Jay Swift, chef-owner of 4th & Swift, and his son Jeb Aldrich, chef de cuisine at 4th & Swift, are Baltimore natives with fond memories of weekend fishing trips on Chesapeake Bay and raucous get-togethers around picnic tables piled high with freshly steamed blue crabs. Leftovers ensured the luxurious bonus of crab cakes the next day. “It’s still a treat,” says Aldrich, extracting bits of shell from a bowlful of lump crabmeat on the kitchen counter at his dad’s house in Marietta.
The father-son duo brings different ideas to the menus they compose together for the restaurant. “I’m more of a classicist,” says Swift. “Jeb’s the modernist.”
They are of one mind, however, when it comes to preparing Maryland’s emblematic dish. “Crab cakes are ubiquitous in Baltimore, and the recipes don’t vary much from one to the next,” Swift says. “We broil ours; I don’t know of anyone in Baltimore who pan-fries them. We’d never add corn kernels or red bell pepper or any other such silliness. And we always season with Old Bay. It’s a staple in every pantry there. I remember when the McCormick spice factory was downtown, and the entire city would smell like Old Bay.”
Aldrich seasons the crab mixture generously with the ruddy spice blend, and then adds a few extra shakes to the top before popping them in the oven. The chefs do modify the recipe slightly from the ones Swift’s mother used to make for the family: Dijon instead of yellow mustard, fresh bread cubes instead of saltine cracker crumbs, steamed lump crabmeat instead of boiled—unpasteurized, if possible. Boiled crabmeat, Swift adds, can be watery.
Rather than tartar sauce, Swift and Aldrich chef it up a bit by setting the patties atop a pool of mustard beurre blanc. And if your patties don’t hold together? Don’t sweat it, says Swift. “A good crab cake is going to fall apart. If it drops on the floor and remains intact, it wasn’t a good crab cake.”
1 large egg
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning (plus more for sprinkling)
Kosher salt to taste
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat (preferably unpasteurized and steamed, rather than boiled), picked through to remove shells
5 slices firm, white sandwich bread, crust removed and cut into 1/4-inch dice (place in freezer about 20 minutes for easier cutting)
1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons melted butter (plus more for greasing the pan)
Mustard Beurre Blanc:
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1. In a small bowl, beat the egg with the mayonnaise until well blended. Stir in mustard, Worcestershire, lemon juice, Old Bay, and kosher salt. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, combine crabmeat and bread cubes. Gradually add wet ingredients to the crab mixture until very well moistened. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes, or until the bread soaks up the liquid.
3. Preheat broiler with rack set 4 to 6 inches from heat source. With cupped hands, gently form the mixture into 3 or 4 thick patties. Place on a buttered baking sheet, brush tops of crab cakes with melted butter, and sprinkle with additional Old Bay. Broil 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
4. If desired, prepare mustard beurre blanc while crab cakes are broiling. In a medium saucepan, combine the wine and the chopped onion. Simmer over medium heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat. Whisk in the butter, a few pieces at a time, until thoroughly emulsified after each addition. Whisk in the Dijon mustard; season with salt to taste. Serve immediately. Spoon a little of the sauce on each plate; top with crab cake.
Photograph by Greg DuPree. This is an extended version of the article that ran in our October 2012 issue.