I come from a family of crab lovers. I'm a crab lover. I was probably six or seven when I remember my first taste of crab, it was Christmas Eve. Every year my parents and I would drive about 20 minutes to the Nautical Mile of Freeport on the south shore of Long Island and hand pick the seafood for our feast of seven fishes. We'd drive home to the sounds of live blue crabs clicking and clacking together crawling around in their thick paper bags. It was by far the most exciting time of the year. Today, I still love crab but sometimes I'm too lazy to bother with the mess of it. Even if I'm not eating it directly from the shell, it takes time and effort to dig through a tub of lump crab before forming it into patties, stuffing it into a mushroom or folding it into a sauce that will eventually be tossed with pasta. I paid a visit to the newly opened East End Market this weekend (which is totally amazing, is already changing my life and is exactly what Orlando has needed for years now) and took a spin through the La Brexta Spanish seafood provisions stand. There I picked up some local crab meat from Clayton's, where they've been crab catching along Florida's Indian River for over 40 years. There are so many things one could do with crab but I craved the ever simple crab cake. I brought it home and began to pick through the meat for any stray shells. I chopped and sautéed and formed little cakes to set in the fridge. As I was making these I couldn't help but recall a very funny story. I guess it was about 10 years ago now, I took a trip down to see my parents in south Florida. To my dismay, they decided to settle along the west coast in Naples, where the restaurant scene is mediocre at best. The better majority of eating establishments are significantly overpriced for sub par food. Luckily during my stay, I happened to be down there for an all you can eat crab leg weekend. On that fateful Saturday night, my parents, brothers and I set out to do some major damage at the crab house. That poor waiter had no idea what he'd be in for when we walked in, but within 30 minutes he had a pretty good sense for our crustacean adoration. We wrapped our plastic bibs around our necks and as the first platter of cherry red legs arrived, we reached in and began cracking and splitting shells like pros. As silence fell over our table, it was about focus and the concentration of creating that precise crack that would yield the rare chunk of flawlessly intact claw meat without shredding it to pieces. If you're familiar with the art of crab leg eating, then you understand how exciting it is to brag amongst your crowd about that epic piece when you carefully pull it from its shell. You boastfully immerse that whole chunk slowly into the warm clarified butter while everybody stares in awe wishing to pull their next piece with the same steady hand. It's a masterful achievement. It wasn't long into our dinner before a mess of shells filled our table and landed on around our feet. Claws, pieces of shell and squirts of lemon sprayed into the air and rained down on us for hours. It was a glorious mess. As we arrived home, we patted our full bellies and preemptively knocked back gallons of water while waiting patiently for the sodium overdose to swell our hands like baseball mitts.
The next day, we enjoyed a leisurely morning that gave way to a light lunch. I packed the car and prepared for the three hour ride home, a new workweek was closing in. On Monday, I walked into work with coffee in hand and got settled. I remember my boss leaning over my cube to ask how the weekend was and as we chatted, that's when I was suddenly hit with something. Ambiguous wafts of rancid air seemed to blow through from time to time. I paused and asked my boss if she detected what I was getting and she agreed something wasn't right. We ignored it for awhile and went about our morning. As the hours rolled on, the intensity seemed more frequent. At the time, we worked with a middle-aged woman (let's call her Mary) who was never known for outstanding hygiene, in fact I believe she might've even been talked to at one point. Anyway, I started to wonder if she might to blame. Horrible, I know. But what else could it have been?
By noon, it was constant. Mary left for lunch while my boss and I remained baffled by this mysterious odor. We weren't going anywhere until we located the source. Our building was fairly new at the time so we didn't rule out a dead rodent in a wall somewhere but still, it didn't have that sort of smell. The nose stinging scent could only be best described as rotting fish. Now this will sound awful I know, but at one point in an act of sheer desperation, my boss and I actually moved Mary's chair into another office and swapped it with a new one, thinking this might fix the problem once and for all. It didn't. Around 1pm, we gave up and were ready to contact building maintenance. I was starving and wanted to grab a sandwich first, so I opened my lower desk drawer to get my purse. SMACK!!! My eyes watered when I pulled that drawer open, I was slapped with the most horrific smell I've ever encountered. This "thing" was in my drawer the whole time. I pulled my purse out of the way to get to the back of the drawer but that's when I realized it was the purse that smelled so bad!!! What in the hell was I going to pull from this bag that would cause this atrocious smell? I was nervous and my boss watched as I slowly sifted through. Lo and behold (and please do imagine this in slow motion for the sake of dramatics), I extracted a fairly large hollowed out claw from the tiny zipperless pocket of my purse interior. But how in the world did this happen??? As I retraced my steps, I figured it out.
In three short storyboards, here's how it played out: With my purse slung over the chair at the crab house, this claw must have somehow fallen into the pocket during the shell cracking frenzy and managed to go completely unnoticed the entire weekend. I emptied the contents of the purse into a plastic bag and tossed it in the trash. To this day, this still remains one of my favorite stories.
By the way, the crab cakes were delicious. I know there's like a million ways you can prepare them and everybody has their favorite, here's how I made these.
1lb lump crab meat
1 clove garlic (chopped)
1 shallot (chopped)
1 tablespoon butter
1 jalapeno (chopped)
1/2 red bell pepper (chopped)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 egg yolk
1/4 squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup cream (whipped)
2 tablespoons cilantro (chopped)
1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil for frying
- Melt the butter in a sautée pan. Add the garlic, shallot, jalapeno, red pepper and cook till translucent and set aside to cool.
- While the mixture is cooling, whip up the cream (as you would regular whipped cream) and set it in the fridge. By the way, if you aren't using real whipped cream this isn't an opportunity to use crap from a can. Most crab cake recipes use mayo and I chose not to which is why I swapped it for cream but don't expect to get the same result unless you use real fresh cream.
- Put the crab meat in a large bowl and mix in the egg yolk, lemon juice, paprika. Once tossed together, add the breadcrumbs and sautée mixture. Finally, fold in the cream and cilantro and add sea salt and pepper to taste.
- Line a baking sheet with tinfoil and start forming tightly packed patties to desired size. I ended up with 8. Set in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
- Add the vegetable oil to a pan on med-high. I always hit the oil with a tiny drop of water to see if it sizzles, that's how I know it's ready.
- Add a bit more of the panko on a big plate and press each crab cake on both sides to get a nice coating of the breadcrumbs. Start frying till golden on one side, then flip. These fry up pretty quickly so watch over carefully, it's usually about 3-4 minutes on the first side and another 2 minutes or so on the other. I like to set them on another baking sheet lined with paper towels to absorb any excess oil before moving them to their final tray.
- I then set them in the oven at 350 for about 10 minutes. Devour immediately. I brought these to a friend's house last night and served them with a tangy lime sour cream.
Oh, one last thing, Florida stone crab season officially opened last month. I haven't sunk my teeth into any of its crabby goodness yet, but hopefully will soon. This time though, I'll remember to proceed cracking with caution!