- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

One of the smartest pieces of advice anyone ever told me was that you should celebrate the new year in a style in which you’d like your life to continue for the next 12 months.

To me, that definitely calls for drinking Champagne or other sparkling wine, which seems to me to be the very essence of good times. It also requires the right food to go with Champagne, something as delicious, sweet, tender, and rich as you’d like the rest of the year to be.

And that means crabmeat - or, more specifically, crab cakes, one of the most celebratory hors d’oeuvres I know.

I especially like the meat from Maryland blue crabs, which is especially rich and sweet. But some people on the West Coast prefer meatier, bolder Dungeness crabmeat. One or the other is usually available in lump form in the fresh seafood section of most good supermarkets. Buy it the same day you plan to enjoy it, and take special care to pick through the meat with your fingers first to remove any little bits of shell or cartilage.

Whichever kind of crabmeat you use, it will probably be expensive. That’s one of the reasons why crab is such a special-occasion ingredient. It’s also why, I think, people first started making crab cakes, as a smart way to stretch the costly meat with breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs, or potato.

In fact, the first time I ever ate crab cakes, on a visit to the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland a long time ago, they tasted more like potato than crab. I was disappointed. So I took home with me a few pounds of fresh lump crabmeat and experimented with it. I discovered then a truth that so many crab cake lovers swear by: Never add to the mixture any more filler than is necessary to bind the crab cakes delicately together.

My version of the recipe uses fresh breadcrumbs and ground almonds (pulse whole blanched almonds in a food processor just until they reach the texture of fine breadcrumbs). I moisten and enrich the mixture with cream and egg, and add an extra dimension of flavor, texture, and color by including diced bell pepper, jalapeno chili, red onion and fresh herbs.

Along with the crab cakes, I serve a flavorful, bright red bell pepper sauce. If you don’t want to go to the extra trouble of making the sauce, just your favorite tartar sauce, Russian dressing, or garlic mayonnaise instead. Or, for an extra lavish touch, top each individual crab cake with a tiny spoonful of caviar.

Serve the crab cakes with well-chilled Champagne to toast in the New Year. Here’s wishing you 52 weeks of good times and delicious food shared with family and friends!

BITE-SIZED CRABCAKES WITH SWEET RED PEPPER SAUCE

Makes about 2 dozen

RED BELL PEPPER SAUCE

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced

1/2 medium red onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, mashed

Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 cup (125 ml) dry white wine

1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream

Juice of 1/2 medium lemon

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

CRAB CAKES:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced

1/2 medium yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and diced

1/2 medium red onion, diced

1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon diced fresh jalapeno chili

2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives

2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill

2 teaspoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten

1 cup (250 ml) fresh breadcrumbs

1 cup (250 ml) ground almonds

1 1/4 pounds (625 g) fresh crabmeat, picked over to remove pieces of shell and cartilage

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more as needed

First, prepare the sauce: In a 10-inch (25-cm) skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add the pepper, onion, garlic and thyme and saute until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and stir and scrape to deglaze the pan, then raise the heat and simmer until 3 tablespoons remain, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour in the cream and bring to a boil. Transfer to a blender and, taking care to avoid splattering, blend until smooth. Pour through a fine-meshed strainer into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until shortly before serving.

For the crab cakes, heat the olive oil in a 10-inch (25-cm) skillet over medium heat. Add the peppers and onion and saute until the onion is translucent and the peppers are tender, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, boil the cream with the jalapeno until 1/2 cup (125 ml) remains, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool and then stir into the onion-pepper mixture. Stir in the chives, dill, parsley, thyme, salt and cayenne. Stir in the egg and half each of the breadcrumbs and almonds. With a spatula, gently fold in the crabmeat to form a lumpy mixture.

On a plate, stir together the remaining breadcrumbs and almonds. Form the crab mixture into plump bite-sized cakes, each about 2 heaping tablespoons, dipping both sides of each as its formed into the crumb mixture to coat well, then transferring it to a baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 to 6 hours.

Before serving, transfer the sauce to a saucepan and gently reheat it over low heat. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the lemon juice, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm.

To cook the crab cakes, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in the vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. In batches if necessary, add the crab cakes, taking care not to crowd, and saute until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side, adding more vegetable oil if necessary.

Drain the crab cakes on paper towels. Serve hot, passing the sauce alongside or spooning a dab on each crab cake.

(Chef Wolfgang Puck’s TV series, “Wolfgang Puck’s Cooking Class,” airs Sundays on the Food Network. Also, his latest cookbook, “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy,” is now available in bookstores.)

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