How to Make the World’s Best Crab Cakes

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The two most important ingredients in the world's best crab cakes

Michelle grew up in Baltimore, where they make the world’s best crab cakes.  I don’t let her order crab cakes anywhere besides “Bawlmore” or DC, because they never taste as good as the ones back home and her disappointment makes her–shall we say—a little crabby.  Since Michelle’s mother, Doris, has been visiting us for the past few weeks, I asked her to cook up a batch of Maryland Crab Cakes for Michelle’s birthday party.

“If you want to make Maryland crab cakes,” Doris told me, “you have to use Maryland crab.”  According to Doris, Maryland blue crab is the sweetest crab you can buy. Phillips is the big name in crab meat in Maryland, so even though it’s a lot more expensive than the stuff you find in the tuna fish aisle, we went over to the fish counter at the grocery store and bought 6 8-ounce cans of Phillips crab meat.  The lump meat is the best part of the crab, but it costs more, so we economized by buying 4 cans of lump and 2 cans of the claw meat.

Doris learned how to make crab cakes from her mother and doesn’t use a recipe, but I watched her make the cakes and wrote down what she did so that you, dear reader, can make the world’s best crab cakes at home.

Doris opens a can of crab meat

First, she opened up all those cans of crab meat (3 pounds) and emptied them into a large bowl. Then she mixed in two tablespoons of mustard.  According to Doris, you can use any kind of mustard, but we used French’s because I think it adds a little tang as well as a little bite. She added about ¾ cup of mayonnaise (we used light).

She cracked 4 eggs and added them to the mix, along with 1 tablespoon of Old Bay, several dashes of Tabasco, and black pepper.  Then she asked me for red pepper, but since we hadn’t bought any at the store, we didn’t put it in. We also didn’t have any lemon pepper, so I squeezed about a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice into the bowl. She usually uses parsley flakes, but since I had some fresh parsley in the fridge, I chopped that up and added it, too.

Doris adds the French's Mustard to the mixture

Another secret to making great crab cakes, according to Doris, is not to use a lot of filler. You need some binding, but if you put too much in, you can’t taste the crab.  Some people like to use bread crumbs, but Doris’ family prefers Ritz crackers.  She opened up a whole sleeve of Ritz crackers and kind of crushed them with her hands before she added them to the bowl.  She thought the mixture seemed too dry, so she added 3 more eggs, for a total of 7.

When she’s home, Doris uses an ice cream scoop to form the cakes, but since we don’t have a scoop, I found a nice round spoon that probably holds about 3 tablespoons.  She scooped up crab cake mixture and then used her hands to squish it into a 3-4 inch round cake, which she flattened a little once she put in on a plate.  We had enough mixture for about 4 dozen cakes.

Doris forms the crab cakes

Outside of knowing the right consistency for the crab mixture, the hardest part about making the crab cakes was frying them.  At home, Doris said she uses a cast iron skillet with just a little bit of canola oil, so we got out our skillet and heated up 2 tablespoons of oil.  Unfortunately, however, we don’t use our cast iron skillet very much, so it’s not well seasoned, like Doris’.  So the first batch of crab cakes stuck to the pan and didn’t brown evenly.  We tried a nonstick skillet and the cakes stuck in that one, too, so we went back to the cast iron and make sure that the pan was well coated in oil for the last two batches.  The results were nicely browned.

Now you know how to make the world’s best crab cakes, I have to teach you how to eat them, Bawlmore style.  Get out some crackers—the Ritz crackers you used in the cakes will do, but Doris prefers Keeblers Reduced-Fat Club Crackers—and make a little sandwich with the French’s Mustard.  The sweet, dense, juiciness of the crab cake blends with the tang of the mustard, the salt of the crackers, and the result is a taste of heaven.

Now, you, too, can eat Maryland crab cakes outside of Maryland – you just have to make them yourself.

Crab Cakes on Foodista

Baltimore’s 32nd Street Farmers Market: Hula Hoops, 7-Up Pound Cake, and Slurpy-Ripe Peaches

Hula hoops

Hula hoops come in many sizes and colors.

From hula hoops and honey to bison meat and baked goods, the year-round 32nd Street Farmer’s Market in Baltimore is the market I wish we had in Boston.

This barren parking lot behind a 7-11 is not a place I’d want to hang out at night, but every Saturday morning, it’s transformed into a locavore’s dream, a multicultural community gathering, and a playground for all ages.

The Hula Hooper

Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis demonstrates how to hula hoop

In the grassy media strip across from the market, Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis sells hula hoops that he makes out of rolls of PVC irrigation tube and brightly colored tape. As he stands on a Waverly neighborhood stone marker, he expertly swirls a hoop around his waist, knees, and neck, insisting that it’s fun and easy. As we chatted, a middle-aged woman drove by and was so excited by the hula-hoop display that she left her minivan running in the middle of the street, blocking traffic; Spilly gently encouraged her to park and come back. In addition to selling at the market, he takes his “People’s Hoop Party” to parks and parties to encourage people to take a trial swivel. For a taste of the action, check out this hip-shaking video of folks hula hooping to “Billie Jean” in the park.

