116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Hints of spring are with us. Cruel teases of beautiful days to come. Days that we want to fall into and lose ourselves in, unburdened by the layers of clothing. Days where we don’t have to curse the bitter wind. Of course we know that it’s going to snow again, or freezing rain will ice over the car for no reason one more time. Who are we kidding?
But it doesn’t hurt to dream about spring. When I think of spring, I think of the brunch feasts of Easter and Mother’s Day. Not that those are the only things to look forward to. It’s no secret that brunch is my favorite meal. It was my favorite as a professional chef. The one day everyone else on the crew hated, I loved.
I love the food. So much so that I was more than willing to put up with the short slept Saturday nights after a punishing weekend of grueling and late Friday and Saturday night chaos at the restaurant. To me it was just an inconvenience — a detour on the way to the mighty brunch.
There are brunch specialties you just never see on other menus for the standard breakfast, lunch or dinner. In contrast to other American dining experiences, brunch is designed to be a leisure experience. It’s the precise opposite of the “eat and get out” mentality that fast food has drilled into our expectations.
One of those iconic brunch dishes is the humble, yet profound, crabcake. It’s a pancake with seafood in it. What’s not to love? For a Midwest kid like myself, that should be raising all sorts of red flags. Air raid sirens and all that.
The result is profound. Far more than the sum of it’s parts. But we’ll get to that in a little while.
First, we should look at the rich history, the origins of the sublime humble crabcake. Crabcakes were given their title in the 1920s, when refrigerated trains were able to ship them around the States. Or maybe it was 1894 or 1891 in Maryland, 1859 in Edinburgh, 1801 in Jamaica, 1747 in Hannah Glasse's “The Art of Cookery,” which describes the oldest extant recipe of crabs held together with a binder and fried as a fritter. Some people will quote Robert May’s 1660 “To Stew Crabs” recipe, and that’s where the debate gets heated. Stewed, fried, frittered or broiled. What makes it a crabcake versus cooked crabs?
Then there are fun anthropological arguments about whether crabcakes are an Amerindian invention or a fusion of African techniques that slaves adapted to New World ingredients. Really, it’s a fritter, which is a European technique from the Dark Ages. Amerindians didn’t fry foods in pans, but they probably stewed crabs with other foods. This is some old school fusion cooking. Not quite a melting pot, more like a frying cake of American history. Patty up the pasts and get them mixed together real well.
You could argue about these things for years and not come up with any legitimate answers. If that’s your jam, I wholeheartedly encourage you to go to Chesapeake Bay and hit up some crab shacks in the Baltimore area, bump elbows with some strangers and get to the bottom of it. Let me know how that works out, I’m certain there will be some epic stories from that adventure.
Down to the nitty-gritty, let’s breakdown what a crabcake is. At its most basic level, it’s crab meat held together with a binder that is fried or broiled — with Old Bay seasoning. If you’re wondering why it’s called Old Bay, well, it’s a spice blend that was made to complement the flavors of Blue Crabs from the Chesapeake Bay that separates Maryland from Virginia. Also known as the Old Dominion. Do the math and you get Old + Bay + Blue Crabs = yum. The Old Bay container says it was first made in 1939. You can find a lot of dubious claims about how crabcakes also happened to originate in 1939. Great conversation topic for a Maryland Crab Shack after a couple of beers.
Most crabcakes also have an extender to absorb the juices. Crab is a strong flavor, so it can easily be absorbed by an extender to prolong the experience. But unlike other canned seafood, crab usually is packed with very little excess liquid in the container. You get a can of clams for chowder, and it’s 80 percent juices, which you want in a soup. Crabcakes are so predominant, that canned lump crab comes with only enough juice in it to prevent the meat from being dry.
One of the things that distinguishes a Maryland crabcake from the other versions, such as the Philadelphia or New England varieties, is that it is heavy on the crab and light on the filler. A Maryland fritter has just enough binder in it to hold it together. Other crabcakes tend to go large on a cream sauce like a bechamel to bind it, with a lot of flour or breadcrumbs to carry the substance. Maryland cakes are meant as a protein, to be accompanied by salad, cornbread, slaw, or any other number of other elements, to fill out the meal.
The super old school recipes use an egg yolk and flour. A lot of new recipes use Japanese Panko breadcrumbs that will retain some crunch even after being saturated with the liquids. My favorite is crushed saltine crackers with a little butter. Canned crab meat is missing it’s fat, so adding some butter is going to help the flavor fill your whole mouth, carry it to all the nooks and crannies where it can hide and slowly release an aftertaste. Saltines are a perfect vehicle for butter.
