Sometimes it’s essential for our mental health to take a break from crab cakes at the restaurant, but it’s a decision that is always met with cries of protest from our guests. Removing them and then returning them to the menu is a ritual that predates Boulevard and reaches back over 26 years, but each time the crab cakes return to the menu, they’re given new accessories, although the crab cakes themselves never really change.
People may or may not realize that there are, and always have been, two basic crab cake recipes served at the restaurant. The original version has sourdough bread, celery, red onion, thyme, olive oil, egg yolks, and whipped egg whites; the remodeled version has celery, red onion, thyme, and mayonnaise and is patted together with Japanese bread crumbs (panko) on each side. There are no big secrets here — our basic principle is to have lots of crab with just a few ingredients to flavor and hold the cakes together. The key is to use high-quality crab and not to over-stir the mixture. Also, crab is very delicate and can be easily overpowered by things like bell peppers, too much onion, or strong herbs, and other things that frankly have no business being in crab cakes.
Dungeness crab, considered the quintessential San Francisco seafood, is actually fished up and down the Pacific coast, from Southern California to Alaska. Though its main season runs from November to May, the Alaska catch takes place during the summer, making fresh Dungeness available nearly year-round. It’s sold live, cooked whole or cracked, or as fresh-picked meat. For this recipe, we use crabmeat for the crab cakes and whole claws or “thighs” for the plate presentation (the thighs coming from the front two meaty legs). Few markets that sell picked meat will also have whole claws or meaty legs available, so if you want to use them you’ll most likely need to purchase whole crabs. If you decide to start with whole crabs, a 1 1/4-pound crab yields about 5 ounces of meat, so for the crab cakes you’ll need at least 3 whole crabs, which will give you enough meat for both the crab cakes and the garnish.
It’s important the mayonnaise is of good quality, but it doesn’t have to be homemade. We like commercial Best Foods (known as Hellmann’s, east of the Mississippi); just don’t use the reduced-fat kind, which is too sweet. At the restaurant, we form our crab cakes by packing some of the mixture into a 2-inch ring mold (sold in better cookware shops); then we remove the mold and pat on the panko.–Nancy Oakes and Pamela Mazzola
Dungeness Crab Cakes Recipe
- Quick Glance
- Serves 4
- For the crab cakes
- 10 ounces cooked lump Dungeness crabmeat
- 2 tablespoons finely diced celery
- 1 tablespoon very finely diced jalapeño pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
- Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- For the asparagus vinaigrette
- 12 to 16 medium-thick asparagus spears, tough ends snapped off and discarded
- 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh chervil leaves
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or kosher salt
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- For the lemon vinaigrette
- 1 Meyer lemon, cut into 8 pieces
- 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup grapeseed oil
- For the tartar sauce
- 1 1/2 cups homemade or good-quality commercial mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cornichons
- 1/4 cup finely diced celery
- 1/4 cup capers, drained, rinsed, and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons finely diced shallots
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 whole claws and/or “thighs”, for plating
- Make the crab cakes
- 1. Pick through the crabmeat to remove any bits of shell or cartilage and gently squeeze with your hands to remove any excess liquid. Be careful, you don’t want the mixture too dry either.
- 2. Put the crabmeat into a bowl with the remaining ingredients except the panko and oil and fold the mixture so that it’s just combined and the crab is not broken or mashed. Divide the mixture into 4 portions and shape into cakes that are about 2 inches in diameter and 1 1/2 inches high.
- 3. Refrigerate the crab cakes until ready to serve.
- Make the asparagus vinaigrette
- 4. Cook the asparagus in a saute pan or skillet of simmering salted water for 3 to 6 minutes, depending on size, or until the spears are barely crisp but still tender and green. Drain and immerse in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain, cut the tips into 3-inch lengths, and set aside.
- 5. Put the asparagus bottoms into a blender and add the chervil and salt. With the machine running, add both olive oils in a slow stream. Blend for 1 minute. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, taste for seasoning, and add water to give the vinaigrette a pourable consistency if necessary. Set aside.
- Make the lemon vinaigrette
- 6. Put the lemon pieces (peel and all), corn syrup, vinegar, and salt into a blender and purée until smooth. With the machine running, add the grapeseed oil in a slow stream. Blend for 1 minute. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, taste for salt, and add water to give the vinaigrette a pourable consistency if necessary. Set aside.
- Make the tartar sauce
- 7. Stir all the ingredients together in a small bowl and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
- Finish and serve
- 8. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Pat the panko onto the tops and bottoms of the crab cakes, then heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium ovenproof skillet. Add the crab cakes and cook for about 2 minutes, or until golden on one side. Flip the cakes over and put the skillet into the oven for 3 minutes to brown the bottom sides.
- 9. Sprinkle the asparagus with salt and pepper and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. Spoon a pool of lemon vinaigrette on one side of each of 4 large dinner plates and top with the asparagus spears. (If you have 4 spears per person, you could stack them crosswise, 2 over 2. Otherwise line 3 spears side by side.) Toss the crab claws or “thighs” with some of the lemon vinaigrette and place on top of the asparagus. Spoon a pool of asparagus vinaigrette on the other side of the plate and top with a crab cake and a dollop of tartar sauce.
Dungeness Crab Cakes Recipe © 2005 Nancy Oakes, Pamela Mazzola, Lisa Weiss. Photo © 2005 Maren Caruso. All rights reserved.