On a trip to Baltimore, Mark Hix discovered that heaven has claws. Here are the dishes that knocked him sideways

How did I end up hanging out for three long evenings in Club Charles in Baltimore, you may wonder? Well, I was there on a mission, to address the International Associaton of Culinary Professionals, taking part in seminars and doing cookery demonstrations. Baltimore also happens to be the US crab-cake capital and it's thirsty work sampling crab cakes and speaking in front of an audience of America's finest culinarians. When a round of six drinks - including Kamikazi cocktails - sets you back no more than US$16 it had to be a bloody good bet to finish off a long day's conventioning.

How did I end up hanging out for three long evenings in Club Charles in Baltimore, you may wonder? Well, I was there on a mission, to address the International Associaton of Culinary Professionals, taking part in seminars and doing cookery demonstrations. Baltimore also happens to be the US crab-cake capital and it's thirsty work sampling crab cakes and speaking in front of an audience of America's finest culinarians. When a round of six drinks - including Kamikazi cocktails - sets you back no more than US$16 it had to be a bloody good bet to finish off a long day's conventioning.

The theme of the convention - city ports and how they have influenced our dining - sounds a little dry, but don't worry, I'll just fill you in on the juicy bits of Baltimore. Not the Kamikazi sessions (too hazy to relate), but the ins and outs of those famous crab cakes.

France has its foie gras, Spain its paella and New Orleans its gumbo, but the folks living along the shores and far-reaching tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay should be just as renowned for their crab cakes. This is the capital of the crab cake - in restaurants and factories and homes, where every household has its family recipe. Half the USA's blue-crab catch is landed here so they need to do something with them.

I became obsessed with tracking down the definitive version. The best, in a sort of fishy equivalent of TGI Friday's, seemed to be jam-packed with lumps of crab meat and not much else. Locals are hard pushed to come up with a semi-sensible description. "Well it sure ain't a dessert and it's not exactly made in a cake pan either," was typical. But the local TV chef John Shields' Chesapeake Bay Cooking told me everything I needed to know. Typically, chunky crab meat is lightly bound with a filler which can be made with anything from bread soaked in milk to matzo meal, reduced béchamel to mayonnaise. Seasoning can be the local mix (mustard powder, mace, ginger, paprika, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, thyme, cayenne), mustard, parsley or Tabasco.

Ever since European settlers arrived here in the 16th century they've been eating crab cakes. In North Atlantic Seafood Alan Davidson says, "The blue crab is as American as the stars and stripes." They are much smaller than our native brown crabs, but the meat's sweeter and there's more of it. Chesapeake Bay is also where 90 per cent of the USA's soft-shell crabs come from. These are blue crabs that have just shed their shells, caught in the brief moment before their shell starts to harden again. This month is the peak season for catching these succulent little crabs.

Fried soft-shell crabs with carrot and coriander salad

Serves 4

Blue swimmer crabs shed their shells up to 23 times during their three-year-long lives and the result of each moulting is an increase of 25-40 per cent body weight. In the Chesapeake Bay the locals have many names for soft-shell crabs including paper shells, peelers, snots, Sally crabs and buckrams. Throughout the summer season they will be everywhere from the smartest restaurants to the local diner, and you will see kids sitting on the harbour wall munching on soft-shell crab sandwiches.

Over here we can only buy them frozen, in Chinese and South East Asian stores and some specialist fishmongers, which is perfectly good for frying in batter. They're expensive, but the whole thing is completely edible and there's no preparation. A light tempura-like batter is normally the best coating. Or treat them like whitebait - put them through plain flour seasoned with cayenne pepper and salt, shake, dip in milk and flour again. Sauces like tartare or just bottled Asian chilli sauce work well.

4 soft-shell crabs, each about 50g each
Vegetable or corn oil, for deep-frying

for the batter

200ml iced water
75g plain flour
25g potato flour

for the carrot and coriander salad

6 medium carrots, peeled and finely shredded
4 spring onions, finely shredded at an angle
2tsp sweet chilli sauce
1tbsp rice vinegar
2tbsp chopped coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make the batter by mixing the ingredients together, but don't worry if there are a few lumps left in it. Chop the crabs into quarters and pat them dry on kitchen paper. Meanwhile, pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180ºC/320-360ºF in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-based saucepan.