As a binder, I love using mayonnaise. But in this case, I want to get extra and use hollandaise sauce instead of mayo. It has the egg, the lemon, the butter — things I really want in a crabcake. The fun part is that we don’t actually have to go through the trouble of making the sauce. We can just whisk the ingredients together loosely, and the cracker crumbs will bind it all together for us. Bonus round.
In the mixing process, you will want to pay attention to what gets added to the mix, and when you add it. This is a recipe where you want to add all the wet ingredients together first, then mix in the dry. Then you let it rest so the dry stuff can really absorb the wet stuff. That takes at least an hour, but overnight is really the best. It will look real wet when you first mix it, so be careful to measure everything first, and trust that it will dry up as it rests. If it’s too wet when you want to patty it up and fry it, you can always add a little flour to absorb the excess moisture.
Lump crab from blue crabs is arguable the best. Blue crabs are from the Chesapeake Bay where this recipe originated. Lump refers to the part of the crab the meat comes from. Crabmeat is broken down into jumbo lump, backfin and claw. Jumbo lump comes from the swimming legs, backfin is from the body, and claw should be obvious. Lump crab is usually a mix of the smaller chunks of jumbo lump and some body meat. It’s size and flavor are ideal for crabcakes.
I like to break from tradition and tuck a little extra oomph into the crabcakes by adding a little bell peppers, parsley and scallions into the raw mix. This is a big no-no in the Old Dominion. They want their brown food brown. What can I say? I like my vegetables and the infinite flavors they share with us. A little sweet, a little savory, a little sharp.
So I suppose this recipe will deviate from a Maryland crabcake. Maybe we can call it a Lake Cedar Crab Cake, and all you local folks can petition the city council to stock the lake with blue crabs when they finish rehabilitating the pond to legitimize my recipe it afterward. It would be a local legend. That would be something extra.
Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been a professional chef for more than 30 years.
Makes 8 to 12 medium to large crabcakes
1 egg, yolk only
2 tablespoons butter, barely melted
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (Wooshie)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon Old Bay seafood seasoning
2 cans of 6-ounce lump crab meat — look for a can that says “wild caught” or “handpicked.” The best canned lump crab is usually found in the refrigerated section of the meat and seafood department.
1/4 minced fresh Italian parsley
1/4 cup minced scallion (optional)
1/4 bell pepper, inner sponge removed and minced (optional)
1/2 cup saltine cracker crumbs (12 saltines, crushed)
More butter for frying
Place the crackers in a sealable bag and crush them into a coarse flour with a rolling pin. They are crumbly, it won’t take much effort.
Melt the butter in a microwave or toaster oven. Don’t get too carried away, you just want it to be barely melted with the residual milk solids intact. Don’t let it boil and curdle.
Mix all the wet ingredients and spices in a bowl. Whisk them together until they are mostly smooth. Add in the crushed saltines and mix in thoroughly. Fold in the crab meat, parsley and vegetables last.
Put the mix in a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Put it in the refrigerator to marry. The cracker crumbs need to soften up and absorb the moisture. This will take at least half an hour. Doing it a day in advance is preferable, especially if you are cooking them for breakfast or brunch.
Divide the mixture into 8 to 12 balls (or more) depending on how big you want them to be. Flatten each ball into a patty shape. Big cakes are great as a base for eggs Benedict. Small or tiny cakes make nice appetizers.
Get the rest of your meal accompaniments in order. Crabcakes don’t take long to cook, so if you have sauces or sides to go with them, get them hot and ready to go on the plate before you start frying up your cakes.
When everything else is ready to go, warm a heavy skillet or cast iron pan up to medium. Drop a couple pats of whole butter into the pan. When the butter melts, add the cakes and fry them for 2 or 3 minutes on each side, until they turn a nice deep golden brown.
Be gentle when you flip them, or they might fall apart. Wait until they brown on the bottom before flipping. The browning action also helps glue the surface together, preventing them from being fragile and falling apart. If in doubt, you can lift the edge of one a little bit to look underneath to see what color it is.
Serve warm. Crabcakes can be served with just about anything. As a brunch course, they are often accompanied by a light salad and Mimosas. Out East, you can find them as a lunch or dinner item with cornbread, coleslaw, vegetables and a beer. Small or tiny crabcakes can be topped with a dollop of cream cheese or other sauce. Tiny crabcakes also sit well on a salad, kind of like a super crouton.
Many sauces work well with crabcakes: garlic aioli, tartar sauce, remoulade, creamy dill sauce, tzatziki, cocktail sauce, Carolina mustard barbecue sauce. Squeeze a fresh lemon wedge on top if you want a little more of a tart kick.
Source: Adapted by Joshua Tibbetts