Crab Cakes

Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, and her cookbooks are already a source of guidance for basic recipes but her show serves as my inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts.  So now that I’ve got the essentials down it’s time to branch out. I’ll choose a recipe from an episode of the Barefoot Contessa to try in my tiny New York kitchen. We’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

 Crab Cakes and Arugula Salad with Roasted Tomatoes: Image:  Laura Messersmith

Crab Cakes and Arugula Salad with Roasted Tomatoes: Image: Laura Messersmith

Episode: “Cooking with Tess”

The Set-up: Ina’s friend Antonia is visiting with her teenage daughter, Tess, a budding pastry chef. Ina and Tess will do some baking together after lunch.

The Menu: Crab Cakes, Celery Root Remoulade, Lemon Meringue Tart

0:09 – Ina explains that she and Tess have been baking together since Tess was 5 (she’s 14 now.) Can you imagine having the Barefoot Contessa teach you instead of an Easy Bake Oven? Lucky girl!

2:14 – Ina is making Crab Cakes to welcome Antonia and Tess when they arrive from Cape Cod. I absolutely L-O-V-E crab cakes, so I’ll be paying close attention here…

2:38 – She’s sautéing a fair number of vegetables – red & yellow bell peppers, celery, capers, onion – to add to the crab mixture. I’ve seen crab cakes served with a red bell pepper topping or an aioli but Ina seems to be incorporating these flavors right into the cake itself. At least that’s my theory.

3:02 – Annd, there’s the Old Bay! Little known fact: it’s illegal in Maryland to make anything crab-related without Old Bay. That might not be strictly true, but doesn’t it feel true?

3:16 – While veggies are softening Ina is making Celery Root Remoulade to accompany the Crab Cakes instead of the more traditional cole slaw. Celery root, according to Ina, is a “big, ugly knob,” which is the meanest thing I’ve ever heard her say.

3:22 – Harsh, but fair because this particular item does not look remotely edible. Frankly, it would never occur to me to buy celery root assuming my local store even carries it. I’m trusting you here, Ina, but I’m nervous…

4:13 – Ina is using the food processor to shred the celery root and I just figured out what that disk that came is the box is for. Glad I didn’t get rid of it when we moved!

10:07 – Now to finish up the crab cakes and I’m realizing that this is pretty similar to making meatloaf or meatballs – protein + flavoring veggies + binding eggs & bread crumbs. Shape the mixture, then bake or sauté until cooked. Light bulb moment!

11:19 – Ooh, yay! Ina’s taking a quick field trip to town - hello, Williams-Sonoma - to buy a little present for Tess: a piping bag and a set of decorator’s tips for when they make the Lemon Meringue Tart. FYI it’s this Ateco set.

13:22 – Time to make the lemon curd for the tart. Ina warns us that after adding the lemon juice & zest to the egg, butter, sugar mixture it will look curdled, and it definitely does.

13:49 – Yikes. I would think something had gone horribly, horribly wrong if anything I was baking looked like this, but heating the lemon curd seems to solve the problem and the end result looks nice and smooth.

19:09 – Egg white whisking is underway for the meringue.  Note to self: meringue and merengue are two different things.

20:12 – Tess is here!! Big hug from Ina, aww. Now straight to work, no slacking!

20:59 – Practice makes perfect, so before they get after the Lemon Meringue Tart Ina and Tess are doing a little test run on the counter with the new piping bags.

22:38 – The moment of truth: time to pipe the meringue tart. Ina starts them off with a shell pattern on the outer circle and Tess fills in the middle. I have no idea how difficult it is to use a piping bag, but Tess seems to do quite well. Good teacher I bet…

26:49 – Their next task is to make and sauté the crab cakes and then dinner is served. Antonia arrives just as they’re finishing – excellent timing on her part.

28:57 – Now for dessert! Tess reveals their picture perfect lemon meringue tart. Gorgeous. The edges of the meringue are lightly browned and the curd looks super lemony and refreshing.

29:45 – Ina gives Tess her W-S piping bags and decorator tips with a promise that they’ll bake together for a long time to come. Now that’s what I’d call an awesome present.

Final Thoughts:
I’ve never made anything involving egg whites – but that Lemon Meringue Tart might be just the thing to motivate me…

I’m still proud of myself for realizing that a crab cake is essentially a seafood meatball. No need to be intimidated!

Kinda jealous of Tess’s baking lessons with Ina – living vicariously!

 Crab Cakes and Arugula Salad with Roasted Tomatoes: Image:  Laura Messersmith

Crab Cakes and Arugula Salad with Roasted Tomatoes: Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned: When I see Crab Cakes on the menu I always want to order them, so I knew this was the dish I wanted to try. I learned a few things while making crab cakes for the first time – 1. Dice the vegetables quite small so that they incorporate evenly into the crab. 2. The spicyness was a little aggressive for me, so I backed off on the Tabasco; your mileage may vary. 3. Keep an eye on the amount of breadcrumbs. I followed the measurements in the recipe, but I think another ¼ cup would have helped to keep the crab cake mixture together more firmly. Mine were falling apart a little bit which made them tricky to sauté. More practice will help me identify when I need to adjust a little for the best outcome.

This is definitely a small kitchen friendly recipe – one sauté pan (wash while the mixture is chilling), one large bowl, a sheet pan to keep the finished cakes warm, a cutting board and a few basic kitchen tools (spatulas, chef’s knife) are all you need.

The Verdict:

Mike and I both really loved the flavors in the recipe and the way this dinner came together. An arugula salad – this time with roasted grape tomatoes for extra color and bright flavor – is my go-to when I’m not sure what else to serve, and as with other rich dishes I think it’s a nice compliment to the sweetness of the crab. Now that I have a baseline I’m excited to practice my new crab cake making skills!