I Got Crabs

Getting crabs can go either way, I suppose. Hopefully your mind is outta the gutter and you’re realizing that since this is a food blog, I’m referring to the more positive aspect of crab procurement.

But if you weren’t thinking along those lines, I really can’t fault you, because I probably would have gone there first, too. I can’t help it that I’m almost 32 and still relatively immature. What can I say – I try not to take life too seriously. Things have worked out ok for me so far, so there is that.

But let’s get to the point. It’s crab season in the Bay Area, folks! If you’ve got a big enough pot for some live Dungeness crabs (which I do not – yet), now is the time to get your hands on some. Otherwise, buying the pre-picked lump crab meat is the next best thing.

Now for me, having a “crab season” is something of an oddity. In North Carolina, it was always crab season. Blue crabs. If you’ve read along from the very beginning, you might remember me talking about our place at the beach. My pops had 3 or 4 crab pots, and every weekend we went to the beach he’d take the crab pots out and let them hang out in the sound for a few days. The next weekend we’d check them, and if we were lucky, they’d be FULL of crabs.

I never appreciated the crabbing and fishing like I do now. What I wouldn’t give for another weekend like those weekends we spent down there – taking out our own pots (or at least, watching pops do it), dragging the shrimp nets through the mud, digging for clams (the term “clam diggers” took on a whole new meaning, a legit meaning, then), peeling shrimp and watching a fat ol’ flounder fry up. Our little vacation trailer smelled like a shrimp shack almost nightly, and the steam fogged up the windows in a flash. We went through jars of cocktail and tartar sauce, and man, I totally took the hushpuppies for granted.

I don’t even think I cared much for seafood back then – unless, of course, the shrimp were fried up nice and crunchy. Nowadays, a nice piece of fish, or a handful of shrimp, and this time, a ginormous container of extra-fresh West Coast Dungeness crab, is a highlight of the day. My friend, Judy, told me their company had gotten a great deal on live or picked crab and if I wanted any, all I had to do was tell her how much and I could pick it up later that day. As much as I wanted to buy a few live crabs for dinner that Friday, I knew my lil’ pot couldn’t handle them in their full-on shell-on form. (And to be honest, I haven’t tossed a live crab in a pot of boiling water in a looooong time, so that was another issue that quickly became a non-issue.) So instead, I opted for pre-picked and with that, I knew it was crab-cake time. But not the crab cakes you get at the restaurant that are loaded with bread crumbs – real, meat-filled crab cakes was what I had in mind.

And so I went full California style and figured a recipe with avocado sauce was entirely appropriate. Sure, my cakes were so much more crab and so much less ‘glue’ that they didn’t quite stay together in cake form, so to speak, but I was generally ok with that – what was lacking in presentation was entirely overshadowed by taste this time around.

Even though I never ate crab cakes with avocado sauce back home, I still felt a twinge of nostalgia for all those weekends back East. It was a good feeling, and for a few moments I felt like I could have easily been sitting back there, shoving fried shrimp and a few bites of flounder and stuffed crab into my face. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and I was transported 3,000 miles away. ‘Twas a good night, a good night indeed.

Crab Cakes with Spicy Avocado Sauce
Adapted from Gourmet, 2004 via Epicurious.com; serves 4 

I meant to include an egg and more panko in my crabs, but I totally forgot to do both. Mine didn’t stick together very well, but I am sure that adding an egg and more panko will do the trick, plus I think a little more breading in the cake is nice for texture. Normally I’d try these things out before posting, but I doubt I’ll be buying a pound of crab again in the near future, and I wanted to share this while Dungeness is in season out here! plus, after reading a ton of reviews on Epicurious, I get the sense that others already tried these additions with success, so I’m sure you will, too. You’re welcome ;).

time commitment: 45 minutes (30 minutes active)

printable version

ingredients
sauce
1/2 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled
1 T low-fat mayonnaise
1 T fresh lime juice
1/4 t salt
1/4 t sugar
1 fresh jalapeño (including seeds), stemmed and quartered lengthwise
1/4 c skim milk

crab cakes
1 lb Dungeness (or other) crabmeat, picked over and coarsely shredded
3 T low-fat mayonnaise
1/4 c coarsely chopped cilantro
1 T fresh lime juice
1 t Dijon mustard
1/4 t black pepper
1 c panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 T unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1/4 t chipotle chile powder
1/4 t salt

instructions
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400 F. Line with parchment paper.

prepare sauce
Pulse avocado with mayonnaise, lime juice, salt, sugar, and jalapeño in a food processor until chile is finely chopped. Add milk and purée until smooth. Transfer sauce to a bowl and chill, covered.

make crab cakes
Stir together crabmeat, mayonnaise, cilantro, lime juice, mustard, pepper, 1/2 c panko, and egg in a large bowl until blended well, then chill, covered.

