Etta's Classic Dungeness Crab Cakes
We pick a Northwest classic straight from one of Douglas' restaurants to try first. It's not a simple recipe: The list of ingredients runs to 19 items. No wonder we can't see her counter.
We begin by cracking, washing and picking the meat from two fully cooked previously frozen Dungeness crabs. It's a time-consuming task and not one for the squeamish. (If sea creatures fill you with "Eew!" rather than "Ooh!" you may want to stick with canned or pre-picked crab.) Two crabs, about three and a half pounds in the shell, yield a bit more than the one pound of picked crabmeat we need for the recipe, so we freely sample the meat -- quality control, you see. The flavor is fabulous -- sweet and briny.
We chop and measure. We prepare fresh breadcrumbs in the food processor, a crucial tool for these recipes. We emulsify egg and seasonings and oil to make a mayonnaise-like blend that holds the cakes together. We split the tasks between us to save time, but the clock keeps ticking.
The mixture is colorful -- finely chopped red and green bell peppers and deep green parsley flash like bits of confetti. The chunks of crab are held together with the mayo-like mixture and a cup of breadcrumbs; more crumbs coat the outside.
We fry our cakes in lots of unsalted butter, adding flavor and creating a beautiful golden brown crust. A couple of hours into the process, we finally bring the first crab cakes to the table. They're fragrant and tender with a delicate crumb crust. The crab is not overwhelmed by either seasoning or filler; the cakes are beautiful, restaurant-quality, absolutely delicious, and exquisite with the sauvignon blanc. Cost per serving: About $7.
Anne M: These were great. I loved the contrast between the crab and the crunchy red and green pepper. I loved the crust -- probably because it was fried in butter. And the homemade-mayonnaise sauce-binder thing was fabulous. The flavors all went together nicely, with each ingredient complementing, rather than obliterating, the others. Although there was a lot of bread involved, I didn't find them too bread-y. Making this recipe with canned crab would cut the time in half, I think, and the results would be nearly as good.
Ann C: These were sublime -- although it took so long to make them that I would have eaten virtually anything by the time we were done. The fresh Dungeness crab was rich and sweet and salty, just the way it should be. Great blend of flavors: Worcestershire, lemon, thyme -- even Tabasco! If you used prepared mayo and canned crab, you could get these on the table much more quickly. But they're definitely a great dish to impress company!
The Costco Quickie
This is a crab cake for those short on time, named thusly because the crab -- Phillips brand pasteurized canned lump crabmeat -- and other ingredients are readily available at Costco.
Assembly goes much faster -- opening a can is way easier than opening a crab. The Quickie relies on a blend of egg, sour cream and grated cheddar cheese to bind the crab. The seasoning couldn't be simpler: chili powder and salt. That's it. Fresh breadcrumbs coat the outside.
Following Douglas' instructions, we fry these cakes in oil rather than butter. The cheese kind of oozes out on a couple of them, but before you can say "grilled cheese sandwich," all eight cakes are done and ready to be served. The cookbook suggests serving these with a tomatillo salsa on the side; Anne grabs a jar of salsa verde from the fridge, and we call it good. Cost per serving: About $5.
Anne M: The canned crab worked great -- it was less salty than the Dungeness and the texture was much closer to our fresh/frozen crab than I thought it would be. To me these would go well with an ice-cold brew, rather than with a delicate wine. These were manly crab cakes! But I didn't care for the mix of chili powder and crab. The two flavors competed in a way I didn't quite like. I did like the use of cheese as a binder. But for me, crab is enough of a delicacy that I don't like to cover up the flavor.
Ann C: The upside here was the quick assembly. And I didn't mind the chili powder; I thought it complemented the cheese, and I really liked the blend with the salsa verde. But to me, these weren't crab cakes; they were sort of Southwest-influenced crab fritters. The cheese and chili powder overwhelmed the crab. They tasted good, don't get me wrong, but they were more hearty than sublime. If I can't taste the crab, then it's not worth the money. n
I Love Crab Cakes!: 50 Recipes for an American Classic by Tom Douglas, with Shelley Lance, is available from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.