July 30

Crab Cakes

Celebrity Chefs Today

Today is the birthday, in 1973, of Chef Tory McPhail. He was the executive chef of Commander's Palace in the Garden District of New Orleans for nearly 20 years until moving to Montana last year. Tory is one of those lucky guys who's always known what he wanted to be. He took a shine to the idea of being a chef when he was a teenager. To that end he was already raising ducks and chickens and vegetables in his hometown of Ferndale, Washington. After culinary school, he moved to New Orleans in 1993 and landed a job at Commander's as a sous chef under Jamie Shannon. After a tour of duty at the Palace Cafe, he left town to get some experience in other cities here and abroad. He returned to Commander's in 2001 and took over after Jamie's tragic, young death. Tory is not only a good chef but an engaging personality. He gives good cooking demo.

TV Food Celebrities

It's the birthday, in 1962, of Alton Brown, whose shows on the Food Channel and elsewhere attract more serious cooks than most of the shows over there do. Brown is intrigued by what happens to food as it cooks: how the chemical changes bring about flavors and aromas. He's written several books, the most famous of which is I'm Only Here For The Food, a fine sentiment. Much of his success as a television chef owes to his early career as a television and film producer. He's often said that the reason he got into cooking was that he thought television food shows were clumsily produced, and thought he could do better. I'd say he did. He's a nice guy, too, as I learned during his two appearances on my radio show.

Other Great Food Cities

Baltimore was founded today in 1729. The city's greatest claim to culinary fame is that it is the birthplace of the crab cake. The nearby Chesapeake Bay is home to the same species of blue crab that we eat around New Orleans. Where we made stuffed crabs with ours, they made crab cakes with theirs. My reading of old cookbooks persuades me that fifty years ago crab cakes were a lot like stuffed crabs. But Baltimore restaurants began to brag about the excellence of their crab cakes, setting up a competition that resulted in spectacular (and very expensive) crab cakes. (More on crab cakes below.) Baltimore also serves whole hard-shell crabs, steamed with a crust of Old Bay seasoning instead of boiled as we do.

Today's Flavor

In honor of the birthday of Baltimore, this is National Crab Cake Day. The conventional gold standard for crab cakes these days is that they should contain as high a percentage of jumbo lump crabmeat as possible. It's been said that the ultimate crab cake holds itself together by the gravity of the lumps. Well, that is the problem with making great crab cakes. Something has to hold it together. I like how they do it at Commander's Palace: they jam the jumbo lump and seasonings into one of those metal rings that Waffle House uses to grill hash browns. When the crab cake is browned on one side, they turn it over; when both sides are done, the whole assembly is moved to a plate and the metal ring removed, leaving a perfect nearly-pure crabmeat.Another great idea came from the late Chef Jean-Louis Palladin from the Watergate Hotel. He pureed shrimp and used that as his glue. The shrimp disappears in both sight and taste, and it does hold the crabmeat together. (The Rib Room's crab cakes are made this way.) My own technique is to use a bit of béchamel sauce to hold it together. Its flavor doesn't get in the way of the crabmeat, and it carries all the seasonings for me.And there should be other things in there, too. I like green onions, parsley, a little garlic, a little bell pepper, and a thin layer of bread crumbs around the outside, to be crisped and toasted in a hot pan. Crab cakes should fall apart at the touch of a fork. You shouldn't be able to jab it and pick the whole thing up.Every restaurant that serves crab cakes claims theirs are the best anywhere. You don't see this phenomenon for many other dishes. It's as if a crab cake can't be considered any good unless it's the best in the world. This brings up the inevitable question, which crab cake really is the best around here?

Gourmet Gazetteer

Scotch Hollow is a rural crossroads in central Pennsylvania, on the western side of the Allegheny Mountains. It's 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. This is coal country, with numerous strip mines in the vicinity. The creek that runs near Scotch Hollow is called Coal Run. Its water runs through intermediate streams into the Susquehanna River, and then into the Atlantic. A number of modest houses line Scotch Hollow Road. Some of the land is cleared for farming, but the woods are taking over again in most of the area. The nearest place to get a meal and maybe a Scotch on the rocks is Camberg's Cozy Corner, two miles away in Osceola Mills.

Edible Dictionary

kosher salt, n.--Standard salt (sodium chloride) made in large, flat flakes instead of the fine granules of table salt. The cubic crystalline structure is the same, but the crystals clump together irregularly to make larger grains. The advantage of this is that kosher salt doesn't dissolve as quickly. Salt like that is useful in kosher butchering, to draw out more of the blood and other juices. (Hence the name; in fact, it's no more or less kosher than table salt). Kosher salt is preferred by many chefs, largely because of current vogues. It's essential when you want the grains to remain after cooking (pretzels come to mind). It's less good if the salt needs to dissolve. In other words, the only difference between kosher salt and table salt is texture.

Deft Dining Rule #301

Don't believe any claim by a restaurant's menu that the place serves jumbo lump crabmeat until you see the lumps, as big is the end of your little finger. Shreds and flakes are not jumbo lump.

Annals Of Cereal

This is the birthday of corn flakes, invented by William K. Kellogg in 1894. It was quite a breakthrough, keeping a surprisingly large amount of the food value of the original corn in the flakes. He didn't realize it, but Kellogg had re-invented something the Aztecs did routinely with their corn in order to store it for easy eating.

Food In Music

Brenda Lee recorded Jambalaya today in 1956. It became her first big hit. Written by Hank Williams, Jambalaya was recorded by a surprising number of singers, most of whom did pretty well with it, including the highly polished and urbane voice of Jo Stafford.

Food In The Movies

Today in 2004, the movie Harold and Kumas Go To White Castle. It's about two young guys who head out in search of White Castle hamburgers (the original "sliders," those thin, square burgers best known in these parts under the Krystal banner) , but who wind up exploring the deeper meaning of life while telling raunchy jokes.

Food Namesakes

Pro golfer Duane Bock teed off his life today in 1969. . . Australian born actor Simon Baker came out of the oven today in 1969. . . American guitarist Duck Baker--a rare double food name--was born today in 1949, in Washington, DC. He has a lot of New Orleans and Cajun music in his repertoire. . . Pro hockey executive Jay Feaster sat down at the Big Table today in 1962.

Words To Eat By

"In Baltimore, soft crabs are always fried (or broiled) in the altogether, with maybe a small jock-strap of bacon added."--H.L. Mencken."My body is like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don't think about it, I just have it."--Arnold Schwarzenegger, born today in 1947.He doesn't think about breakfast, lunch or dinner? Wow. Now I know he's crazy.

Words To Drink By

The air is like a draught of wine.The undertaker cleans his sign,The Hull express goes off the line,When it's raspberry time in Runcorn.--Noel Coward, "On With the Dance" from "Poor Little Rich Girl."