The great crab-cake debate

SHEILA LUKINS HAS made a considerable impact on the great wide world of cuisine. She has written several cookbooks, including "The Silver Palate Cookbook" (Workman, 1982), a tremendously successful work that, among other innovations, called for soaking chicken in a marinade that combined prunes and olives.

In the narrow world of Maryland crab-cake making, however, she may be remembered as the woman who advocated putting lobster, capers and orange zest in crab cakes. That is what her new cookbook, "U.S.A. Cookbook" (Workman, 1997, $20), calls for.


Around here, putting exotic ingredients in crab cakes generally produces one of two reactions. Folks either cry "Horrors!" or "Hallelujah!"

Those shouting "Horrors!" believe that crab-cake recipes are sacred. They are uneasy when any ingredients outside the regular crowd -- egg, crumbs, mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay, parsley, salt and pepper, and maybe a secret family ingredient -- ally themselves with lumps of crab meat in the holy alliance known as the Maryland crab cake.


Those in the "Hallelujah!" camp, on the other hand, are tired of tasting the same old crab cake. They believe in taking a few chances, in spicing up everyday flavors, in trying something new.

When I read Lukins' recipe for Chesapeake lobster crab cakes, I surmised she was a member of the "Hallelujah!" chorus. She uses ingredients that hail from "the great beyond," that is, from outside Maryland tradition. She calls for lobster, the unofficial shellfish of New England. She calls for the skin of an orange, a main ingredient of California cuisine.

She calls for capers, a mysterious ingredient that comes from somewhere east of Ocean City. And finally, she calls for topping off her crab cake with a spoonful of Miami mustard, the mustard sauce made by Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant in Miami.

It sounds like a crab cake put together by a political consultant -- this dish could be a native of several regions of the country.

When I met Lukins in Baltimore recently, we first talked about her culinary career. A short, dark-haired, peppery woman in her early 50s, she showed few signs of the stroke that had slowed her speech back in 1992, when she and her "Silver Palate" partner, Julee Rosso, were inducted into the James Beard Society's Who's Who of Cooking in America.

Lukins lives with her husband, Richard, in a tony Manhattan apartment building. Her first catering operation, called the Other Woman Catering, was started when she began cooking for single men who lived in her building. From there she teamed with Rosso, and the two formed the Silver Palate catering operation and wrote a couple of cookbooks together.

"The Silver Palate Cookbook," published in a number of forms, has sold more than 5 million copies. The two co-authors no lTC longer have a professional partnership. Rosso, who also has continued to write cookbooks, lives in Michigan.

Eventually, Lukins and I talked about the exotic ingredients in her crab-cake recipe. She explained that rather than try to replicate an authentic regional dish with her crab-cake recipe, she came up with one that, like the other dishes in "U.S.A. Cookbook," was "inspired by local ingredients."


"The idea of this book," she said, "is to do different versions of regional dishes."

If you want a traditional crab-cake recipe, Lukins told me, "look up the one in 'The New Basics,' " one of her earlier cookbooks. (I did look this recipe up and found it pretty conventional. The only exotic ingredient it called for was corn, which, while it does not often appear in Maryland crab cakes, does grow in the state.)

We talked about a few other regional dishes in Lukins' new book, but when it was time to go, she steered the conversation back to the crab cakes.

If you want to put a little pizazz in your crab cake, Lukins told me, try the recipe in the new book. Introduce some Maryland crab meat to some lobster, orange peel and capers. Your outlook on crab cakes may change, she added.

Chesapeake lobster crab cakes

Serves 4-6


12 slices best-quality white bread, crusts removed

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed

1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning

1/2 pound lump crab meat, picked to remove cartilage

1/2 pound shredded cooked lobster meat

1 tablespoon drained tiny capers


1/2 cup finely diced ( 1/4 inch) onion

1/2 cup finely diced celery

1/2 cup finely diced red bell pepper

1 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh, flat-leaf parsley

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest


1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon ground mace

dash of Tabasco sauce (to taste)

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon unsalted butter


Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut bread into cubes and toss them in a bowl with two tablespoons of the oil and the Old Bay until coated. Spread bread cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake until toasted, 10-12 minutes. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes and then crush into medium-fine crumbs. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the crab, lobster, capers, onion, celery, bell pepper, mayonnaise, parsley, orange zest, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, mace, Tabasco sauce and egg with 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs. Toss the mixture lightly.

Place the remaining bread crumbs in a shallow dish. Form the crab mixture into 12 patties, 2 inches in diameter. Carefully dredge the patties in the crumbs. Place in a single layer on a platter, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to 1 hour to chill well.

Heat the butter and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Cook the cakes, in batches, until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side, adding more butter and oil as necessary. Drain cakes well on paper towels. Serve immediately topped with Joe's mustard sauce.

Joe's mustard sauce

Yield: about 1 1/3 cups


3 1/2 teaspoons Coleman's dry English mustard

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons light cream

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon A. J. steak sauce

1/8 teaspoon salt


Place the mustard and mayonnaise in a small bowl and whisk together to blend. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to whisk until the mixture is creamy. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use. Serve at room temperature.

Both recipes are from "U.S.A. Cookbook" by Sheila Lukins.

Pub Date: 6/01/97