The recent (and unseasonable) warm weather has had me thinking about summer. Last July, my partner and I packed up our two kids and road tripped down to Maryland to visit family and museum hop in our nation’s capitol. We managed to arrive just in time for a stifling heat wave – dead air and record-breaking humidity. If you spent any more then an hour in the sun, you ran the risk of spontaneous combustion. (At least, it felt that way). But none of that stopped us from experiencing something coastal Marylanders have been enjoying for ages: the revered blue crab.
But first we had to catch them.
My uncle Charlie keeps his boat at a small marina tucked into Solomon’s Island. He and my aunt MaryBeth run small-scale crabbing charters on the Patuxent River, a vein that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay. They offer visitors a chance to experience crabbing, share in the history of the area, and indulge in an amazing feast.
So before the sun had even came up on our first hazy morning there, the six of us had lowered our first bait bag, strung to a weighted line, into the water. The line was hooked and threaded through a funnel-like contraption affixed to the side of the boat. Once all the line was out, the boat swung back to the starting point, which was marked with a buoy.
As one person watched the line and shouted “crab on” as the catch came into sight, a second stood ready with a net to scoop the crustaceans off the bait as they came up out of the water. With a quick, quiet scoop, you net the crab before it drops off the bait, toss it into the cooler, and get ready for the next catch.
Click any image below to launch the gallery.
It all happens very quickly, but once you find your rhythm, it’s addicting. In between rounds of baiting and dropping the line, the crabs are sorted; the females and undersized are thrown back to breed and grow. Strict laws govern the Chesapeake to avoid overfishing and consequent depletion of the natural habitat of birds and other creatures. On our recreational adventure, we were permitted one bushel of crabs, which was more then enough for all of us to feast on.
Once back home, the crabs were kept cold in the refrigerator until cooking time. Nothing more then a bit of Old Bay Seasoning went into the pot with the crabs, but what came out was fresh and briny with just the right amount of spice. We had to work for that sweet, tender crab meat by smashing, hammering, cracking the shells with our wooden mallets. It’s a messy but a rewarding part of the experience – and one my kids won’t soon forget. With a full stomach and the satisfaction of a successful new adventure, I sipped my beer and imagined all of the dishes I’d create with crabmeat.
Which brings me back to the unseasonably warm February day when, inspired by my craving for a taste of summer, I made the recipe below. Charlie had been gracious enough to share his recipe for Maryland blue crab cakes, and they were the perfect fit for my mood. You don’t need to use fresh crab here; lump crab meat will yield an excellent flavor. Fresh herbs, however, will make a difference.
It’s a simple recipe meant to highlight the spectacular flavor of the crab. So even though I couldn’t put my crabbing skills back to work, this batch of briny crab cakes brought me back to that summer day.
Charlie and M.B.’s Maryland blue crab cakes
makes 8 crab cakes
1 cup lump crab meat (look for it in the seafood section or at your fish market)
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1 tablespoon fresh parsley or cilantro, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 slice stale white bread or 1/4 cup of oyster crackers, blended into breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
1–2 dashes Tabasco
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon butter
Yogurt sauce (optional)
2 tablespoons plain greek yogurt
1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
1 teaspoon fresh parsley or cilantro, chopped
2 dashes Tabasco
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice (key limes also work nicely)
To make the sauce:
Stir together all ingredients until they are well mixed. Set aside to allow flavors to combine.
To make the crab cakes:
In a medium mixing bowl, gently stir together the first eight ingredients until thoroughly combined.
Heat the canola oil and butter in a skillet over medium-high heat then lower to medium-low once melted (and before smoking). Scoop a tablespoon of the crab mixture and, using your hands, form it into a ball then slightly flatten it into a pancake shape. Place the crab cake in the skillet and cook 3–4 minutes on each side, or until golden and crisp on the outside. Repeat until the mixture is gone. As cakes finish cooking, remove from pan and place on a tray or plate lined with paper towels to soak up excess oil.
Serve immediately, on their own or over greens, and with a dollop of yogurt sauce, if desired. A dash of Tabasco sauce and a cold beer should also be within reach!
Cook’s note: The crab cakes can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week in the fridge.