Today: Crab cakes -- hold the bread, please.
The worst thing you can do to a crab cake is not to trust it to be itself.
Somewhere along the line we started plumping up our crab cakes till they were the size of small hamburgers. This positioned them as a very grand, coveted appetizer, and they were bedazzled with chipotle aiolis and such.
Of course, a hamburger made entirely of crab would be terribly expensive, so at that size it probably seemed sensible to supplement with bread, torn or crumbed, to inflate the real thing like the silicone and collagen that prop up poor Real Housewives everywhere.
But aren't we over super-sizing by now? Better a small, concentrated bite of goodness than a heap larded with fluff. Just ask a proud New Englander like Merrill, and she will tell you about these: her all-time favorite crab cake, which she served often in her catering days.
Brigit Binns, the author of 25 cookbooks, didn't grow up eating crab cakes like Merrill did, yet she knew what she was looking for when she set out to develop this recipe for Williams-Sonoma Hors d'Oeuvre -- the first of 12 (or maybe 13) books she's written for Williams-Sonoma.
"When I started my research, every recipe I could find had bread crumbs in the mix, usually a lot. Fresh, dry: always the damn bread crumbs. We are not talking meatloaf, here!" Binns wrote to me in an email. "I got very obsessive, and have a file called 'crab cake chronicles', documenting all my research and justifications."
In her quest, she came up with a delightful binder: cream reduced until it's sweet and thick with soft, finely-cut onions and celery. Its taste is reminiscent of a New England clam chowder.
This simple, rich base is cooled, then mixed with an egg, some Dijon mustard and chopped pimientos, and a pound of lump crabmeat. There's a little sweetness and a little zing, but mostly just crab. Binns makes her cakes golf ball-sized. Not hamburger-sized.
The only bread crumbs here are dusted on the outside of those little golf balls. The crumbs fuse to the filling as the cakes chill and set up for an hour or so. (On photo shoot day we were in a hurry, so they went in the freezer for about 20 minutes instead -- no harm done!) Either way, as soon as the cakes hit the hot oil in your frying pan, this thin crumb coating browns into a crisp jacket for the lovely crab.
This recipe is a perfect showcase for your finest, in-season crab (Merrill likes peekytoe). And sure, you can roast your own red bell peppers if you like. But we made these with some good quality canned crab and jarred pimientos, and they still turned out to be fresh little bites of summer -- great news for people far from crabs, or crab season.
At this point all you need is a spritz of lemon. Save the chipotle aioli for something more exotic and just let the crab do its thing.
Adapted slightly from Williams-Sonoma Hors d'Oeuvre (Free Press, 2001)
Makes 12-14 warm bites
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon water, if needed
1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml) heavy (double) cream
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped jarred pimiento (sweet pepper)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1lb (500 g) lump crabmeat
1 1/4 cups (5 oz/155 g) fine dried bread crumbs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 lemon, cut into wedges
Photos by Nicole Franzen