Thursday, January 31, 2013

Crab cakes, and the Younger connection

Crab cakes ready to enjoy.
When we really want to put on the dog around the Blechta abode, we have a few very special recipes that we pull out. For a super elegant and exceptional tasty first course (or main course for a luncheon), we turn to our crab cakes – especially if I want to put a huge smile on Vicki’s face – because she absolutely adores crab. Perhaps this is because she was born on Saint Swithuns Day (July 15th) and that puts her firmly in the House of Cancer. As long as you can taste the crab in a dish, she’s a happy camper.

And that’s where the problem comes in with crab. It is a very mild-tasting meat, delightful, yes, but forceful, certainly not. When this crustacean is used in a dish, you have to be exceptionally careful not to let the other ingredients overwhelm it.

David Younger
The “story behind the story” about the creation of this recipe starts with our late and sorely-missed friend, Mr. David Younger. If you know your beers of the British isles, yes, David was one of those Youngers: the brewers of Youngers Tartan Ale, long a staple in Scottish ale and beer establishments. The family had long been out of the brewing business when we met David very much by chance during a tour of Musica Viva, Vicki’s chamber music ensemble. His family owned Benmore, a large estate in Argyll just north of Dunoon in Glen Eck. Earlier in the 20th Century, his grandfather had given the family seat to the Scottish National Trust and it was quickly taken over by the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens because of the extensive gardens, specializing in rhododendrons, but also with a long avenue of giant sequoias leading to the main house. Believe me when I say that it is truly impressive. Look it up if you’re going to be over there. Benmore Botanic Garden (formerly Younger Botanic Garden) is open to the public.

The family kept the estate’s factor’s house just down the road from Benmore, and this is where David lived until his death a year ago.

Eckford House, Argyll, Scotland
If you look up “boon companion” in the dictionary, David’s photo should be there. He was wonderful company at all times with a terrifically developed sense of the absurd. We love gardening and David’s property had his extensive wild garden, featuring huge pines and over one hundred different kinds of rhodos, streaming down the hillside and surrounding the house. In April and May it was spectacular. Eckford House was not all that large, but had a wonderful wandering quality about it, with two separate upstairs (I imagine one for the servants and one for the family. Outside the kitchen, David had placed an old railway bench, the kind with thin slats running down its long length. Four people could sit on it very comfortably and look out across the glen to the high hills opposite. When the weather was favorable (and without midges), I can’t think of a better place to sit, drink some wine and talk with a good friend, especially David. The photo to the left is my favourite of David looking uncharacteristically solemn. He wasn’t.

He also loved music, especially Mozart, and absolutely the operas of the Austrian wunderkind. So for one of our last visits with him, we decided to have a special opera night with a video of Don Giovanni, a special supper between acts and desserts afterward. We dubbed it “Glyndebourne Comes to Eckford”. David invited a good friend, we all got dressed up – and even the weather cooperated!

All the ingredients, ready to mix.
Problem was, we hadn’t come up with any kind of menu to suit the occasion. We could have fallen back on the usual picnic sandwiches (smoked salmon, cucumber, egg salad) and all that goes with it, but that didn’t strike us as being, well, elegant enough for our soirée. Then Vicki made big eyes at me and said, “Could we have crab cakes?” I have never been able to resist those eyes, so of course I answered, “Yes!”

 Trouble was, I didn’t have a recipe for crab cakes in my head, and we had none of our cookbooks with us.

David had a small shelf of cookbooks. Among them I found one that had recipes from New England. Good place to start. And shazam! There was a crab cake recipe. Trouble was, it didn’t look very inspiring – but it might provide a good jumping off point.

This is the texture you want.
I thought on this for a day or two and then we went into Dunoon to hit the shops. Many of the ingredients in the recipe below were present that first time, but the amounts differed by a fair bit. Still, I must have done something right because everyone tucked in happily to the hot cakes just out of the frying pan, a bit of lemon juice squeezed on, accompanied by a nice loaf of crusty bread, a lovely tossed salad Vicki made, and of course, champagne!

