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Feb 26, 2014 07:58 PM

Jersey style crab cakes?

I'm used to crab cakes in Delaware and Maryland. I had a crab cake in NJ this weekend -- shore town -- that was so different from what I expected!

I realize I'm being vague here, but before I add details I'd like to know what is the NJ standard for an outstanding crab cake. I know a great crab cake in Connecticut is nothing like a great crab cake on the Chesapeake Bay.

What is a GREAT crab cake on the Jersey Shore?

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  1. This is an interesting topic, Red. Thanks for putting it up.

    I grew up at the Shore. During my lowercase days, we lived for a time in both Manasquan and Barnegat Light. Crabbing with my Grandmother in the Bay still provides one of those rose-colored, "toll house cookie" memories for me. Sitting for a few hours, dropping bunker heads into the water, netting crabs as big as my foot, and watching with glee as the basket filled.

    The crabs were steamed/boiled in a giant pot on the stove. The old girl used nothing but water and a coupla dried bay leaves. We'd pick at the bounty on an outside table, dipping mostly the claws into drawn butter. Later, when the other adults had left the table, she and I, sometimes joined by one of her six sisters who might be visiting, sat and picked the bodies clean. To my recollection, I'd get an Eisenhower dollar for my labor.

    The next morning, after the breakfast dishes had been put away, Gammy made crab cakes. Her recipe was simple. Loads of fin meat, including some mighty large chunks, dried parsley, mustard powder,* egg, and a small amount of breadcrumbs that she made by running stale bread over a cheese grater. The mix was formed into a round the size and shape of a tennis ball.

    The "soon to be" cakes sat in the "icebox" until we came back from the beach or whatever other leisure pastimes two little toe-headed boys, with bikes, baseball mitts, skateboards, etc., could get lost in the embrace of on LBI in the 70s. After all, they had eaten their lunch.

    The balls were flattened into patties and gently rested in heavily peppered flour while butter and Crisco were heated in a massive frying pan. The patties were gently shaken to remove the excess flour. She cooked 'em over a relatively low heat and only flipped each cake once. We ate the cakes with a "Tartar Sauce" consisting of Hellman's mayonnaise and diced Polish gherkin pickles and a "Cocktail Sauce" consisting of Heinz ketchup and grated horseradish root. Sometimes, fresh parsley florets and lemon wedges adorned the plate.

    To me, that's a "Jersey Crabcake".

    *She used stuff from some can she'd get in South River having a label in Polish.

    5 Replies
    1. re: MGZ

      Nice memories....thanks for sharing....and a good recipe too.

      1. re: fourunder

        Thanks. The narrative recipe is oft overlooked . . . .

      2. re: MGZ

        I post in a second part, to note that I lived in Baltimore during the later years that Cal wore Number 8 and Camden Yards sold out every game. I ate a lot of crab cakes, and even drew some blue claws out of the Chesapeake. I have nothing but love for those days and the memories of those eats.

        Having also lived and/or spent a great deal of time in Delaware, Virginia, and The District, the biggest thing I'd note is the fact that Old Bay (or similar) seasoning is predominant in DelMarVa crab cake preparations. You didn't see that influence so common here until, at the earliest, Bill found his way into the Oval Office. Likewise, the use of condiments like Malt Vinegar and more Old Bay as "dipping sauces" was not common.

        Nevertheless, more often than not these days, I'll make my first couple batches of patties each summer with a more distinctly Jersey tone - though, admittedly, I do add some sautéed, finely minced garlic to my mix and capers to my "Tartar Sauce". Oh, and I put a bottle of Tobasco on the table.

        1. re: MGZ

          Nicely told my friend......I could imagine myself right there next to you pulling them out of the bay.

          Nice recipe as onion or celery huh?

          Crab cakes are one of those things I've probably never made the same way twice. It's one of those dishes that it seems like you can just mold together with whatever you have on hand and come up with a decent creation each time. I don't make them often so I'm not going to offer any recipes, I'm more a boil then saute crab guy.

          Nice post my friend.

          1. re: jrvedivici

            I agree that crab cakes are the type of dish that permits as many variations as there are ways to turn G, C, and F chords into rock songs. I just noted the way the old Polish woman made 'em. You shoulda seen her clean an eel.

        2. I didn't grow up in New Jersey but have been here 40+ years...I love crab cakes and frequently order them. The variety is I don't know if there is such a thing as Jersey style...

          1 Reply
          1. re: SusieQQ

            "The variety is I don't know if there is such a thing as Jersey style..."

            That, Susie, really is the basic point.

            Crabcakes in Annapolis, Baltimore, Chesapeake City, etc. - what one would call "Maryland style", or more appropriately though less frequently employed, "DelMarVa style" are defined by the use of Old Bay or another "crab boil" seasoning, prepared mustard, mayonnaise as a binder, and crushed cracked crumbs as a filler. My Grandmother's recipe, dating to her husband building a house in the middle of what is now 28th Street so he could duck hunt and fish in the 40s, was basically a modification of what was a way to make "cakes" out of salt cod and/or other fish scraps.* She used the spices she knew to add flavor.

