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Coast Day cooking contests go under the sea

October 12, 2018

This past Sunday, the University of Delaware hosted the annual Coast Day celebration of all things earth, ocean and environment. Arrayed across the grounds of the Pilottown Road campus in Lewes were tents and information booths featuring speciality vendors as well as local organizations ranging from the Lewes Beekeeping Club to the Nature Conservancy. 

Inside the buildings, visitors toured the UD labs and listened to lectures on a wide range of topics from horseshoe crabs to the robotics of autonomous underwater vehicles. Those willing to walk across the street to the harbor found critter touch tanks and guided tours of several research and rescue ships.

Food was certainly a focus as well. There were two cooking contests - crab cakes and seafood chowder. These were followed by the entertaining oyster shucking contest. If you were hungry, several food trucks were parked near the bandstand. Inside the Virden Center, cooking demos included a UD student making delicious fish tacos, and I tackled the subject of “Seasoning Crab Cakes.”

I planned to illustrate the topic by making three different versions of crab cakes: basic, lemon chive, and spicy. First, I talked about the different types of crab meat – jumbo lump, most expensive because there’s so little of it on each crab; lump, best choice for crab cakes because the lumps are smaller; and claw, which is slightly darker in color and sweeter in flavor. Stay away from “special” crab meat, as this is the leftover scrapings once the better grades of crabmeat have been picked. 

The other caveat I offered was to avoid unnecessary additions to crab cakes. Vegetables, no matter how finely chopped, won’t have the chance to soften in the short time it takes to cook a crab cake.

Ingredients like corn kernels, red or green bell pepper, celery and onion take away from the tender texture of a crab cake; save them all for your next batch of chowder.

As for the basic ingredients of a decent crab cake, I include egg, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, Old Bay, salt and chopped parsley (the last for a bit of color). Always go with full-fat, rich mayonnaise like Duke’s or Hellman’s. I then sprinkle cracker crumbs over the crab meat, just enough for everything to hold together. Don’t use panko bread crumbs; they’re too large and chunky to disintegrate the way cracker crumbs will.

While the basic cakes were sizzling in melted butter in a skillet, I mixed together the next version, lemon chive crab cakes.

For these, I replaced the parsley with snipped chives and added the juice and zest of half a lemon. This added a slight yellow hint to the color, and the lemon zest also brought some bright flavor notes.

For the final version, we went with the basics and then mixed in Worcestershire sauce, a few drops of Tabasco sauce, a generous sprinkle of paprika and a little cayenne pepper. The final upgrade was several shakes of seasoned salt to add some background heat and a soft reddish color.

As we offered tastes, there was no consensus on which version was best. Some preferred the heat, others the lemon hints, while a few were happy with the basic crab cake.

Let’s just say there were no leftovers. Plan on attending Coast Day next fall, where you’ll find something for everyone.

Basic Crab Cakes 

1 egg 
2 T mayonnaise 
1 t Dijon mustard 
1 t Old Bay seasoning 
1/2 t salt 
1 T chopped parsley 
1 lb crab meat 
1/2 C cracker crumbs 
2 T unsalted butter 

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper; set aside. In a mixing bowl, whisk together egg, mayonnaise, mustard, Old Bay, salt and parsley; set aside. Place crabmeat in a colander and pick over to remove any bits of shell and cartilage. Scatter with cracker crumbs, tossing gently to distribute. Add crab to mixing bowl and gently fold into seasoning mixture. Using your hands, shape into cakes and place on prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

When ready to cook, melt butter in a large skillet. Add crab cakes in a single layer and cook until lightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Yield: 6 crab cakes or 12 crab cake sliders.

Lemon Chive Crab Cakes 

1 egg 
2 T mayonnaise 
1 t Dijon mustard 
1 t Old Bay seasoning 
1/2 t salt 
1 T snipped chives 
zest & juice of 1/2 lemon 
1 lb crab meat 
1/2 C cracker crumbs 
2 T unsalted butter

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper; set aside. In a mixing bowl, whisk together egg, mayonnaise, mustard, Old Bay, salt, chives, zest and lemon juice; set aside. Place crabmeat in a colander and pick over to remove any bits of shell and cartilage. Scatter with cracker crumbs, tossing gently to distribute.

Add crab to mixing bowl and gently fold into seasoning mixture. Using your hands, shape into cakes and place on prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

When ready to cook, melt butter in a large skillet. Add crab cakes in a single layer and cook until lightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Yield: 6 crab cakes or 12 crab cake sliders. 

Spicy Crab Cakes 

1 egg 
2 T mayonnaise 
1 t Dijon mustard 
1 t Old Bay seasoning 
1 t Worcestershire sauce 
1/4 t Tabasco 
1/2 t paprika 
pinch cayenne pepper 
1/2 t seasoned salt 
1 lb crab meat 
1/2 C cracker crumbs 
2 T unsalted butter

Line a baking sheet with waxed paper; set aside. In a mixing bowl, whisk together egg, mayonnaise, mustard, Old Bay, Worcestershire, Tabasco, paprika, cayenne and seasoned salt; set aside.

Place crabmeat in a colander and pick over to remove any bits of shell and cartilage. Scatter with cracker crumbs, tossing gently to distribute.

Add crab to mixing bowl and gently fold into seasoning mixture. Using your hands, shape into cakes and place on prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

When ready to cook, melt butter in a large skillet. Add crab cakes in a single layer and cook until lightly browned, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Yield: 6 crab cakes or 12 crab cake sliders.