Melt butter in a medium nonstick skillet over moderate heat, then cook garlic, stirring, until golden and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add chile powder, salt, and remaining panko and cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Transfer crumbs to a plate to cool. Discard garlic.

Divide crabmeat mixture into 4 mounds. Form 1 mound into a patty, then carefully turn patty in crumb mixture to coat top and bottom. Transfer to baking sheet and repeat with remaining 3 mounds, then sprinkle remaining crumbs on top of crab cakes. Bake until heated through, about 15 minutes. Serve crab cakes with sauce.

Balls to the Wall

You’ll note that this site is a little skimpy on the appetizers. Well, sorta. Here’s the deal: there’s a direct correlation between the length of the snack section and the number of dinner parties I either host or attend. Aside from Iron Chef, they’re sadly few and far between. As a result, the stack of ‘to make’ appetizer recipes is rather long, often from way-old magazine editions, and even those recipes often get tossed out before they get their chance to shine.

Every so often though, I hold onto one for dear life, desperately hoping for an excuse to try it out, and to share it with some well-deserving friends. Sometimes it just takes a while, but those recipes eventually surface, and then I wonder why I waited so long. I mean really, appetizers can be shared among two people, right?!

Sure they can, but sharing them is much better because that often means that you get to partake in some of their goodies, too. Even so, while toiling over what to make for a recent dinner party with a bit of an Italian theme, I still almost skipped over one of the oldest recipes in my stack – a classic Italian appetizer called arancini. Sure, it seemed perfectly appropriate, but I questioned the richness, the heaviness, and the carb load, not to mention whether or not I truly had the time to churn these puppies out. But in a fit of genius, I realized none of it mattered and they absolutely, positively had to be made.

It was one of my moments of superior thinking; those, my friends, don’t come along nearly as often as I’d like.

What are arancini? Let’s pare this down a bit: fried risotto balls, although that doesn’t really do this intensely awesome appetizer much justice, to be honest. You start out with a simple version of risotto, spiced with saffron, and you let it cool until you can play with it, er, divide it into 16 pieces and roll each into a ball. I made the risotto the night before and rolled them the following morning, since I was already pressed for time. That’s actually perfect; in fact, the Italians supposedly make arancini out of leftover risotto, since the quality of risotto diminishes so much when it’s no longer fresh.

Then you open ’em up and stuff ’em with cheese, or cheese and nuts, or in this case – cheese, nuts, and peas. You stitch them back together into their newly rotund selves, treat them to a bath of egg and breading, and await the heating of the oil – their final destination. Final, of course, until they get in your, er, you and your friends’, bellies.

Worth the work? Hands down, yes. Once fried, they are served warm (or rewarmed) – the outside crunches and sounds like a crisp bite into a potato chip, the smell makes you wonder if this is what paradise smells like and if so, why you haven’t been to Italy again in so long (or ever). And do I need to describe the taste of risotto? I hope not, but after the crunchy exterior comes that creamy ricey goodness and a string of mozzarella oozes out of the epicenter, which is dotted with the crunch of a pistachio. You practically kick yourself for waiting so long to make this, and then you seriously kick yourself again when you realize that, not only did you wait almost a year to make arancini, but now you have to share the damn things.

Sharing sucks, sometimes.

Pistachio-Cheese Arancini
Adapted from Food & Wine, December 2009; makes 16

time commitment: 2-2.5 hours, most active

printable version

ingredients
2 1/2 T unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
1 1/2 c carnaroli rice (about 10 ounces; arborio works well, too)
1/2 c dry white wine
Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 c chicken broth, warmed
3 T freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 T all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 c plus 2 T milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 oz fresh mozzarella, finely diced
1/4 c plus 2 T chopped salted pistachios
2 T frozen baby peas, thawed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c panko bread crumbs
canola oil, for frying

instructions
In a large saucepan, melt 2 T of the butter. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, 7 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until well coated with butter. Add the white wine and saffron, season with salt and black pepper and cook, stirring, until the wine is absorbed, 2 minutes. Add the warm chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time and cook, stirring constantly between additions, until it is absorbed. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente, 25 minutes total. Stir in the grated cheese, transfer to a bowl and let cool.

Melt the remaining 1/2 T of butter in a small saucepan. Add the 1/2 T of flour and whisk constantly over moderate heat for 1 minute. Add the milk and cook, whisking, until thickened. Season with the nutmeg, salt and black pepper and transfer to a bowl to cool completely. Stir in the mozzarella, pistachios and peas.

