Cook On: Icing on the Crab Cake

By Mary Ann Ebner

To call a crab cake casual fare usually sounds pretty accurate. Completely unassuming, stacked on a plate or spilling out of parchment served up to go, delicate seafood patties impart a crumbly comfort any time of day. Eat them for breakfast with a slice of melon or crunch them during daytime with baby carrots. When the sun sets and dinner calls, pair them with a bright beet sauce.

Thanks to the yellow, square, animated fry cook SpongeBob SquarePants, our kids developed a fascination with crab cakes when they were little. The cartoon character wasn’t exactly sharing educational messages with viewers, but he served up a creation called Krabby Patties, a sandwich with secret ingredients, at the Krusty Krab restaurant.

Crab cakes drizzled with beet sauce (Photo by M.A. Ebner)

Crab cakes drizzled with beet sauce (Photo by M.A. Ebner)

When we finally made our way to Maine over a long summer weekend several years ago, we set out to find crab cakes during our short stay to explore the state’s seafood. And according to the Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine, crabmeat is low in fat, high in zinc and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Once we found the ideal Maine café, along the waterfront and adorned with menus on the wall and vinyl covers on the tables, we figured SpongeBob would feel right at home. Three of us ordered the crab cakes, with no desire to consider any other options. But our younger son, about 6 or 7 at the time, saw someone wearing a plastic bib while tackling lobster. The boy who had been longing to try a Krabby Patty and even had his own toy spatula ordered the lobster. He finished the lobster, and our crab cakes didn’t disappoint. Now we make our own crab cakes with beet sauce at home and unanimously agree that beet sauce spiked with horseradish tastes far better than the cartoon character’s recommendation of tartar sauce.

Beets are often underappreciated, and a love-hate relationship swirls around them. Some people love the rugged color of beetroot, Beta vulgaris, but others don’t care for the earthy flavor. Many only recognize the vegetable as a pickled product, or through its celebrated application in borscht, but beets complement so many other foods. And beets truly are a New York thing to do. The Cornell Cooperative Extension notes that approximately 3,000 acres of red table beets are grown annually in New York. If you didn’t develop a relationship with beets until young adulthood, you’re probably in good company. And if you’re still waffling on beets, consider sampling purply-rose beet sauce drizzled over crab cakes.

Beets with greens

Beets with greens

Honest crab cakes hold themselves together with eggs and some other type of binding agent from breadcrumbs to crackers, but each bite should fall apart and melt in your mouth. Fresh crab may be an option if you prefer high-end quality crabmeat and don’t mind paying for it to be shipped right to your door, but the meat from frozen crab legs — firm, sweet and slightly textured — works well. There’s no sense snubbing canned crab either. The canned crab won’t deliver quite the same restaurant-style cake result, where generous lumps of crabmeat provide an initial visual tasting, but it’s an option when you don’t live near a fish market or in Maine.

There is one shortcoming in making the beet sauce. Prep cooks come away with crimson cuticles after peeling and preparing the beets. Alternatives could include wearing food-handling gloves, but a little beet juice stain becomes a kitchen battle scar that washes away before too long. If you get your hands dirty, the golden crab cakes with lush beet sauce will confirm who’s having fun in the kitchen.

Crab Cakes With Beet Sauce

Serves 6

Beet sauce

3 medium-sized beets

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon horseradish

¼ cup lemon juice

¼ cup water

Crab cakes

4 tablespoons butter

1 red onion, minced

1 ½ cups plain breadcrumbs

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup half-and-half

1 pound crabmeat

½ teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon sea salt

¼ cup flat parsley, chopped

For the sauce:

Trim tops of rinsed beets and reserve beet greens for another use. Roast beets for 1 hour at 375 degrees. Cool. Remove skins and cut beets into quarters. Purée beets in food processor or blender. Add the other sauce ingredients and blend until smooth. If consistency is too thick, gradually add more water as needed. Set aside to use at room temperature or keep warm on low heat.

For the cakes:

Sauté minced onion in 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat. In mixing bowl, combine onion mixture with all other ingredients, reserving ½ cup of the breadcrumbs. (To increase serving portions and up the vegetable quotient for this recipe, consider adding 2 to 3 stalks of celery. Sauté diced celery with onion in the first stage of this recipe.) Form several 1- to 2-inch cakes. Heat remaining butter in frying pan and dust crab cakes with breadcrumbs. Lightly brown both sides of cakes. Add additional butter to pan if needed. Cook over low heat 4 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately with beet sauce and lemon wedges.

Photos by M.A. Ebner

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