Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Crab Cakes with Green Chile Tartar Sauce

For a good measure of a restaurant and its kitchen, order a crab cake appetizer… if they offer it on the menu. (Note: this works best along the coast, not so much if you’re inland.) A great crab cake will highlight the fresh Dungeness crab, not the bread crumb filler or any crunchy, strong-flavored vegetables so often found inside. No diced, raw green pepper or fennel for me, please. Hellman’s or Best Food mayonnaise is the binder of choice, never Miracle Whip. Lightly breaded crab cakes should be gently pan-fried and preferably in butter, never deep-fried or baked.

Imagine my surprise when I scanned the menu recently at a nice SE Alaskan restaurant and couldn’t find crab anything listed. Hey! Crab live in the channel outside the restaurant. Crab boats dock in the local harbor. Commercial crab season was open. A local retailer sold crab, both live and cleaned. How can you not offer crab? Sigh, that night I settled for a nicely prepared ahi appetizer instead. Ahi… available in Alaska… but not crab.

I remembered Sandy’s delicious Asian crab cakes in Helm Bay and vowed to play with my own recipe when we caught more fresh Dungeness crab.

My latest crab cake inspiration began with the peppers, luscious vividly-green peppers that almost begged to be roasted and enjoyed. Two poblano, two Anaheim and one jalapeno. Now what? The poblano went into chowder, the Anaheims were stuffed and baked, and the jalapeno remained. How best to use that one lonely jalapeño?

Jalapeno and crab cakes? salsa verde? pickled vegetables? spicy something! Then the combination of a jalapeno-spiked tartar sauce and crab cakes tempted my taste buds. Add the chile to a lime-flavored tartar sauce and then incorporate just a bit of that mixture into the crab cakes as well. Hmmm. This had possibilities, but it might be tricky to tame the jalapeno and still feature the crab.

Step One: the tartar sauce. This experiment was well received, almost taste-tested away before it could be used with crab cakes. Too much jalapeno bite! Add a bit more sour cream. Need more zing? Add lime zest as well as juice. How would it taste on a tortilla chip? Mmmm, works fine as a dip, or straight off a spoon.

Step Two: chile tartar-sauced crab cakes. The tangy bite of citrus and chile balanced the richly delicate flavor of the crab without overwhelming it. A crab taste  still prevailed. Some Parmesan from a can (Yes, from the green can) along with the bread crumbs contributed a subtle difference that I liked. 

It is important to ightly squeeze the excess moisture out of the crab before adding it to the other ingredients. Use wet hands to form small balls, roll them in the breading and gently flatten them into patties. The crab mixture is loose and a bit challenging to handle initially. Don't fret, it firms up nicely in the refrigerator and the cakes transfer easily into the skillet. The cakes warm and soften as they brown, so turn them over once with extra care. If they brown too quickly, before the centers heat, place them in a warm oven to finish. Then turn down the heat under your skillet for the next batch. 

This variability within ingredients means this post is more of a guide than a precise recipe. So much depends on the heat of the chile, the moisture content of the crab, the size and thickness of the crab cakes etc. Fresh crab or a superior brand of canned crab, give crab cakes a try.They are easy to prepare and a treat for the cook and guests .

 One-bite, appetizer crab cakes are easiest to handle, less prone to falling apart in the skillet. Pair two larger crab cakes with a green salad and you have a lovely lunch. Add some grilled French bread, a glass of wine and it’s a satisfying dinner. As for the tartar sauce, enjoy it on crab cakes, grilled fish or seafood tacos. It makes a peppy sandwich spread with cooked seafood or canned tuna. And did I mention how tasty it is as a dip?  Have fun with this one.

Green Chile Crab Cakes
Makes 4 medium size cakes

1/4 cup Green Chile Tartar Sauce, plus more for serving (recipe follows)
1 cup plus 1/4 cup Panko, dried breadcrumbs  or mix of breadcrumbs and Parmesan from a can (divided)
1 generous cup fresh crabmeat, drained in a strainer and picked clean of shell
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
1 scallion, white and green parts, minced
2 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon canola oil, for the skillet

Squeeze the crab gently to remove any excess moisture. Place the tartar sauce, crab, cilantro, scallion and 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (or breadcrumb and Parmesan mix) in a bowl. Mix lightly, only until the ingredients are just combined. Moisten your hands and form into 4 small balls.
Dip each ball into a flat pan or pie tin full of the remaining bread crumbs, coat on all sides as you gently flatten each balls into a patty. Leave the patties in the pan, cover with plastic wrap and chill for an hour or more , if time allows, to firm up the crab cakes.
Heat the oil in a large cast iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the butter and swirl until it melts. Gently arrange the fragile patties in the pan so they aren’t touching. Cook until golden brown on one side; use a spatula and your fingers to turn once carefully and brown the second side. Cook until hot through, about 155 F on an insta-read thermometer.
To serve, spoon some of the remaining tartar sauce onto each plate. Use a slotted spatula to transfer hot crab cakes onto the sauce and serve immediately.

Green Chile Tartar Sauce

3/4 cup mayonnaise (Hellmans or Best Food)
1/4 cup Greek yogurt or sour cream
1 tablespoon Plochman grainy mustard (or Dijon, or a pinch of dry mustard))
1/4 cup pickle relish
a small handful of fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced
2 scallions, white and green parts, chopped
1 roasted and seeded jalapeno, minced (or some poblano or Anaheim)
zest of 1 small lime
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients thoroughly; season to taste. Chill for an hour before serving. The sauce will keep, referigerated, for a day or two.

Note: these are mild peppers, but chiles vary in heat so add a bit at a time. The heat will increase a bit over time; you can add more mayo or sour cream to tame the bite if preparing days ahead of time. 

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