A story about blue crabs

St. Johns River, Florida

There was a time in my life when I lived on the St. Johns River, south of Jacksonville, FL in a small place named Switzerland.

We had a dock and a couple of boats and crab traps. The traps would get stuffed with chicken necks and then dropped in the river.

Most of the time, we could drop them right off the dock and get traps so full of blue crabs we couldn’t possibly eat them all.

So, we would build a bonfire on the riverbank, pull some coals to the side and place cast iron dutch kettles into the fire to

Maryland Blue Crab

boil water and then fill the pots with crabs, herbs, and seasoning, cover and put it back in the fiery coals to cook the crabs.

When they were cooked, the pot would be spilled all over the picnic table and another pot put into the fire.

Crabs for sale at the Maine Avenue Fish Market...

Friends, family, neighbors would all gather around, eat huge amounts of blue crab, drink beer, I think back then it was Rolling Rock and Heineken. It was great having everyone around talking, sometimes singing and having a great time.

1893 bird's eye view of Jacksonville, with ste...

1893 bird’s-eye view of Jacksonville, with steamboats moving throughout the St. Johns River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The families we were with at the time had actually settled the area in the mid to late 1800’s. There were stories of Reggie Moreman sailing down the St Johns to locate and settle the highest point on the river. There were stories of pirate ships sailing down the St Johns to Black Creek to fill water kegs with the tannin water for long voyages; stories of Indians and smoke on the banks across the river near Green Cove Springs.

Two families tried to tame the once wild river banks. One with potato farming and the other established some of the first orange groves in the state of Florida. They had docks that would load with oranges for shipping to anywhere. When the groves got frozen out, they moved to southern Florida to grow pineapples in what is now downtown Miami.

The Moremans stayed in Switzerland, Florida. When I was there, we still ran through the remnants of the groves plucking ripe fruit from the trees before the first frost. Most were sour oranges due to the base stock being sour, but there were still a couple of sweet trees.

The crabs always ran like this in the deep fall, or was it spring? I can’t recall exactly what time of year it was, other than it was chilly, the night air dry and crisp.

This is one of my favorite memories of living on the riverbank  and eating crabs in Switzerland, Florida.

Calling the ferry, St. John River, NB, 1915 (?)

And well before the river got so polluted the fish sprouted two heads. (Really.)

Crab Cakes with Leeks and Corn

Crab Cakes with Leeks and Corn

Crab Cakes get so abused. Tender sweet succulent crab; why do so many ruin the delicate flavor by adding red or green peppers to the mix?

When I think of crab cakes, I think of the delicious flavor of crab, not a nasal hit of red or green peppers. While I love peppers, they do have their place. In my opinion, that place is not in a crab cake.

What is the star of your dish? Is it the crab? How much did you pay for the crab? Usually a lot of money or labor if you cleaned your own crabs. Why would you want to hide the star of your dish with the pungent flavor of red or green pepper?

Peppers have a dominate flavor, they overpower everything. Which is why they are the stars in the dishes they are featured. Stuffed peppers, sausage and peppers, red pepper hummus, roasted pepper salads, great dishes with strong dominate flavors.

If you didn’t guess already, adding peppers to delicate crab meat is a pet peeve of mine. I feel strongly about it. If you like peppers in your crab cakes, fine, I’d ask you though if you really know what crab tastes like.

Enough of that rant, on to the crab cakes!

Crab, any kind of crab, has a delicate flavor. Enhance the flavor with a dab of smooth Dijon mustard, sautéed shallot, roasted garlic and sliced scallions or chives and lemon zest. Hold the mix together with an egg and coat the outside of each formed crab cake with a layer of panko bread crumbs and you have an amazing cake for either an appetizer, entrée or salad. How to and the recipe are below.

Crab comes in many forms. You can purchase live blue crabs  or king or queen crab legs and boil your  own for a great outdoor dinner party.

Colossal size crab meat from Blue Swimming Cra...

Colossal size crab meat from Blue Swimming Crab. Courtesy of Newport International. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Crab comes in canned or pasteurized form in addition to fresh. Here is the translation as to what kind of crab you are getting according to classification:

  • Colossal Lump: Very large white, unbroken pieces of crab.
  • Jumbo Lump:  largest white pieces of crab meat from the body portion adjacent to the back fin appendage. may contain broken pieces.
  • Back fin: A blend of large lump pieces and special meat.
  • Special: Flake white meat from the body portion of the crab.
  • Claw: This meat is from the crab claws. It is darker in color but sweeter in flavor.
  • Cocktail Claws: Claw meat intact on the claw with the outer shell removed.

Colossal Lump is typically the most expensive. If you think of the labor that goes into cleaning a crab, you would understand why.

Cocktail Claw crab meat from Blue Swimming Crab.

Cocktail Claw crab meat from Blue Swimming Crab. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other night there was a pasteurized can of jumbo lump in my fridge. We had crab in salads and make crab cakes.

There were leeks and corn in the fridge too so I sautéed a nice side to go with the crab cakes.

Leek and Corn Saute

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

1 shallot, sliced

1 clove garlic, minced fine

1 leek, washed and sliced thin

1 cup frozen corn or cut fresh corn from 2 ears

1/2 cup dry white wine or chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a saute pan over medium heat, add oil, shallot and garlic, stir.

Saute leeks and corn

Add rinsed leeks and corn, saute 2-3 minutes, add white wine and simmer until the pan is nearly dry. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm.

Crab Cakes

1/2 pound jumbo lump crab meat (or any market form you like but cocktail claws)

1 egg

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest and juice from 1 lemon

1 tablespoon minced shallots

2 scallions thinly sliced, white and green part

1 teaspoon minced roasted garlic

1 teaspoon old Bay Seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional: 1 tablespoon capers

To remove any cartilage that may still be in the crab meat, place the meat on a parchment lined sheet pan, place it in a 350°F oven for 2-3 minutes. Any cartilage will turn bright white or red and can easily be picked out.

Working in a restaurant, the sheet pan method is used to quickly identify any unwanted cartilage. This method also preserves the shape of the meat if using precious lump meat. High volumes of crab meat can be processed quickly this way.

Combine everything in a large bowl except the crab,  add the crab meat last so it does not get broken up too much.

Carefully, take a small handful and shape the crab cake between your thumb and forefinger as if you are making a hand gesture to say OK. This makes the sides and size consistent.

Roll each cake carefully in breadcrumbs.

Heat a saute pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Cook the crab cakes until golden brown on each side. If you move them very little while cooking they won’t fall apart.

Serve with lemon, sautéed leeks and corn on the side.

Crab cakes with leek and corn