minimalist crab cakes

March 9, 2007

crab cakesFor one to say that the partner does not like mayonnaise is a bit of an understatement. Similar to my feelings about republicans, the partner believes that mayo is an abomination, a filthy pestilence, and very possibly the source of true evil in the world. I do not exaggerate. Upon hearing this for the first time, new acquaintances and friends will inevitably attempt to discuss, to rationalize, to reason with said partner about the positive effects of mayonnaise. There is no point to this, and all who attempt are worn down. The phobia is extreme: utensils or food that may have come into contact with any emulsion of oil, vinegar, and yolks is suspect and is dealt with accordingly. New recipes are guilty until proven otherwise. A creamy dish can be dismissed out of hand without even a taste, if the mayo-ometer detects even the minutest possibility of contamination. Were the household an emulsion free zone, things wold be different, but I’m pretty sure that being raised in the South helped cultivate a love of mayonnaise in me. I mean, have you ever been to a family reunion or church picnic where the only things without mayo were the iced tea and the fried chicken? I grew up on that, and cannot imagine a life without proper BLTs, tuna salad, or cole slaw

The result of this dichotomy has led to some practical household considerations – separate knives for sandwich making, care to not taint the cutting boards, separate containers for certain foodstuffs when lunches are packed. I’ve promised never to chase her around the house with a jar of Hellman’s, and she reciprocated by promising not to kill me in my sleep. As I am not about to give up my favorite crab dip, sauce rémoulade, aoili, rouille, tartar sauce or anything else over this, we’ve had to find some work arounds. Last week I picked up The Minimalist Cooks Dinner by Mark Bittman and found a recipe that I thought would work for us both. Crab cakes generally, often, usually have mayonnaise in them, and they’ve been long shunned by the partner. One never knows where the dreaded stuff lurks, apparently. Most recipes also seem to contain bread crumbs or filler and other things that take away from the crab. Some recipes seem to be a bit much just for crab cakes, but I suppose that can be chalked up to personal preference. That and the fact that I’m reading a minimalist cookbook.

As a kid, my little brother and I spent many long sunburned and sandy hours catching blue crabs off of piers down along the North Carolina coast. The bait shops and groceries along the inland waterway and on the beaches sold bags of chicken necks or fish heads just for bait. After the long drive from home, this was often the first stop we made on the way to the cottage. You tie a lead weight to a piece of twine, and then attach the bait in a loop just above that. The trick to crabbing is to toss the weighted line and chicken parts out far enough that the crabs will find it, but not so far that you can’t feel it when they start to nibble. With a little tension on the line, you slowly start pulling line in, whispering to your little brother, “Get the net, quick!” Crabs are greedy, gluttonous creatures that are not about to let go of a free meal until the very last second, and hopefully by that time your little brother has scooped them up as you gently pulled them to the surface. We’d take them to dad and he would either steam or boil them. Thinking back on this now, it makes me realize just how crafty my Dad really is. The canal behind our place connected to the Inland Waterway, and all kinds of critters made their way up to our pier. We dug clams, gathered oysters, and dragged seine nets for fat shrimp. A good throw with a casting net could get you a shower of tight, silvery menhadden or a thick, wiggly mullet. The last time I was at Ocean Isle Beach, the neighbor’s grandkids were out on their pier, looking sunburned and a little salty, as though they had been swimming. One had a net, and they both intently watched the water as one slowly wound up a crab line.

Depending on the season, location, and budget, there are several choices for the crab itself. Most groceries carry several grades of the canned – lump or back fin, white, and white with claw meat. If you’re using any kind of canned crab, you will want to make sure it is well drained before starting. Otherwise your cakes fall apart and you end up with crab hash, which is tasty but hard to serve. The lump type means large chunks of meat. Canned crab meat sold as white is going to consist of very small pieces. Canned claw meat is darker, a bit stringier, and will have the most “crabby” and fishy flavor. The seafood counter at many markets will have containers of fairly high-grade lump back fin crab, and this is your best bet. Most, if not all, of the typical canned products will have been packed and preserved in citric acid, monosodium glutamate, sodium sulfite. This is the liquid you’ll need to drain off, and also the reason to use the fresh meat if you can find it. If you can get fresh crab meat, pick through it carefully for bits of shell, but try not to break up any nice lumps of meat.