While I strolled, shopped, and ate my way past the dozens of stalls, I was serenaded by flute, saxophone and guitar players; seduced by the smells of Ethiopian, Indian, West Indian, Thai and other ethnic cuisines; and sated by tastes of slurpy-ripe yellow peaches, fresh-roasted Fair Trade coffee from Zeke’s, and a delightfully moist raspberry bran muffin from Atwater’s Bakery.

The Crepe Maker

Travis from Chez G Crepes prepares my crepe.

The sight of crepes being made reminded me of the fabulous crepes at my favorite market in the world, Camden Lock in London, so I stopped at Chez G Crepes, where I chatted with Travis as he poured the batter for my Portobello, feta and spinach crepe onto the grill.

The Pound Cake baker

Leah Williams sells her pound cakes at the 32nd Street Farmers Market.

Not far from Chez G, I was charmed by Leah Williams’ display of carefully wrapped slices of plain, lemon, and 7-Up pound cake. Since I’d never heard of using 7-Up in a cake, I had to investigate. Apparently, the 7-Up acts as the leavening agent. Happily, the cake did not taste like a can of soda; the 7-Up imparted a lemony flavor, and the slice was dense, moist and delicious.

I purchased six different heirloom tomatoes for $3 a pound and a bouquet of local lettuce for another $3, along with some attractive white chard, which, confusingly, is actually green chard with white stalks. I also picked up 1/4 peck of those yellow peaches for $6 and 2 quarts of cherry and acid-free tomatoes for $5.

The Flute Player

Musician Esther Trueheart is also a teacher.

Hot and tired, I stopped to listen to Esther Trueheart play her flute. The notes wafted through the market like a stream of soap bubbles. In addition to performing at the markets, Esther is a substitute teacher and runs a music school she hopes to make into a full-time business. I told her the name of my blog is “The PescoVegetarian Times,” and she said she’s been exploring vegetarian foods. We agreed that you can’t get people to give up Kentucky Fried Chicken by lecturing; you have to provide convenient, affordable alternatives that taste good.

With markets like 32nd street, getting people to eat healthy local food is as easy as, well, hula hooping’s supposed to be.  If only I could shimmy like Spilly.

A Tree Grows in Baltimore – Does Crime Grow, Too?

Baltimore Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtle blossoms come in many colors, including Barbie Doll pink.

Since I normally only visit Baltimore at Christmas time, I’ve never noticed the glorious crape myrtle trees bursting into bloom on seemingly every street here.  The tiny blossoms are said to resemble crepe, hence the name crape–also sometimes spelled “crepe.”

I did a little poking around on the web and learned that the crape myrtle can grow as far north as Boston, but the trees are much more common here in the Southeast.  This hardy, drought-resistant tree comes in many colors and sizes, although Barbie Doll pink seems to be the most popular. Like the stone and brick houses in East Baltimore, the crape myrtle seems built to last.

The Deck

The crape myrtle that used to grow where this deck was built keeps trying to come back.

In fact, my mother-in-law, Doris, had a lovely deck built on the side of her house where a crape myrtle tree had been growing.  Although the tree had been cut down before the deck was built, the roots keep coming back.

Like the crape myrtle, crime seems to live on nearly every street in Baltimore. But is crime really growing here? While there are many forms of crimes, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m just going to look at homicide.

The evidence is contradictory. Although the number of homicides in Baltimore increased slightly in 2009, to 238 from 234, the homicide rate has actually decreased from the record high of 379 homicides in 1993.

There were 7 murders here in the past week, but the one that captured the most media attention was the Sunday night, July 25 robbery/stabbing of a 23-year-old white male in the supposedly safe Charles Village neighborhood, close to the Johns Hopkins campus and just down the road from my mother-in-law Doris’ house, where I’m staying. Although this particular victim was white, 88 percent of Baltimore’s homicide victims are African-Americans, even though they only make up 63 percent of the city’s population, according to the Baltimore City Paper.

The Crape and the Stone

Crape myrtles can grow as tall as 40 feet.

I’ve been visiting Baltimore for the past 21 years. While the number of homicides may not actually be increasing, it strikes me that the residents believe it’s getting worse.  Surveillance cameras look down on virtually every street corner.  A police car is permanently parked at the gas station near 33rd St. and Greenmount Ave. And my brother-in-law, Michael, used to love exploring the bars in Fells Point and other parts of the city, but now he sticks close to the house at night because he thinks it’s too dangerous to go out.

My mother-in-law blames the situation, in part, on TV shows set in Baltimore, like “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” and “The Wire,” because she thinks they glorify the violence.  While I’m no fan of crime shows, I think they reflect reality more than they shape it. And violent crime is devastating communities all over the country, not just Baltimore.

Whatever the cause, it saddens me that the warm-hearted people who live in this city of beautiful parks, row houses, and the world’s best crab cakes cannot hang out on their decks without keeping one eye on the street.  Like the crape myrtle, they’re strong, resilient people, so I believe that some day they’ll push up from their roots and reclaim this city from the thugs.