            As time went by, other influences were introduced by other traditions borne out of the experiences of other ethnic groups. NJ is closer to Ellis Island than any other State. Crabcakes, after all, are inherently an improvisational dish. Oregano, thyme, paprika were familiar spices that could be used to flavor the small pieces of crab meat while stretching them into a decent meal. Over time, the availability of an ever growing number of spices added to the repertoire of Jersey cooks - mace, cardamom, allspice, clove, nutmeg, ginger, dried chiles - you get the idea. A good kitchen master took advantage of the "free" meat and added seasonings in order to please particular palates - after all, is not a "crabcake" really a meatball? A tiny, pan fried meat loaf?

            In the 80s, the Nation saw the significant influence of New Orleans cooking spread North, East, and West. Fish was blackened. Crabcakes were dusted with Creole seasoning and dashed with hot sauce. Folks followed new recipes to make ancient preps. Similarly, the Old Bay laced cakes from the Chesapeake region gained in popularity. Tastes evolved. Hell, the best crabcake I ever ate in NJ was made by a chef from Louisiana, using Virginia crab meat, when he was at Trinity in Keyport. It was served with a pretty traditional Provencal aioli.

            Someday, maybe, I'll write down what I do when I make my Lobster Thermidor Cakes so I can post it. It's really just adding crumbs to leftover Thermidor (lobster & crab) and pan frying until warm in butter. Oh, and then there's the "Striper Scrap Baseballs" - a deep fried treat my Pop loves that was inspired by my having lived on Paca Street so close to Lexington Market for several years.

            *Hell, I remember "fish cakes" that were basically the recipe I explained above using such sea creature "leftovers" as tile file head meat, lobster legs and body scraps, surf clams, fluke tail flesh missed while fileting, etc.

          2. Op,
            I am planning to move to NJ this year once I finish grad. school here in MD. You're right there is nothing like a Maryland crabcake and I can tell the difference.
            What my plans are when that cravings hit when I start living in NJ is to have Mo's and G&M on standby so they can FedEx my beloved crabcake.

            4 Replies
            1. re: 2good

              There may be nothing like a Maryland crabcake (except a Virginia or Delaware crabcake), but if you're going to have 'em shipped, you could certainly do better than having 'em come from the Indonesian crab-using factories you note. Mo's??? Why not add Phillips to your list?

              1. re: MGZ

                While they do have facilities in the U.S. Phillips is the largest importer of Asian crab meat, as well as Mexico, and South America.

                1. re: Herm

                  Thank you for reinforcing my point.

                  1. re: MGZ

                    They do package creatively though.

            2. Bottom line is that there is no :New Jersey style" crab cake. Some places sever crab cakes that are very similar to any DelMarVa crab cake you may have had. Others make a crab cake that is heavy on the cake and light on the crab.

              1. Thanks, all. This has been informative.

                The crabcake I had was at Wolfgang Puck's in Atlantic City. It was shredded crabmeat. Not much filler, but totally shredded. Appetizer menu, probably no more than 3 oz., if that, for $21.

                I was shocked, because I assumed a crabcake in Jersey would be made of jumbo lump crabmeat, like the ones I'm used to in DE/MD. It wasn't about the seasoning, it was about the quality and texture of the crabmeat . . . which was not very good.

                Since I first posted, I went back and looked at the menu. Here's the description:
                SAUTÉED MARYLAND CRAB CAKES basil pesto aioli, tomato relish, micro basil

                So! I didn't remember that it was advertised as a Maryland crabcake or I would never have impugned the reputation of New Jersey crabcakes! I just thought maybe NJ style crabcakes were different. Sorry!!

                But that means the crabcake served at Wolfgang Puck's was even more inexcusable than I realized. Not even CLOSE to a good MD crabcake!

                I had two appetizers for my meal -- tuna tartare, which was fabulous, and the crabcake. They also served a basket of bread, which had some kind of caramelized onions baked into the top.

                I mention this because I was getting full by the time I had eaten all of the tuna and then half the crabcake. I had just a little room left. I opted to eat another slice of the bread rather than the rest of the crabcake. That's how NOT GOOD it was!

                If you're eating at Wolfgang Puck's, I highly recommend the tuna tartare.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Red Oakley

                  I wouldn't take the crab cake at Wolfgang Puck's - a casino restaurant named after a largely California-based chef who's got his name on just about anything he can market these days - as indicative of anything really "Jersey-style", that's for sure.

                  My favorite Jersey crab cakes are found in some of the diners (yes, diners) around the South Jersey area. For instance, the Harrison House diner on 322 (a big shore route in the summertime): if you're ever in the area order the Neptune salad topped with a crab cake. Big flavorful lump crab meat, broiled not fried, YUM.