There are a few things about Marylanders that can be construed as unique. For instance: spectators at sporting events emphasize the “O” in the national anthem (which was written in Baltimore); life is centered on the Chesapeake Bay—and often the Bay Bridge; Old Bay goes on everything and is typically accompanied by “Natty Boh” beer or local microbrew; and crabs are a treasured culinary staple throughout the state. Crabs are to Marylanders what cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia. Here in Ocean City, it’s impossible to travel any distance without finding crab houses where you can pick them or restaurants serving incredible crab and crab-stuffed menu items. While you’re visiting, make sure to try some of this crustacean’s sweet meat!
Crab cakes are a good introduction for the novice crab eater and Maryland-style is the way to do it. Jumbo lump backfin is the most valued meat of the crab. The large lumps are lightly bonded together with very little filler, and made into the size and shape of an O’s baseball. Yes, the good ones are roundish; they should not be pancakes. With the exception of perhaps some parsley, no vegetables are added to this masterpiece. It’s believed that onion and green pepper only detract from the crab’s delicate flavor. A hint of Old Bay is all that is needed—and should be included! Though you can get crab cakes fried, broiled is usually preferred so again, the crabmeat is the star. Voila! You’ve now been initiated as an honorary Marylander in the making.
To really get your hands dirty and live life like a true native resident of the Chesapeake Bay area, a crab feast is in order. Steamed in a large “crab pot” with beer and vinegar and covered in Old Bay and rock salt is the standard recipe. Add some cayenne to really heat ‘em up. Gather your friends and family around a newspaper-covered picnic table and start picking! Typically, all you need is a knife, but some people use a wooden mallet to break open stubborn claws (try not to shatter the shell too much.) Schools of thought vary on how to access the meat, especially in the inner chambers, but this is the way I was taught by my father, who was taught by the former mayor of Baltimore, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.:
1. Turn the Old Bay-drenched crustacean upside down and remove the “apron.” (It starts in the center of the crab and meets at the back of the top shell.)
2. Remove the top shell and scrape away the feathery gills on the sides and internal organs. Hint: try the yellow “mustard”—it literally looks like a Dijon and is delicious!
3. Here’s where I remove the legs, very gingerly to keep as much backfin meat attached as possible. It just feels rewarding to access the meat so easily…
4. Then break each leg at each joint to remove the meat from them. It may not be much, but waste not, want not. Snap the claw apart at the joint to access its interior meat as well.
5. Afterwards, you’re left with the two halves of the crab, each containing five chambers of meat. Cut length-wise through each half of the crab so you now have the crab quartered with ten accessible chambers of meat. Easily remove the meat with the tip of your knife and enjoy.
6. Start again with the next crab and keep repeating! Though it’s not necessary, try dipping your crabmeat in apple cider vinegar or drawn butter. Yum!
Now you’re a crab-picking pro! Next, do you dare to eat a soft-shell crab sandwich or try your hand at crabbing? Take it from a Marylander… both are highly recommended!
Cooking with Crab
Here are a couple of traditional Maryland recipes featuring the Chesapeake Bay blue crab, straight from Mom’s kitchen.
Maryland-Style Crab Cakes
1 lb. crabmeat (preferably backfin or jumbo lump)
2 tsp. Old Bay
3/4 cup finely crushed salted crackers (about 16 crackers)
1 Tbsp. parsley, minced
2 large eggs
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1-1/2 tsp. mustard (yellow or Dijon)
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
Sort through the crabmeat to remove any remaining shells. Take care to not break up the lumps. Spread the crabmeat out on a large piece of wax paper or flat surface like a cookie sheet. Sprinkle Old Bay, cracker crumbs and chopped parsley over the crab. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs then mix in mayonnaise, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. Fold in the crab and combine gently, still trying to keep lumps of crabmeat intact.
Shape the crab mixture into 4 large cakes or 6 smaller ones, keeping them relatively round. Turn the oven on to a low broil. On the stovetop, melt the butter over medium heat in an oven-safe skillet (cast iron is perfect) and place the crab cakes in the pan. Cook 5 minutes. Then, place the pan in the middle of your oven on a low broil setting. Cook 8-10 minutes until browned. If you like, serve with a slice of lemon, cocktail sauce or tartar sauce.
Makes 4-6 crab cakes.
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 small shallot, minced
4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
salt and white pepper, to taste
1 lb. crabmeat
1 egg yolk
1 tsp. Old Bay
2 Tbsp. sherry
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1 tsp. parsley
1/4 cup buttered bread crumbs
Dash of paprika
Sort through the crabmeat to remove any remaining shells and set aside. Preheat oven to 400°. Prepare béchamel sauce by melting butter in sauce pan on medium heat. Then add shallot and sauté until tender.
Stir in flour, creating a paste (roux). Add 1/3 cup of milk and blend into the roux. Slowly incorporate the rest of the milk, stirring constantly. Stir in bay leaf. Just before the sauce begins to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and add salt and pepper. Simmer 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and remove bay leaf. Whisk in the egg yolk.
Mix in sherry, soft breadcrumbs, parsley, and Old Bay. Gently fold in crabmeat and place mixture in oven-proof bowl or portion for individual servings into ramekins. Top with buttered breadcrumbs. Bake at 400° for 20-25 minutes if serving family-style, 10-12 minutes if portioned for individual servings. (If breadcrumbs start to get too brown, cover/ tent with aluminum foil.) Garnish with a sprinkle of paprika if desired. Serves 4.