crab cakes:
1 pound lump/back fin crab meat
1 really big egg, beaten
1 tbs dijon mustard
2 tbs flour (+ 1 cup for dredging)
2 tbs parsley, chopped
1/4 cup shallots, minced
salt and pepper
1/2 cup oil (grape-seed, canola, peanut)

Except for the oil, gently mix everything together. You want to mix it well, but you’re trying not to make crab dough, so folding gently with a spatula is a good idea. Set the mixture in the freezer for 5 or so minutes, and cover a plate with wax paper. Take the cooled crab mixture and form into hamburger-type patties. Smaller ones are easier to cook, so don’t get carried away with the burger reference. It’s also important to note that forming the perfect crab cake is a delicate balance: press and form too much, and you end up with crab flavored pucks. Don’t press enough, and they fall apart in the pan. You should end up with six or seven crab cakes on the waxed paper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, and even longer if you there’s time. It is the cooling that helps the cakes bind together and keep their shape while they crisp up. Heat the oil in a large skillet to medium. Once hot, lightly dredge the crab cakes in flour and gently add to the hot oil. Increase the heat to medium-high and fry for 6-8 minutes, or until they are brown and crispy. Carefully flip the over and repeat on the other side. The B side will cook a bit faster, so you’ll want to have a plate lined with a few paper towels ready. Remove from the pan, drain, and served immediately.

1 tbs olive oil
2 tbs shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
half a glass dry white wine
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
sea salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoon butter

Sweat the garlic and shallots over medium heat until they turn translucent. De glaze the pan with the wine and allow it to reduce a bit. It will go fast, so keep an eye on it. Fold in the mustard, salt, pepper, and bring to a quick simmer. Remove from heat, finish with the butter and serve.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Father of the Partner March 13, 2007 at

Partner’s “interesting” (and certainly debatable) position on mayonnaise must have genetically spread from Partner’s Mother’s side of the Gene Pool. As ANYONE knows, the world’s finest food — SERVED ALL BY ITSELF — (and perhaps rivaled only by Morro Bay Abalone, and tied for a distant third: Oysters Rockefeller and Chateaubriand) is the Artichoke. Despite Artichoke’s unchallenged position atop the food chain, its amazing gift to the palate can be even further enhanced by Mayonnaise. (Partner’s first born sister will emphatically posit this fact).

2 Amy Cockman March 20, 2007 at

I read all the way to the bottom of your “5 Things About Me”….loved it…especially the food loved from Grandmother’s kitchen stool. See you this summer….

jared says: amy, howdy. glad to know somebody in nc is reading…see you soon.

3 Crab Cake Guy August 2, 2007 at

Great recipe, I can’t wait to try it out. I have been featuring a variety of crab cake recipes and information on crab cakes on Thanks again for the great recipe, I plan on trying them out soon!
-The Crab Cake Guy

4 TIFFANY PICQUET October 21, 2009 at


5 Love Mayo December 20, 2009 at

I for one am also from the south and know how to enjoy mayo. The thing is I woke up one day and it hated me. I have grown to like mustard….. My problem is I love crabcakes But my hunny hates onions do you think I could switch it up with onion powder? I just dont think it will do the job.

6 rarah April 3, 2010 at

Your description of crabbing as a kid brought me back to many a hot day in Louisiana. We also went crawfishing after school. I was looking for a crab cake recipe, but I have no mayo aversion in the household, so I’m going to use yours and add a little mayo.

In the south, gravy is a beverage.

7 Michelle November 23, 2010 at

This is a great, great recipe. Thank you for providing a mayo-free crabcake!

8 fellow mayo h8r January 29, 2012 at

Partner is a wise, exceptionally reasonable human being. Thanks for the recipe. Mark Bittman is a god, and mayo is from hell!

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