Crab Cakes of the Chesapeake Bay

Recently, we had dinner with a friend from Virginia at the impeccable Bistro Niko. An order of fresh raw oysters for the table turned the conversation toward the Chesapeake Bay and the sustainability of its marine life which is in fact the subject of an interstate summit just this week.

Blue crab on oyster reef in the Chesapeake Bay
Due to over-fishing and pollution, the Chesapeake Bay oyster and blue crab populations have significantly decreased over the last decade. Bay oysters create 50 times the hard habitat surface (reef) of a mudflat of the same size which provides needed habitats for sponges, sea squirts, and small crabs and fishes. Oysters are also critical to the Bay biome as filter feeders. Blue crabs are major predators of benthic communities and serve as food for many other types of fish. Both species are necessary for the unique brackish ecosystem. Beginning in 2007, the harvesting of oysters and blue crabs was limited on the Bay. Thanks to these limitations, experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have announced that Chesapeake Bay blue crabs have made a remarkable recovery and restrictions on the capture of these delicious crustaceans have been lessened. Scientists are cautiously optimistic about the restoration of the oyster population as well. (To help "Save the Bay", click here!)

Talk of the Chesapeake Bay reminded me of the wonderful summers that I spent there with my grandparents as a teenager. The mornings consisted of helping my grandfather in the garden weeding, deadheading, and appreciating his gardening masterpiece. He considered himself the "Degas of dirt." I must give Gramps his due props; he was ahead of the curve in the home horticultural arena. While his neighbors were planting ubiquitous crops like okra and watermelon, he had rows of fennel, arugula, and spaghetti squash.

As a reward for taking her place in the daily garden appreciation ritual, Grams would put together a picnic lunch consisting of a Strawberry Shastas, apples, New England-style crab rolls filled with chucks of fresh blue crabmeat mixed with aioli (homemade garlic mayonnaise,) finely minced celery and a pinch of Old Bay* seasoning in top-loading buns, and a bag of Lay’s potato chips layered over ice in a galvanized fishing pail (which could later be used to bail water if necessary) and covered with a couple of ratty old dish cloths that doubled as a place mats. We would grab the pail and steer the dingy dinghy out to a sandbar that we pretended was our own private island.

Ian McShane as Blackbeard
in Disney's Piratres of the Caribbean:
On Stranger Tides
It is well known that the Chesapeake Bay was a popular hiding place for pirates seeking seclusion. Even Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, sometimes used the shelter of the Eastern Shore to prepare his ship Queen Anne's Revenge for sea. Though he traveled far and wide, the Virginia cape area proved to be fertile pirating grounds in the off-season. This made for the fantastical adventuring on our sandbar. I wonder if the ratty old dish towel that we embedded as a flag to mark our conquering of the island still stands today or if our haven was surmounted by a subsequent crew of scurvy scallywags.

When the allure of plundering had worn off, we would “sail” back across the Bay and spend the rest of the hot lazy afternoon teasing crabs with chicken necks and a piece of string. Those we caught were added to the collection.

When we had enough for the whole family, we would steam them and put them out on a newspaper covered table top with corn on the cob which had been boiled in the Old Bay*-spiked water. The following morning it was my job to pick all the leftover decapods and amass a quantity of intraskeletal meat large enough for Grams to make her famous crab meat quiche or succulent crab cakes. It was well worth bleeding from the numerous minute cuts and the mild swelling from the continued contact with the chitin-ladened shells.

From those summer experiences, I developed a serious penchant for all things crabby. Not for uncooperative people with the disagreeable tendency to complain bitterly or the acid-red imitation crabmeat typically found in grocery store sushi rolls (which is made from an artificially-flavored paste of minced and rinsed Alaskan Pollock called “surimi”), but for any food item that contains the succulent real crabmeat. For instance, gazpacho goes from flavorsome to luxurious when garnished with a dollop of crab meat. Over the years, Dom has perfected his crab cake recipe which rivals any I have had past or present (including Gram’s.) And while SpongeBob's boss, Mr. Krabs is obsessed with keeping his formula for “Krabby Patties” a secret, Dom is allowing me to share his recipe here:

  • 1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over
  • 4 scallions, green part only, minced (about ½ cup)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh herbs (dill, basil or parsley), chopped
  • 1½ teaspoons Old Bay seasoning*
  • 2-4 tablespoons bread crumbs (Dom likes Panko)
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • Salt and ground white pepper
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • ½ cup flour
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

Gently mix together crabmeat, scallions, herbs, Old Bay*, bread crumbs, and mayonnaise in a large mixing bowl. Be careful not to break up the crab. Big lumps of crabmeat are what make these cakes SO good. Season with salt and pepper and then carefully fold in the egg with crab mixture until it just clings together. The amount of bread crumbs you add will depend on the juiciness of the crabmeat. Start with the smallest amount, and then add the egg. If the cakes won’t bind together at this point, then add some more bread crumbs, one tablespoon at a time.

Divide the crab mixture into six portions and shape each into a fat, round cake, about 2 inches across and 1½ inches high. Arrange the chubby little cakes on a baking sheet lined with waxed paper, cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes. As little as a half an hour in the refrigerator will make an ocean of difference. The cold firms the cakes so that they fried into perfect plump rounds without falling apart.

Put the flour on a plate or in a pie tin and lightly dredge the crab cakes in the flour. Heat the vegetable oil in large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Vegetable oil creates a crisp crust, and never obstructs the crab flavor. Gently lay the chilled crab cakes in the skillet and sauté about 4 to 5 minutes per side (until the surfaces are crisp and brown). Drain quickly on paper towels and serve hot drizzled with:

Creamy Mustard Sauce
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 cup whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh basil, finely chopped

Heat the wine and shallots in a saucepan over heat and cook until the liquid evaporates (about 4 minutes). Reduce the heat to medium and add the whipping cream and cook until the mixture is reduced to about 1 cup (about 2 minutes). Add mustard and herbs,  and simmer for another 2 or so minutes to blend flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Drizzle over crab cakes or serve on the side.

*Old Bay Seasoning is produced in the Chesapeake Bay area and marketed by McCormick & Company. It was originally created by Gustav Brunn (a German immigrant) in the 1940s when crabs were so plentiful that bars in Baltimore, Maryland offered spicy crabs for free to encourage patrons to purchase more beverages.