I should have made notes, though, because by the time we returned home, I had little to no idea what I’d done.

About four years ago now, I again got the big eyes and a request for crab cakes, and the time was right to recreate what I’d done, improve on it if I could, and come up with a master recipe for The Blechta Crab Cake.

Ready to be served!
Now I know many of you will recoil in horror, but over the course of a few weekends, we went through about three pounds of crab. It got so detailed that I would make six crab cakes, each subtle change to the recipe, and then fry up the multiple versions (all labelled with little flags) and then we (Vicki, our son Jan and I) would sit down, discuss each variation as we ate them (with me keeping notes). Eventually, we came up with a version that we thought was the best.

And today, I’m going to share it with you. In all humbleness, I think it’s probably the best thing I make, and everyone for whom we’ve served these crab cakes say they’re the best they’ve ever eaten. The bread crumbs on the outside give the cakes a wonderful crispiness and the flavors all work together to highlight the delicate flavor of the crab meat. I don’t know if I believe them, but it’s nice to get that kind of accolade now and then

These are best made and cooked fresh, but you can freeze them or keep them in the fridge to cook another day, just as long as they’re served right out of the frying pan! They’re excellent with a Reisling, a Gewürztraminer – or especially champagne.

And please think of our friend David if you make them.

The Blechta Crab Cake
Serves 4-6

8 oz crab meat
¾ cup fresh white bread crumbs (Do not use dry bread crumbs. You’ll be really sorry.)
2 Tbs shallots, minced
¼ tsp Cayenne pepper
¾ tsp fresh tarragon
½ tsp Spanish paprika
¼ tsp salt
a good grinding of white pepper
¼ cup chives, chopped finely
¼ cup red bell pepper, minced
1 Tbs freshly grated lemon rind
4 Tbs mayonnaise (preferably homemade)
1 egg, beaten
more bread crumbs for coating
2-4 Tbs olive oil (the good stuff)

1. Pick through crab meat carefully for pieces of cartilage. Pull apart any large pieces of meat. You don’t want the meat shredded to infinity, but you don’t want huge chunks, either.

2. Using a fork, lightly mix together thoroughly all ingredients except for the olive oil and extra bread crumbs. Refrigerate tightly covered for 1 hour to allow the flavors to develop. If it seems a little wet after this time, add a slight bit more breadcrumbs.

3. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 400°. Divide crab mixture into 8 or 12 portions and form into ¾" thick patties. Coat with the extra bread crumbs just before cooking. Only use a small amount of pressure to get them to stick.

4. On a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, bake the crab cakes for 10 minutes in the center of the oven. This will allow the middle of them to set.

5. Using a skillet, finish the crab cakes in some good quality olive oil (we prefer the “spicier” kind you get when green olives are pressed) over medium-low heat until they’re golden brown on both sides. Remove to heated plates and keep them warm in the cooling-down oven while you finish browning the other cakes, but they’re best sent to the table immediately when the bread crumb crust is really crispy.

6. Serve with lemon wedges (a few drops pulls all the flavors together). Lately, we’ve been serving this with aioli sauce and it’s really marvelous. A salad of baby greens makes a nice accompaniment.

Note: We buy crab meat from our favorite fish monger at the St. Lawrence Market, and it comes in one-pound tubs. I generally make a double recipe, stopping at the point where I would slip the cakes into the oven. Simply put your baking sheet in the freezer for a few hours, take out the cakes and wrap them tightly in plastic. They’ll keep in the cold for a few months – but I’ll bet they don’t last that long!


Vicki Delany said...

Yum, yum...

Rick Blechta said...

They really are delicious and the crunch on the outside is an added bonus. Best of all, they're not hard to make.

One thing I should have added is the brand of bread we use for the bread crumbs the recipe calls for. Normally, I never buy white bread, but for this, I think it's needed. If you live in Canada (at least in Ontario), the “Italiano” brand plain white bread works very well. It's quite dense (unlike Wonderbread) and crumbs nicely with a few seconds in a blender. The crusts should be trimmed off for best results. We use these leftovers to either feed the birds or I dry them then make dried bread crumbs out of them.