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!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

My Christmas present: an Avantco meat slicer

Losing one’s mind is never a good thing, and that was me back in mid-December. I was faced with too much to accomplish every day, so the pile of work waiting to be done just got larger and higher. Something had to be done!

Unfortunately, A Man for All Seasonings was one of the things I just had to take a pass on. Writing three blog postings a week (Type M for Murder, as well as Late Innings and this one) with occasional other guest blogs takes a lot of time and energy. Type M is more “work-related” which means it has to get done weekly, and with all the baseball trades and such, Late Innings needed my attention, too. So it was AMFAS that had to go into hibernation.

But now the days are getting longer, the sun is out (regardless that it’s cold as hell at the moment), and I find myself with some time to devote to the “neglected blog”. I hope you haven’t been pining too much during our absence!

Now this is going to seem like I’m reaching way back in time, but I got the most awesome Christmas gift ever. Here’s a photo of it:

Beautifully thin slices of our lonzino

That’s right. Your eyes are not deceiving you. My mother-in-law’s present to me this year is a real, honest-to-God deli meat slicer. Let me explain.

We buy and make a fair number of things that need slicing. Our home-cured lonzino (which we’re currently enjoying) needs to be sliced thinly, like prosciutto. That’s nearly impossible to do by hand, certainly well beyond my skills, and that’s what got me started on this search. But it’s silly to spend money to slice one of our home-cured meats. Now, however, we can also buy large chunks of salami, prosciutto, cheese, whatever (saving money) and be able to slice them easily and evenly. Since getting this machine, I find that we’re also slicing fruits and vegetables, too. It has proved to be much more of a help in the kitchen than I thought it would be.

I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes at the thought of having an appliance that’s this big, merely for slicing. Yes, that is a problem, expecially since our kitchen is a small one, but we have a solution. In the far corner stands a small “bar fridge” we inherited from Vicki’s studio. Usually it’s top is just a handy repository for junk: bags of potatoes, things that have to go into the basement, platters and trays. They’ve all now disappeared to where they should have been in the first place, and the top of the fridge is a perfect size for the slicer. Best of all, there’s an electrical outlet close by. We can keep the slicer out and ready to be used. It was packaged in its carton with a heavy plastic bag around it, so we kept that and use it to keep dust and dirt off the machine.

When I began to investigate getting something like this, I looked at the usual home-kitchen type ones, and found none of them really have enough power. Sharpening was also an issue in that the blade had to be removed and sent out. It quickly became obvious that something of a more professional level was the only thing worth buying. Hobart is one of the big manufacturers of deli slicers, but even a used one would have set us back a cool $800 at least, far too expensive for our budget.

I widened my internet search and came across a site ( that caters more to the trade than the domestic cook. In their slicer selection, they stock mostly the top-end Berkel and Hobart units, but they also stocked something that caught my eye immediately: a 9" Manual Gravity Feed Meat Slicer by a company called Avantco.

Some of our lonzino, perfectly sliced thinly!
This unit had good power (1/4 hp) and from the photos seemed to be well-made. The customer reviews were all positive (for what those are worth) and the manufacturer stated right off the top that this slicer was not meant for heavy duty output (hours of use per day). It also came with what looked like a good, built-in sharpening system for its 9" blade.

Having worked in restaurants, I know what good, solid construction is, and this unit seemed to have it. Best of all was the price: $269.99. I had looked at and disregarded home units that ran as high as $300+, so this looked like a real possibility.

So when my mother-in-law, the formidable Loraine, asked what we wanted for Christmas, I was ready. We have not been disappointed with our choice. The construction is mostly aluminum, cast or stamped, allowing for the lower cost, but the power is excellent (with an extra belt supplied for the motor/blade hook-up), cleaning very easy, and it slices from paper-thin to almost half an inch, plenty good for what we need. I haven’t used the sharpener yet, but it looks like it will be quick and easy to do.

We try to only buy the best for cooking. A cheap home-version of a pot or utensil just doesn’t compare to a pro version. They don’t stand up over time and they can give frustratingly uneven results. When we’re in the market for something, we usually buy at restaurant supply stores. This is an even more important factor when buying appliances. Anyone who has ever cooked on a professional range or used a professional appliance will know what I mean. (I really wish we had a Garland cooktop!) The Avantco slicer is a good saw-off for us: professional power and design, but at a nice price. To answer the question some of you no doubt have: yes, it’s made in China, but its quality is really quite good.

Stop by the Blechta Test Kitchens some time and we’ll slice up some paper-thin lonzino or prosciutto for you!