Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Imperial City

Crab Imperial is a more luxurious and IMHO, a better tasting alternative to crab cakes. 
Not much happened in Baltimore between the time Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner and they built a mall on the murky harbor and called it an urban rennaissance.   A lot of crabs were consumed, people went to work at the shipyards and Alex Brown and took summer trips “down da’ oshun” to get “f$&%ed up”.  All in all, it was just another industrial east coast town, living in the shadow of Washington to the south and Philadelphia to the north.  

I never really lived in Baltimore again after college...well, there was a 6 month experiment living with the John Waters crowd, but it is probably better not to mention it....however, I have come back, time and time again over the past 30 years.  In fact, I’ve been here for the past week.  And I haven’t eaten crab once.  When I do, I will make the recipe below.

I like crab, I really do.  I make a mean crab salad canape.  But the obsession Marylander’s have with it is lost on me.  Debates on where to get the best crab cake?  Leave me out...they all taste about the same to me and yes, I’ve been to both G&M and Faidley’s.  Steamed crabs?  Forget it...they’re messy and bit yucky, especially the yellow stuff and that squishy, lungy part.  Maryland Is For Crabs T-shirts and other memorabilia?  Don’t get me started.

When I was a kid, my family, or at least the semi-functional part of it, used to go “down d’oshun” every summer for two weeks when I got home from summer camp,  Ocean City, Maryland to be a bit more specific.  And once or twice during that time, we would take the obligatory trip to Phillip’s Crab House instead of eating in the big, formal dining room of The Commander Hotel after the adults had finished multiple cocktails on the hotel porch.

Phillip’s was a flip flop and t-shirt kind of place where the owners seemed to know everyone and it was always crowded and the crab cakes were supposed to be the very best in the world.  To be honest, I don’t remember them...I just remember the place itself.  And of course the name.

Today Phillip’s is a seafood dynasty with multiple restaurants all over the east coast, including airports.  They also sell their products in supermarkets throughout the US.  The last time I was in a Phillip’s was in Philadelphia...I sat alone at the bar, had some oysters and crab cakes and paid an exorbitant amount of money for them, but I was in the mood for a taste of home and a little stroll down memory lane.  It was terrible.  Having started the original restaurant as an outlet for the family’s Chesapeake Bay wholesale crab business, the crab they now sell comes from Asia or Venezuela.  I bought a can in a California supermarket one day and it was pasteurized, homogenized and sanitized.  It tasted nothing like Chesapeake Bay backfin lump.  Neither does what they serve in their restaurants.  Because it isn’t.  I find it sad, especially considering their heritage.  But I guess that’s what it takes to go from small family business to a corporate crab empire.  

To have a real Baltimore crab experience and get away from the expected crab cake, try my grandfather’s recipe for Crab Imperial.  And if you can avoid it, don’t use Phillip’s canned crab.  Look for real Chesapeake Bay jumbo backfin lump.  North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas produce very good alternatives as well.  

Crab Imperial
1/2 cup mayonnaise + 1 tsp, for each serving

1 tsp. dry mustard

1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning (optional)

1 egg, beaten

2 Tbsp. cream or half and half
1 lb. lump crab

4 saltine crackers, crushed
1/2 cup pimiento, chopped (or red pepper, parboiled and chopped)
salt and pepper

paprika or Old Bay

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix the first five ingredients together, then fold in next 3 ingredients.  Season with salt and pepper.  Put mixture into 6 individual crab shells, scallop baking shells or baking dishes.  Top each with 1 tsp. mayonnaise.  Dust with paprika or Old Bay and bake in a 350º oven for about 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Makes 6 servings.

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