I thought I had tried every variation on the quintessential American crab cake, but a few days ago while dining in Northampton, Mass., I sampled yet another version. This particular crab cake was like no other I had tried. The outside was crisp and golden, while the texture inside was as light as a feather. But the taste was the most alluring feature. There was a perfect spiciness to complement the sweetness of the shellfish, and a delectable sauce, piquant yet not overpowering, made a fine accompaniment.
I sat at the table that night, trying, with each bite, to unravel the secret ingredients in the scrumptious morsel in front of me, but to no avail. Later, I was able to track down Stefanie Schulman, talented chef and creator of the dish, who willingly shared the recipe with me.
Two ingredients -- Japanese panko bread crumbs and Thai sweet chili sauce -- made these crab cakes different. Both items, the chef assured me, could be found in Asian food markets. The crab cakes are a mixture of fresh lump crab meat, Thai sweet chili sauce, chopped red peppers, onions and cilantro, all bound with an egg and Japanese bread crumbs. After they are shaped into patties, the cakes are coated with panko bread crumbs, pan fried and finally finished in a hot oven. The delicious dipping sauce turned out to be store-bought Thai sweet chili sauce.
After making the crab cakes, I realized that they would be a perfect main course to use when entertaining because they can be assembled and fried in advance and need only to be baked 10 minutes at serving time. This week, we invited a good friend, a Southerner brought up eating crab cakes, to sample this new rendition. She pronounced these crab cakes exceptional and insisted that I give her the recipe. Fried corn, sliced tomatoes and sauteed green beans made great seasonal side dishes.
Ladybird Thai-Style Crab Cakes
1/2 pound fresh lump crab meat, picked over
1/2 cup finely diced sweet red pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped sweet red onion
1/3 cup chopped cilantro including stems
1 1/4 cups Thai sweet chili sauce, divided (see note)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups panko bread crumbs (see note)
vegetable oil for sauteing crab cakes
4 red leaf or Romaine lettuce leaves for garnish
Place crab meat in clean kitchen towel and gently squeeze out any excess liquid in crab. Place crab in mixing bowl and add red pepper, onion, cilantro, 1/4 cup of Thai sweet chili sauce, salt and egg. Mix well. Add 1/2 cup of panko crumbs, and if mixture still seems too moist, add up to 1/4 cup more. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes or longer to firm.
When ready to shape crab cakes, remove mixture from refrigerator and, using a 1/3 -cup-capacity measuring cup, shape into 8 cakes. Place remaining panko crumbs on dinner plate and coat each cake generously with crumbs.
Add enough oil to coat bottom of medium size, nonstick skillet and place over medium heat. When oil is very hot, but not smoking, put 2 to 3 crab cakes at a time in skillet. Press down gently on cakes to flatten slightly. Cook until golden brown on bottom, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, then turn and cook until golden brown on other side, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes more. Drain on paper towels. Continue until all cakes have been browned. Line baking sheet with aluminum foil and grease generously with vegetable oil. Transfer browned cakes to sheet. If not serving immediately, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate crab cakes for up to 3 hours.
When ready to serve, arrange rack at center position and bake at 450 degrees about 10 minutes, or until crab cakes are piping hot. Remove and arrange lettuce leaf on dinner plate and top with 2 overlapping crab cakes.
Serve with small bowl filled with 1/4 cup Thai sweet chili pepper sauce. Prepare 3 more plates this way. Serve hot.
Notes: Thai sweet chili sauce, a combination of red chilies, sugar, garlic, vinegar and salt, is available in specialty food markets that sell Asian ingredients. It is a delicious sauce, tomato-red in color and slightly sweet yet spicy hot at the same time.
Panko crumbs are Japanese-style dried bread crumbs available in markets that sell Asian ingredients. White and flaky, they are the crumbs used to make the celebrated crispy breaded pork cutlets, known as ton katsu, so popular in Japan. If unavailable, lightly toasted bread crumbs made from fresh bread can be substituted.