About the only thing I miss about my last job is the travel. I really enjoy getting out of New York, seeing something different, learning something new. So I was pleased when a recent assignment took me to Baltimore, Maryland, a city I’ve been to many times over the years. What was new this time was that I stayed downtown, at a really beautiful hotel that’s been open such a short space of time, my cab driver had never even heard of it. What wasn’t new was the chance to dig into some really good crab cakes and there’s no place better to do that than in Baltimore.
The Kempton Hotel Group spent $65,000,000.00 on the Hotel Monaco Baltimore and you can see it. The former headquarters of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) has been polished and shined and must be the pride of the neighborhood. That opening picture is the lobby replete with its Tiffany stained glass which, I was told, was valued at 4 million dollars. The hotel stills shares space with some offices in the building so it jumps from the 3rd floor to the 7th through 14th floors where the guest rooms are.
Beautiful and high-ceilinged, they’re immensely comfortable with gigantic flat screen TVs and massive jetted bathtubs with separate showers.
Kempton has a really good loyalty program, “In Touch”. Instead of having to wait interminably for your ‘free nights’, “In Touch” rewards you immediately with a $10.00 credit on your mini-bar. I particularly appreciated this for the Orange Juice I drank with my free New York Times in the morning.
The hotel restaurant, the B&O American Brasserie, is a striking two storied space with a great bar area. I’d had dinner before I arrived so I opted for a glass of wine from the Restaurant’s completely American list. I can highly recommend Eric, the bartender’s, choice of Paso Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. And after I discovered it retails from about $14-16.99, I’ll recommend it even higher. Excellent, full-bodied and very fruity. In the morning, I had a very good breakfast of smoked salmon and took the fast-speed Acela train back to New York arriving in 2 hours and 10 minutes. With the Inner Harbor, the Aquarium, Pimlico Racetrack and Camden Yards all within easy reach of the Hotel Monaco, it would make a great spot for a quick weekend getaway.
Now to the crab cakes. They are simplicity themselves to make. You can make them hors d’oeuvres size or you can go all out with something the size of a hamburger patty. The important thing here is to maximize the crab and minimize the breadcrumbs. If you’ve ever been disappointed in a crab cake, I can almost guarantee it’s because someone was scrimping on shellfish and heavy-handed with the crumbs. There is a delicate balancing act because you do need to bind the ingredients together. But to make the most of the subtle flavor of the crab, you should go light on the mayonnaise, use only fresh breadcrumbs and whatever else you do, you have to get a hold of Old Bay Seasoning.
A Baltimore staple, which has a “Maryland with Pride” seal on its packaging, Old Bay is in its 71st year. A blend of 12 spices, Old Bay is one of those cult classics that gets sprinkled on everything from French fries to Pizza. But it is crucial to achieve the flavor of a true Maryland Crab Cake. That being said, there are three non-traditional changes I made to the original recipe. I like the color I achieve when I add finely diced red pimento to my crab cakes. And secondly, instead of using plain white bread or worse—dried breadcrumbs--, I like to use Brioche breadcrumbs. Fresh Brioche doesn’t suck what little juice there is out of the crab meat the way dried bread crumbs do. Finally, I dip my cakes in Panko breadcrumbs before I cook them. I like a little crunch factor and Panko gives them just that. Here is the recipe:
Recipe for Maryland Crab Cakes, slightly Montefied:
1 lb of crab meat, picked over, any cartilage removed.
1 ½ tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
¼ tsp. salt
1 tbsp. Mayonnaise
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup roasted red peppers (pimentos) from a jar cut in small dice.
1 brioche or other egg bread roll (Eli’s Brioche Hamburger Buns are excellent), made into bread crumbs in the Cuisinart and then soaked in 1 cup milk.
1 cup Panko Bread crumbs
4 tbsp. butter.
Yields 8 main course crab cakes, 24 hors d’oevres sized.
Combine all ingredients in a metal bowl.
Using a generous ¼ cup of the mixture for full size crab cakes or 1 tbsp. for hors d’oevres size, form the crab mixture into cakes.
Coat the cakes in Panko crumbs. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes and up to 6 hours.
Melt butter in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Cook cakes until golden brown and heated through about 4 minutes per side. Work in batches if necessary, keeping crab cakes warm as they emerge from the skillet.
Place 2 crab cakes on a plate. Serve with Basil Aioli and Basil Tomato Salad, recipes to follow.
Recipe for Basil Aioli:
A very simple dish to make, you can do this while the crab cakes chill.
¾ cup of mayonnaise
1/3 cup of fresh basil, finely chopped or made into a chiffonade by rolling the basil leaves together and then slicing them finely.
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 ½ tsp. minced garlic
1 ½ tsp. great lemon peel
Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to develop. (Can be made 2 days in advance and refrigerated).
Recipe for Basil, Tomato and Potato Salad.
Never mind the ‘new austerity’, buying Basil in mid-winter to satisfy a recipe requiring 1/3 cup of the stuff just makes me crazy. But this recipe lets you bring the basil to the table in an absolutely lovely fresh salad with so much great Basil aroma and taste. You should use those ‘tomatoes on the vine’ or Italian plum tomatoes that are sometimes passable this time of year. The potatoes are optional. Just use any small red or Yukon or, in my case, fingerling potatoes leftover from another occasion.
1 Bunch fresh Basil
1 Tomato on the Vine per person, sliced into wedges.
6-8 boiled potatoes, cooked and chilled and sliced into wedges.
¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Dash of Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper
In a bowl combine the basil, tomato and potato wedges.
Use the following advice I found the other day in an unattributed quote:
“It takes four men to dress a salad: a wise man for the salt, a madman
for the pepper, a miser for the vinegar, and a spendthrift for the oil.”