jumbo lump, and you’ll have very little picking to do.
In the early days, Creoles called crab cakes croquettes. They contained essentially the same ingredients as now, except for the Tony Chachere’s or Old Bay seasoning. Instead, they used fresh thyme, parsley and bay leaf. The same ingredients went into stuffed crabs, but croquettes were fried; stuffed crabs were baked. A dish called deviled crabs was stuffed with a similar mixture that included hard-boiled eggs, cream and nutmeg. These were finished off by either baking or frying. Another variation of the stuffed crab/crab cake is the crab ball, a golf-ball-size version that sometimes fills in on a seafood platter. Like deviled crabs, they can be fried or baked.
The crab cake should be 90 percent lump crab meat with just enough bread crumbs to hold it together. Standing alone, it relies on pure taste to make its mark. The stuffed crab, on the other hand, is an interesting item on a plate, all dressed up in its bright red armor. A little more dressing or filling can be tolerated as long as the sweet crab meat and proper seasonings shine.
If you want to stuff the crab shells, then you’ll have to buy some boiled crabs and pick them yourself. You can always save a few from a crab boil. If you’re shell-less, then go with the crab cake. It’s easy, delicious and elegant for a dinner party.
1 pound lump crab meat (backfin or jumbo)
1 large egg, beaten
1 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 slices bread, toasted and crumbled in a food processor
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
Spread crab meat out on a plate or waxed paper and use your fingertips to feel for pieces of shell. Try not to break it apart too much. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine egg, mayonnaise, Worcestershire, dry mustard, seasonings and parsley. Stir in the crumbled bread slices.
Divide mixture into 6 portions and shape each into a patty about 1 inch thick. In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil to medium-hot.
Roll crab cakes lightly in seasoned bread crumbs and sauté about 3 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Crab cakes can be served alone or with a sauce such as tartar or remoulade. Serves 6 as an appetizer, 3 as an entrée.
1 dozen boiled crabs
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1/4 cup finely chopped bell pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon each salt, pepper and Creole seasoning
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup plus 1/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs
Pick crabs, saving meat and fat. Clean the shells of 6 to 8 crabs, depending on size, discarding everything else. Set aside.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large, heavy skillet and sauté the onion, celery and bell pepper until soft. Add garlic and sauté briefly.
In a medium bowl, mix crab meat and fat, parsley, egg, onion mixture, seasonings, lemon juice and 1 cup of bread crumbs. Divide into 6 to 8 portions. Stuff mixture into shells and top with remaining bread crumbs. Dot with remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, cut into bits.
Bake in a preheated 350° oven until stuffed crabs are nicely browned, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serves 3-4.