Note from Dan: I’ve been blitzed all day with emails from readers requesting my crab cakes recipe, an offer I made in Thursday’s column. It’s below, along with the story behind it.
There are many different kinds of crab cakes. Some incorporate heavy cream (occasionally whipped) or crumbled slices of bread. Other require ground ginger or Cajun seasoning. I’ve tried most of them.
Naturally, they are inferior to the greatest crab cake of all — the Maryland crab cake. And the best Maryland crab cakes I’ve ever had are the recipe below. It’s simple, contain NO flavor-killing filling, such as bead crumbs, and was cobbled from the best two different crab cakes I’ve eaten over the past 40 years.
The guts of it is my duplication of crab cakes that were sold at the lunch counter at (the long-since closed) Buddy Levy’s Capitol Drugs, an old-fashioned pharmacy on West Street in Annapolis., back in 1970s. It was across the street from the old headquarters of The (Annapolis) Capital newspaper. When I was 17, I worked in the mailroom there, stuffing inserts into newspapers and bundling papers for delivery.
On lunch breaks (when I wasn’t gambling with colleagues) I’d walk across the street to the drug store. Owner Buddy Levy was a bon vivant — some called him the Mayor of West Street. The queen of his lunch counter was a woman named Ada, who retired from Capitol Drugs when she was 80 or something like that. Her crab cakes cost something like $1.60 or $1.80, were cooked on a flat grill and served on toast. Ada would never give me the recipe. So I had to figure it out.
Later when I was going to college I worked part-time in a old-style full-service gas station owned by a guy named Joe Cunningham. He was a crazy wild man with a great big heart. His wife Diane made some crab cakes one day with spicy cornmeal coating and fed them to the station’s workers. They were delicious. So I put that coating on my approximation of Ada’s recipe. If you want to get real fancy, you could call them Dan’s Crab Cakes Ada a la Diane . . .
The basic reason most restaurants in most places have crummy crab cakes is they’re using canned crab from the Phillipines. It’s real cheap ($7-8 pound) but it lacks the right flavor and consistency of honest-to-goodness blue crab meat. Just about every restaurant in Roanoke uses the Asian stuff. Sometimes they put bread crumbs in the recipe. Most are inadequately seasoned. Mine are actually light on the Old Bay seasoning, which otherwise would easily overwhelm the cake. But the corn meal coating, seasoned with ground hot pepper, makes up for that. All the heat is on the outside, the flavor is on the inside.
Before I moved here from Annapolis in ’94, I used to catch my crabs and pick them to make the cakes. Of course, you can’t do that in the mountains. But you can buy decent fresh crab at a not-so-outrageous price at Sam’s Club. They have good backfin blue crab, from North Carolina, for $14 a pound. (News alert! This week they jacked the price to $17/lb). That’s what I’ve always used since I discovered it.
Recently Sam’s also started selling lump backfin for around $18 a pound, but I haven’t tried that yet. It’s from Mexico. I’ll probably use one of each in my next big batch. Here’s the recipe.
Dan Casey’s Famous Maryland Crab Cakes
2 lbs. backfin crab meat
1⁄3 red bell pepper, super finely minced
1⁄3 cup fresh parsley, finely minced
1 Tbsp. mayo
1⁄2 stick unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten
1 to 2 tsp. spicy brown mustard
3 to 4 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1 cup corn meal
1 tsp. ground habenero pepper (or 2 tsp. ground cayenne)
1⁄2 stick unsalted butter, melted
1. Carefully pick the shell out of the crab meat.
2. Mix all ingredients for the crab cakes together, including the melted unsalted butter, being careful not to separate the crab meat too much.
3. Mix the corn meal and habenero (or cayenne) pepper together in a separate bowl.
4. Form the crab cakes into 3-inch balls, then dust liberally with the coating mixture and form into patties. Refrigerate for 3 or more hours.
5. Put the crab cakes in the bottom of a broiler pan. Melt another 1⁄2 stick unsalted butter and pour over crab cakes. Broil on high until brown (15 or 20 minutes).
Note: When you mince the red bell pepper, there’ll be a lot of juice. Put the minced bell pepper in a paper towel and squeeze until it soaks up the juice.
Makes 10-12 crab cakes, depending on how big you make them. Serve with lemon wedges.