How to make Rick Stein’s Maryland crab cakes with tarragon-and-butter sauce

The humble crab is a hard-shelled hero that never fails to delight. Tom Parker Bowles takes a look at this delicacy, and then shares his favourite crab recipe — a slice of perfection dreamt up by Rick Stein.

I’ve yet to meet a crab I didn’t like. On the plate that is, rather than hanging tenaciously from my little toe, in the style of some bawdy Donald McGill seaside postcard. Because this fearsomely clawed crustacean is one of the steadfast stars of the culinary firmament, an endlessly versatile hard-shelled hero that never fails to delight.

In fact, given the choice between thuggish lobster and nimble crab, I’d always plump for the latter. The flesh is more subtle, albeit rather trickier to extract.

However, that’s all part of the charm, off-road eating of the most visceral kind; cracking and crunching and picking and sucking. Of course, you can buy your meat ready prepared, but that means you miss out on all that messy, mucky fun.

As to my favourite, I couldn’t say. Some days, I dream of the hairy crab (also known as the Chinese mitten crab) at Victoria City Seafood in Hong Kong, where the lights are as bright as the produce is peerless. They come into season from late autumn to early winter, with the most sought after found in Yang-cheng Lake, near Shanghai.

Demand is high, and prices, too, as much as £100 per kilo. Which means, inevitably, there’s also a thriving market in counterfeit crustacea. Simply steamed and served with a ginger-and-vinegar dipping sauce, their roe is buttery and lasciviously rich, their flesh sweet as a first kiss.

Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami is another favourite, where, in a season that runs from October to May, a dozen ‘select’ claws (by far the best size), all firm, succulent white flesh, are served cold, cracked and dipped in their house mustard sauce. Stone crabs are harvested by removing the claws (which regrow) before being tossed back, alive, into the sea. Again, they’re not cheap and the wait for a table can be lengthy. But a couple of vast dirty martinis certainly makes the time fly by.

Then, there are the Australian mud crabs, their drab shells belying the most exquisitely delicate white flesh. They dwell in dark holes among the mangrove swamps of northern Queensland and I once spent a day hunting them, barefoot and armed only with a flimsy spear. It was brutally hot, real Troppo fierce, and my guide was typically laidback about the myriad dangers lurking in the lukewarm, waist-deep murk.

‘A few snakes, mate, and the occasional stinger [deadly jellyfish]. Oh, and sometimes the odd saltie [saltwater crocodile, vast, aggressive and hungry]. You’ll be fine.’

I’ve never been happier to climb back onto dry land. Yet, when cooked with chilli in the Singaporean style, those few hours of fear seemed a fair price to pay.

Equally sublime is the flesh of the spider crab, folded into spaghettini at the ever-wonderful Antiche Carampane in Venice. As well as those Venetian soft-shell crabs, moleche (crabs that have shed their shell, before growing a new one), available briefly in the spring and autumn. Allowed to crawl around for an hour or so in beaten egg, they’re cooked live in seething oil.

Blue crab, boiled up with crawfish, smoked sausage and corn in the bayous of Louisiana and devoured to the lilting twang of zydeco music, takes some beating, although our very own brown crab is memorable for the divine contrast of pristine white and bosky brown meat. Simply dressed or crammed between two thick slices of good white bread, it’s a world-class mouthful — and perhaps my favourite of all.

Although, as I have said, I’m a sucker for the beast in its every form. Bring me crab, and make it snappy. This recipe comes from Rick Stein, not only an endless inspiration, but a true seafood Titan, too. I like the fact that these cakes are actually packed with crab.

Maryland crab cakes with tarragon- and-butter sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 40g cream crackers or Saltines
  • 450g fresh white crab meat
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2tbspn mayonnaise
  • 1tbspn English mustard powder
  • 1tbspn lemon juice
  • A dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • 2tbspn chopped parsley
  • 4tbspn clarified butter
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the tarragon-and-butter sauce

  • 50ml white-wine vinegar
  • 4tbspn clarified butter
  • 1 plum tomato, skinned, seeded and diced
  • 1tspn chopped tarragon

Method

Put the cream crackers into a plastic bag and crush into fine crumbs with a rolling pin. Put the crab meat into a bowl and add just enough of the cracker crumbs to absorb any moisture from the crab. You may not need to add them all.

Break the egg into a small bowl and whisk in the mayonnaise, mustard, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and some seasoning. Fold this mixture into the crab meat but try not to break up the lumps of crab too much. Stir in the parsley. Shape the mixture into eight 7.5cm (3in) patties, put them on a plate, cover with clingfilm and chill for at least an hour.

Heat the clarified butter in a large frying pan. Add the crab cakes and cook over a medium heat for 2–3 minutes on each side, until richly golden.

Meanwhile, for the sauce, boil the vinegar in a small pan until reduced to about 2tbspn. Add the clarified butter, diced tomato, chopped tarragon and some salt and pepper to taste and gently warm through, then serve with the crab cakes.