As soon as I typed the title of this post I had a sudden mental image of appalled Baltimore-born life-long crab cake-eaters shuddering at the very thought of someone tampering so drastically with the traditional Maryland crab cake formula.
"Ginger, cilantro, and coconut," I hear them gasp (or snort, or sneer, or snarl). "In a crab cake?"
Heresy, I know.
And certainly I understand objections to tampering with perfection. Some things are perfect just as they are and cannot be improved upon. Apple pie and BLT's immediately come to mind as do those perfect 1960s sitcoms such as Bewitched that are forever being remade as movies. Fancy them up all you want, "update" them to your heart's content. They won't be better than the original.
Yet I have long looked at this recipe in Barbara Tropp's China Moon Cookbook and always thought that coconut milk would nicely complement the sweetness of the crabs. And after all what are crab cakes but a way of showcasing crabs? I'm happily willing to check out non-traditional flavorings if they do the job. And besides, what's non-traditional for someone living in Baltimore would be completely traditional for someone living on the other side of the world.
A couple of things about crabs:
All crabs are not created equal. The blue claw, which is found up and down the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico but is particularly identified with the Chesapeake Bay, has meat that is sweet and rich -- far more sweet and rich than its cousins the Dungeness crab and the snow crab which are the only other crabs I'm familiar with. Blue claw crabmeat makes the best crab cakes, and of the grades that are normally offered -- jumbo lump, backfin, special, and claw -- jumbo lump and backfin make the best crabcake.
The crab meat they sell at Costco or Trader Joe's for $9.99 a pound? Not from the blue claw. The meat of the blue claw is not inexpensive. In the summer, when crabs are in season locally, blue claw jumbo lump is more than $20 a pound. In the winter months it can be well over $30 a pound. But crab meat from China or India (or even California) will not have the incomparable sweetness and richness of a blue claw, and the single most important component of your crab cake is the crab meat.
However, most of the crab meat I see these days is not from the blue claw. At my local Whole Foods the crab comes from India, at Sterling's, a nearby seafood store, the jumbo lump they are selling is from China. In fact, the crab I used for these came from China -- not my first choice obviously, but then again, who expects to go to a seafood store in Baltimore and find only Chinese crab available? Not me.
Barbara Tropp's recipe I will definitely try again. This was good and I think with the right crab meat it will be stunning.
Barbara Tropp's Crab Cakes with Ginger, Cilantro, and Coconut Milk
1/4 a bunch of cilantro (or more to taste -- the orignal recipe uses one entire bunch), leaves and stems, finely chopped
2 tablespoons grated ginger
4 scallions, sliced into thin rings using the white part and about two inches of the green
1 teaspoon (or more to taste) Chinese chile sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup coconut milk
2 pieces white sandwich bread (the same type as Pepperidge Farm), crusts removed, in tiny pieces
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 pound jumbo lump blue claw crabmeat
1. In a bowl, mix the cilantro, ginger, scallions, chile paste, salt, coconut milk, bread, and egg together. Set aside.
2. Inspect the crab meat for bits of shell being very careful not to break up the big lumps of crab.
3. Gently fold the cilantro ginger mixture into the crab. Taste for seasoning. Gently but firmly press the crab meat mixture into patties. I did this by filling 3-inch english muffin rings with the crab mixture, removing the ring and then gently pressing the edges towards the center. Place the patties on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper and let it sit in the refrigerator for about an hour which will make the crab cakes firmer and less prone to breaking apart.
4. Generously film a cast iron frying pan or whatever frying pan you may have with vegetable oil (this would not be the time to use olive oil) and saute the crab cakes until browned. Turn gently and brown the second side.
BTW, if you are interested in traditional crab cakes there was an excellent article in the Baltimore City Paper a week or two ago with excellent pointers about making a crab cake. You can also find a recipe from Maryland's U.S.senator Barbara Mikulski on her web page. In the New York Times archives there's a great article from the late R. W. Apple Jr. about crab cakes and other Baltimore eats which you can find here.