Line a large baking sheet with wax paper. Put the eggs, panko and flour for dusting in 3 shallow bowls. Using lightly moistened hands, shape the rice mixture into 16 equal balls. Working with one ball at a time, make an indentation in the center with your finger and press the sides to make the hollow larger. Spoon a T of the pistachio filling into the hollow and press the risotto around the filling to enclose it. Transfer the ball to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining risotto and filling. Dust the arancini with flour, tapping off the excess. Coat them with the egg and roll in the panko.

In a large, deep skillet, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil to 350 F. Fry the arancini over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until golden and heated through, 8 minutes. Drain the arancini on paper towels and serve hot. If prepared in advance, reheat arancini in a 350 F oven for about 10-15 minutes.

The Next Best Thing

Remember the college days? What did you eat back then (well, for me it certainly feels like “back then” although it was only 8 years ago since those undergrad days) when the “freshman 15” was really no big deal because you were little, young, and knew you’d work those extra calories off at some point?

I tell ya, I ate a heck of a lot of Gumby’s pizza (take a look – their pies are cheap as dirt!) and frequented Sammy’s for their hot wings with ‘Sammy Sauce’ more times than I care to remember. Shoot, we even took my dad there when he came into town, which was often. NC State was his alma mater too, so he jumped at the chance to tailgate, eat wings, and visit (probably also to check in on me, which I didn’t mind because it always involved giving me gas money).

When I wasn’t ordering Gumby’s or making my way over to Sammy’s, Wing Zone received quite a few calls from my dorm room and following the first year, whatever apartment I was living in at the time, since much to my dad’s dismay I moved every. single. year. Wing Zone has multiple flavors of chicken wings and when you’re in college, you have to ensure that there are good pizza and wings in the near vacinity. For me, that was no problem.

But in college, I never thought about the actual preparation of wings: the breading, the often-frying, and that finger-lickin’ buffalo sauce that was comprised primarily of three ingredients: butter, hot sauce, and butter. I could, spoon in hand, alternate between the sauce and the blue cheese dip without ever touching the chicken, if truth be told.

But now I know why I shouldn’t, and as much as it hurts to pass up the wings 9 out of 10 trips to sports bars, I punk out and instead drool all over my plate that once held something boring, like grilled chicken.

I’ve realized that it doesn’t have to be that way. First, I now know how to make my own yummilicious wings that, although comprised of similar ingredients, have much less butter and are baked instead of fried. One could stop at the wings and be satisfied for the most part, but I was still hankerin’ for the blue cheese.

And so I present to you, a “best of both worlds” sort of dish: chicken stuffed with a blue cheese sauce, baked until it’s oozing out all over the place, and topped with a healthy version of buffalo sauce that’s sweet from the roasted red peppers, tangy from the Worcestershire sauce, and reminiscent of the wings you know and love thanks to Frank’s Red Hot. You definitely won’t miss all the butter, and in this case, the only thing missing is the celery sticks, and perhaps a nice cold one to wash it all down.

What about you – any healthy food conversions you can to share?

Blue Cheese-Stuffed Chicken with Buffalo Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light March 2010; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
1/2  c (2 ounces) crumbled blue cheese
1  T reduced-fat sour cream
1  t fresh Meyer or regular lemon juice
1/4 t  freshly ground black pepper
4  (~6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1/4  c flour
2  T skim milk
1  egg, lightly beaten
1  c panko breadcrumbs (or regular if that’s what you have)
1 1/2  T butter, divided
6  T finely chopped drained bottled roasted red bell peppers
2  t water
2  t Worcestershire sauce
1  garlic clove, minced
1 T hot sauce (Franks, preferably)

instructions
Preheat oven to 350.

Combine first 4 ingredients in a small bowl. Cut a horizontal slit through thickest portion of each chicken breast half to form a pocket. Stuff cheese mixture evenly into pockets.

Place flour in a shallow dish. Combine milk and egg in a shallow dish, stirring with whisk or fork to mix. Place panko in a shallow dish. Working with 1 breast at a time, dredge chicken in flour, then egg, then panko. Repeat procedure with remaining chicken, flour, egg mixture, and panko.

Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon butter to pan; swirl until butter melts. Arrange chicken in pan; cook 4 minutes or until browned. Turn chicken over; place skillet in oven. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until done.

While chicken bakes, combine remaining 1 1/2 t butter, bell peppers, water, Worcestershire, and garlic in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer; cook until butter melts. Remove from heat, and stir in hot sauce. Serve sauce with chicken. If you prefer a less clumpy sauce, blend in processor or blender.