Make the salad by mixing the carrots with the spring onions, chilli sauce, rice vinegar and coriander, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Dip the pieces of soft-shell crab in the batter and fry them, a few pieces at a time, for 2-3 minutes until crisp, then drain on kitchen paper.

Pile the carrot salad on plates with the soft-shell crab and serve immediately.

Faidley's crab cakes

Serves 4

Lexington market was once the centre of fresh produce in Baltimore. Today it still has a few stalls trading in fresh produce, but the majority are fried-chicken and Asian fast-food stalls. The centrepiece of the market is Faidley's seafood stall which advertises the best crab cakes in Baltimore. The queue was 50 deep the day we went on one of our crab-cake misions, so we gave it a miss and settled for some raw clams and oysters and a large helping of fried chicken gizzards. I lifted their famous recipe from Chesapeake Bay Cooking. Try to buy fresh crabs for this, cooked or alive, and avoid using the pasteurised or frozen meat as it tends to be dry. If you are preparing the crabs yourself then save the shells for the bisque below.

450g freshly picked chunky white crabmeat
100g matzo meal or dried white breadcrumbs

4tbsp mayonnaise
1 egg
1tbsp Dijon mustard
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
A few drops of Tabasco
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Vegetable or corn oil for frying
Olive oil for frying

Spread the crab meat out on a flat tray and check for any bits of shell, then scatter over the matzo. Mix the mayonnaise, egg, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco together, then very carefully mix with the crab, taking care not to break the pieces of crab down too much. Leave the mix for 3-4 minutes then carefully form into eight round cakes. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Heat about 2-3cm of vegetable oil and olive oil mixed in a deep-sided frying pan and carefully fry the cakes for about 2-3 minutes on each side until golden. Serve with tartare sauce, tomato relish and salad.

Crab bisque

Serves 4-6

Bisque refers to a shellfish soup with cream. The name is thought to have come from the Spanish Biscay region. With this type of soup the flavour really comes from the shells, and after I've cooked shellfish at home I always keep the shells in the freezer for this. For crab bisque you can remove the meat from the crab first and use it for the crab cakes, salads or a sandwiches, and make up the weight with extra shell. A fishmonger might save you some shells. If you can't get whole crabs, use cooked or raw prawns, with the shells and heads on, and just follow the recipe in the same way.

1kg freshly cooked or raw whole crab, or the same weight of shells
1tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small leek, trimmed and roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
12tsp fennel seeds
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
40g butter
2tbsp tomato purée
3tbsp flour
1 glass of white wine
1.5 litres fish stock, or a couple of good fish-stock cubes in 1.5 litres of hot water hot water
100ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

If you have live crabs, plunge them into boiling water for 2 minutes. Then - whether or not you have already removed the meat from the crab - use the back of a heavy chopping knife or the flat side of a meat cleaver to break the crab body and legs shells up into small pieces. (Doing this in a plastic bag stops the shells flying everywhere and saves on the clearing up.) If the meat is still in the crab remove the green feathery gills known as "dead man's fingers".

Heat the vegetable oil in a large heavy-based saucepan and fry the crab shells over a high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring every so often until they begin to colour. Add the onion, leek, garlic, fennel seeds, thyme and bay leaf, and continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so, until the vegetables begin to colour. Add the butter and stir well, then add the tomato purée and flour, stir well and cook for a minute or so over a low heat. Add the white wine, then slowly add the fish stock, stirring to avoid any lumps. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper, and simmer for 1 hour.

Drain the soup, shells and all, in a colander over a bowl, stirring the shells so that any small pieces go into the liquid. Remove about one-third of the softer white body shells (not the very hard claw and main shell) and put them in with the liquid - discard the rest. Blend the shells and liquid in a liquidiser or strong food processor until smooth, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve.

Return to a clean pan, season with a little salt and pepper, if necessary, and bring to the boil. To serve, add the cream and any remaining crab meat. Adjust the seasoning again, if necessary, and stir well.

Comments