Dungeness Crab Cakes

Sweet Dungeness Crab – all you’ll want is a spritz of lemon.

For as long as I can remember I’ve ordered crab cakes in restaurants. They are, I think, the most difficult seafood fritter, patty or cake to get right. The best I’ve had were served at McCormick’s in Portland some years ago. They came with hollandaise sauce and I used to have them for breakfast with a cup of black coffee or a glass of Pinot Gris, after which I’d walk up the street to Powell’s to look at books or to write.

Thanks to the Dungeness in our freezer, I’ve been experimenting. Crab is difficult because it’s more important to get the seasonings right than with other seafood and then you’ve got to cook the cakes just so. If the cakes are very good, lemon is all you’ll want.

Dungeness Crab Cakes

Ingredients

  • ½ pound cooked Dungeness or Blue Crab meat. If it seems too wet, it is. Squeeze the excess moisture out with paper towel or through a strainer. Take extra care to make sure there is no shell.
  • seasonings: Crab is very sweet. It needs something. I use a blend of dried powdered peppers such as Aleppo, Ancho, Cayenne, Chipotle. The idea is that you want to balance the sweetness of the crab with something that pulls your pallet in a different direction. This actually serves to underscore the sweetness of crab, its signature trait. In addition to the above types of spice, smoked paprika, nutmeg and tarragon can also be added. Dill or fennel? I wouldn’t. I seldom spice anything exactly the same twice. The key here is the spicy pepper.
  • soy sauce: as desired
  • 1 or 2 shallots, diced fine, sautéed till soft in olive oil, removed from pan and set aside to cool
  • ¼ cup red bell pepper, diced, sautéed in olive oil, removed from pan and set aside to cool
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little soy sauce whisked in. Provided you don’t add too much spice to the cakes themselves, you can also add a couple shakes of Cholula here.
  • panko: approximately the same amount in volume as the crab meat. Start by mixing in about half the volume. That won’t feel like enough, so add more till it seems about right – not to wet, not too dry.
  • Olive oil and Butter

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the crab, seasonings, shallots, bell peppers, soy sauce and egg. Hands work best for this. Then mix in the panko. Shape the cakes into patties. Keep them fairly small so that they are easy to turn and they stay together.
  2. In a frying pan on medium heat, add enough olive oil and butter in equal parts to shallow-fry the cakes. When the oil is hot, set the timer for 4 minutes and add the cakes. Cover the pan and cook for 1 minute, then lower the temperature to a little below medium. It is important to check the cakes periodically to make sure the bottom side is browning the way you want.
  3. At 4 minutes, gently turn the cakes over and continue cooking uncovered. Occasionally spoon some of the oil-butter mixture on top of the cakes.

These are the best crab cakes I’ve ever had. All I ever want with them is a spritz of lemon. When Barbra and I pick a whole crab and dip it in herbed lemon-butter, we almost always go for a buttery, oaked Chardonnay. But these cakes want something lighter and more fruit forward, so Pinot Gris or similar pairs well.

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