Reports that things are looking up for the Chesapeake Bay and that blue crabs will be big and plentiful this season sealed the deal for the subject today: a crab-athon.
The theme coincided nicely with my niece Ava's high school graduation at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. The family, 12 in all, assembled for two days of fun. Responsibilities for Friday night's dinner fell to me, with steamed crabs at the heart of the menu. They are Ava's favorite.
From a host's perspective, the most appealing part of the crab feast-themed party is the practice of papering the table: The usual dinner party niceties of flowers and such are not required. Beer can be swigged straight from the bottle, and rolls of paper towels can take the place of cloth napkins.
My father marveled at my niece's fierce determination and focus as she made her way through six or seven extra-large crabs, leaving only a small pile of cleanly picked shells in front of her.
"She picks through them like a surgeon," he said. "Doesn't leave a speck of meat." Although he admired the effort, it wasn't for him: "I just don't have the patience for it."
And that's the thing about crabs. Some people relish the challenge, while others find that the payoff doesn't justify all the work. Maybe it's the puzzler in me, but I fall into the former group, using my hands, a nutcracker, a mallet and sometimes even my teeth to reach a clump of pure meat. There is something tremendously satisfying about savoring one's own effort, especially when it's dripping in melted butter.
The rewards didn't end there. For the next night, I had been asked to take an appetizer to a friend's birthday dinner. Thinking ahead, I held back some of the crab cake mixture from my family party and used it to make mini crab cakes, which I sauteed at my host's house. And all those crab shells loaded with Old Bay were used to make quarts of terrific stock, with celery, onion and thyme thrown in. I refrigerated the shells overnight in a pot with a tight-fitting lid, but you could tie them up in a double-thickness of plastic bags to keep the odor from permeating your fridge.
Freezing the stock in small amounts, say three cups, allows you to use it for a variety of applications, but I have only one in mind for summer: There's a mighty fine pot of gumbo just waiting to be made.
Makes 12 (4-ounce) cakes
Make Ahead: The crab cake mixture can be prepped a day in advance. The cakes can be formed several hours before cooking.
3 pounds jumbo lump crab meat
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon (1 tablespoon)
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered mustard
1 tablespoon Old Bay seasoning
6 scallions, white and light-green parts, finely chopped ( 3/4 cup)
Leaves from 1/2 small bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped ( 3/4 cup)
1/2 large jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped (1 tablespoon)
Leaves from 12 to 15 stems cilantro, finely chopped
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups regular or low-fat mayonnaise (do not use nonfat)
6 tablespoons canola oil
Working with 1 pound of crab meat at a time, spread it on a baking sheet and carefully go through all of it to pick out and discard any bits of shell or cartilage. Take care to leave the lumps intact as much as possible. Transfer the picked crab to a large bowl.
Add the Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, mustard, Old Bay, scallions, parsley, jalapeno and cilantro to the bowl. Use a flexible spatula or your clean hands (better) to gently fold the mixture without breaking up the lumps of crabmeat.
Beat the eggs in a separate large bowl, then add the mayonnaise and mix well. Gently fold into the crab mixture until thoroughly incorporated.
Set a strainer inside a large bowl, fill the strainer with the crab cake mixture and cover it with plastic wrap; refrigerate for at least several hours or up to overnight. Discard the liquid in the bowl; there should be about 1/2 cup.
To form the crab cakes, weigh 4-ounce mounds of the drained crab mixture and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Place a 3-inch round biscuit cutter in the corner of a separate baking sheet. Pressing firmly, pack a mound of the crab mixture into the cutter to form a crab cake. Move the cutter a half-inch away from the cake you just formed and repeat the process to form the remaining crab cakes. (Alternatively, use your hands to form 12 cakes that are 3 inches wide and 3/4-inch thick.) The cakes should be fairly dry and sturdy; cover them and refrigerate until ready to cook.
Place a large baking sheet in the oven; preheat to 200 degrees.
Heat half of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil shimmers. Carefully place 6 of the crab cakes in the skillet and cook undisturbed for 3 to 4 minutes, until the bottoms are well-browned. Use a large, thin spatula to turn the cakes over; cook for 3 minutes or until they are browned on the second side. Transfer them to the oven to keep warm while you cook the remaining batch of crab cakes.
Wipe out the skillet, then heat the remaining oil over medium heat and repeat the cooking process. Discard the remaining oil in the skillet. Serve warm.
6 to 8 servings
6 tablespoons unsalted butter ( 3/4 stick) or olive oil
1 large onion, cut into small dice (1 to 1 1/4 cups)
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into small dice (1 cup)
1 pound okra, trimmed and cut crosswise into thin slices (about 4 1/2 cups)
1 medium clove garlic, minced (1 teaspoon)
2 quarts fish or crab stock
4 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and cut into small dice, with their juices (may substitute 12 ounces canned diced tomatoes with their juices)
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Leaves from 1 or 2 stems thyme, minced (2 teaspoons; may substitute 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup uncooked white medium-grain rice
1 pound fresh or pasteurized crab meat (lump, backfin or claw), picked free of shells and cartilage
Heat the butter or oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, okra and garlic; cook for 15 minutes, stirring, until softened. Add the stock, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, thyme and bay leaf. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Stir.
Add the rice and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add the crab meat and cook for 5 minutes, stirring gently to keep from breaking up the lumps of crab.
Discard the bay leaf. Divide among individual bowls; serve hot.
-- Adapted from "Chesapeake Bay Cooking With John Shields" (Broadway, 1998).