Dungeness crab cakes for Thanksgiving

The winter holiday season is the perfect time to indulge in the tasty bounty of our Northwest waters.
Crosscut archive image.

Dungeness crab, the perfect holiday treat.

The winter holiday season is the perfect time to indulge in the tasty bounty of our Northwest waters.

The saltwater of the Pacific Northwest is deep in my blood. Born in Alaska, raised in Seattle, for many years now I’ve made my home in Port Townsend, on the coast of the Salish Sea. A short walk out my front door, I can stand on a high bluff and look north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In the distance islands disappear up the Inside Passage, a sheltered waterway for seafaring people for millennia. Bays and inlets stretch south from Port Townsend to Olympia, 100 miles away.

Crosscut archive image.This time of year you can see fancy pleasure boats and restored 19-Century schooners tied up at the Port Townsend docks, but weatherworn trawlers and seiners bob in the slips, too, wintering over until they can head back up to Alaska for salmon, or plot safely around Cape Flattery, to fish halibut and lingcod again.

These legendary Northwest waters — as imperiled as any — still yield up a decent catch in good years: wire baskets of crab and shrimp; enough salmon to feed, barely, the remaining Orcas, with a little left for Native and white fishers; and clams, mussels and oysters, though the spat of the famed Willapa Bay oyster is flown to Hawaii to mature, the water here now too acidic for their survival. But crab is on my mind this holiday season.

In summer, the deep bay of Port Townsend is dotted with red and white buoys that signal a crab pot beneath. It is not uncommon to arrive home from my walks and find that a neighbor has left a bag of fresh Dungeness crab on my doorstep. In the fall, the fish markets begin to fill up with King crab hauled from the icy waters of Alaska and sold into restaurant kitchens around the world.

When I was a child, we dug oysters and clams from the mudflats near Kalaloch, on Washington’s southern coast, and roasted them on campfires. But it was always crab — heaped over iceberg lettuce and dolloped with Thousand Island dressing — that I loved best. Restaurant dining was mostly beyond my parents’ reach, but on special birthday outings I always ordered Crab Louis, that Northwest classic.

With King crab still abundant in the markets, the winter holidays are the perfect time to indulge in this impeccable crustacean. Thanksgiving, American Indian Heritage Day, the Feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception — take your pick, you can’t go wrong.

For Thanksgiving each year, a friend and I cook up a feast. Last year I made crisp crab cakes with homemade tartar sauce as an appetizer. We served them on a bed of fresh greens, along with a confit of roasted pears, Italian olives and onions. Sure, we had a turkey and all the fixings, and we plowed through those too. But it was the crab cakes and their sweet, golden companion, the pear confit, that we were still talking about — and eating for breakfast — the next day.

You can sometimes see children wading in the surf at Fort Worden, the state park at the north end of Port Townsend. But only a few brave polyurethane-clad souls venture all the way in with their boards. The water is just too cold, even in summer. But you can’t live here in the marine splendor of the Northwest without feeling that somehow these cold waters carry us, buoy us up.

Maybe the blue water even breathes us, in and out, like the tides, in some nearly imperceptible exchange, as surely as we carry the sea’s salt in our blood. And you don’t have to live out here at the far tip of the Olympic Peninsula to feel it. We carry the sea within us, the same sea in us all. I ate it for Thanksgiving. Here are the recipes.

Dungeness Crab Cakes a la Pacific Northwest

  • ½ cup mayo
  • 4 large eggs
  • ½ cup green onions, diced fine
  • 2 Tbs. lemon zest
  • 2 Tbs. fresh dill, minced
  • 3 Tbs. fresh Italian parsley, minced
  • 2 Tbs. fresh tarragon, chopped
  • 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp. pepper
  • 2 – 2 ½ pounds crab meat
  • 4 cups Panko
  • Olive oil

Line baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Whisk first nine ingredients together in large bowl. Fold in crab meat and 2 cups of Panko. Pour remaining Panko onto a rimmed plate. Form crab mix into 2-inch patties and press both sides of each cake into the Panko breadcrumbs. Set on baking sheet. Cover and chill for an hour, or up to a day.

Heat two large skillets to medium high. Add ¼ cup oil (or to taste) to each. Add crab cakes, browning on both sides, about 5–6 minutes total. Resist lifting to look. Add oil as needed to cook remaining cakes, carefully removing each one to serving platter when done. Serve with lemon, fresh tartar sauce and pear confit on a bed of greens. Serves 8.

Homemade Tartar Sauce a la Laurette

  • 2 cups of your favorite mayo
  • ½ cup diced pickles
  • ½ cup parsley
  • ½ cup dill
  • ¼ cup mustard
  • 1 Tbs. lemon zest
  • 1 Tbs. lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs. rice wine vinegar
  • ½ cup finely diced green onions
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mix everything together a day ahead of your party. Cover and refrigerate. I eat the tartar sauce by the spoonful from the bowl; it’s that good!

Crab cakes and tartar sauce recipes were adapted from a recipe by Laurette Feit of Sweet Laurette Cafe and Bistro in Port Townsend.

Pear Confit

  • 6 firm ripe Bartlett or other pears, washed, cored, and cut lengthwise into ½ inch slices
  • 3 medium - large yellow onions, peeled and cut into ½ inch crescent moons
  • ¼ cup olive oil (or coconut oil, for sweeter dish)
  • 1 cup cured black Italian olives or other black olive
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix all the ingredients, except the olives, in a large bowl; toss gently until everything is coated with oil. Roast in hot oven for 20 minutes, watching closely and turning as needed to prevent burning. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Roast for another 30 minutes, until pears are soft and sweet and golden. Put pears and onions in serving bowl, add olives, and toss. Serve on side as confit.

Adapted from a recipe by Catrine Kelty.

Dungeness crah photo by cheeseslave/Flickr.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Kathryn Hunt

Kathryn Hunt

Kathryn Hunt is a Port Townsend-based writer and documentary filmmaker. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Sun, Willow Springs, Orion, Alaska Quarterly Review and other publications. Her award-winning films, Take This Heart and No Place Like Home, are about children in foster care. Long Way Through Ruin, a collection of her poems, will be published in September by Blue Begonia Press.