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Chef uses claw meat for best crab cakes

(ran TP, ST editions)

The smell of smoke from smoldering chips of hardwood fills the kitchen at Jack's Firehouse with a dry, outdoors flavor. Jack McDavid, its Appalachian chef and owner, is dressed in his signature bib overalls.

This day, McDavid is prepared to show how easy it is to make a superb crab cake and save lots of money doing it.

"The key," he says, "is using the claw meat from the crab. Jumbo lump crab meat costs three times as much as the claw and doesn't have the flavor."

The chef of Down Home Diner fame pops open containers of claw meat, loosely and carefully separating the delicate two-toned flesh. A huge can of mustard becomes the target of a meat cleaver.

"I hate can openers," McDavid says, whacking away at the can. "I refuse to buy a can opener because I don't like canned products. So this way, without a can opener around, no one is going buy anything canned. Mustard is okay, but that's about it. I don't even like freezers."

As McDavid gets the mustard he needs, he confesses that growing up in the mountains of western Virginia was not the best way to experience crab cakes. "We did not have good seafood where I grew up," he says.

Some of his first encounters with crab were as a very young man in what he describes as an upscale American restaurant: "You know, crab imperial, rack of lamb, prime rib, lobster tail. Great American food items back then." Then, as an afterthought, "Still not bad now."

Crab cakes, he discovered, seemed to mean lots of egg and mayonnaise and onion _ maybe even some crabmeat, he says facetiously. Lots of times they are a mound of vegetable and bread filler with some crabmeat passed over top.

As he traveled around, cooking, the crab cakes that stood out were the ones with good crabmeat flavor, and, of course, plenty of crab.

When he was about 28 _ he's now 44 _ McDavid moved to Washington and "got to know boys on the Eastern Shore who, when they ate crabmeat, ate a lot of it. I asked why they were eating claw meat, and they told me that they couldn't sell it and that they liked it better."

"I bought the meat for myself," he says, "and I agreed it was better (than lump crab). It has more color, even shows up better on a salad.

"When I moved to Philadelphia, the restaurant where I first worked used jumbo lump and a lot of other things. Then, when I worked at Bogart's I made crab cakes with claw meat, and they went over real big."

It's McDavid's belief that _ as with cuts of beef _ the muscle tissues have more flavor. Traditional wisdom says that the part of the animal that works the most has the most flavor.

"When you ask someone to name the best meat cuts, they'll name the secondary cuts, the flank, the chuck, the brisket," he says. "People might think that ground sirloin has lots of flavor, but ground chuck has more.

"If you go to the crabbers they'll tell you the same thing about crab. Boys up and down the East Coast will tell you it's the claw meat."

McDavid doesn't bread his crab cakes, and they hold together basically on their own, sometimes with a little help from the chef, who sometimes fashions them back into their basic shape after they have been plated.

The only thing on the outside of his crab cakes, he says, is heat and the little bit of peanut oil he sautes them in.

Here are his tips on putting crab cakes together:

"Always mix everything but the crabmeat first," he says, dicing the onion, red and green peppers, and then using the cleaver to dice the bread. "You add the crabmeat last because you want to handle it as little as possible, and just fold it in lightly."

McDavid likes to use steamed crabmeat, and it has to be blue claw. Boiled crabmeat, he says, has a lot of its flavor washed out.

"I like to form large patties," he says, "about an inch or so thick and about 3 inches across _ I'd say about 5 ounces of crabmeat.

"You can put them in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to firm them up. This will help them hold together."

McDavid serves his crab cakes with a Lemon Confit, a preserved lemon that takes two to three days to cure in the refrigerator.

"It's really simple to make, and it has a nice sweet-and-sour flavor to go with the crab. Something as simple as tomato with acid also works well with crabmeat."

McDavid slices several lemons very thin, puts them into a bowl and then tosses them with brown sugar.

"Just like salt brings out the moisture from meat, sugar extracts moisture from fruit, and this helps marry the flavors," he says.

By now the pan he's greased with peanut oil is hot. He forms giant patties _ actually mounds of crabmeat _ and drops them into the pan with a sizzle.

Ten minutes later, the smoke-flavored kitchen is transformed into a backwater spot along Chesapeake Bay.

Jack McDavid's Crab Cakes

3 pounds claw crabmeat, picked over

2 tablespoons diced onion,

1 tablespoon diced red bell pepper

1 tablespoon diced green bell pepper

1 large egg

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1 teaspoon yellow mustard

1 slice white bread, diced

Dash Tabasco sauce

Peanut oil for sauteing

Salt and pepper to taste

Pick all shells from crabmeat. Set aside. Mix remaining ingredients gently. Fold crabmeat into the mixture and refrigerate for at least 1 hour but not longer than 1 day. Form into 12 patties 1-inch thick.

Cover bottom of nonstick pan with small amount of the peanut oil and heat over medium setting. When pan is hot, remove crab cakes from refrigerator and sear _ don't crowd pan _ until crab cakes are golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side.

Makes 12 crab cakes. Per crab cake: 140 calories, 21 gm protein, 21 grams, 1 gm carbohydrates,5 gm fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 363 mg sodium.

Lemon Confit

6 large lemons

1 cup brown sugar

Slice lemons as thin as possible and remove seeds. Place slices in bowl and toss with brown sugar. After about 15 minutes, when sugar begins to extract juice from lemon slices, cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for two to three days, removing liquid from bowl periodically (as it builds up). Serve as a garnish with crab cakes.

Makes 6 servings. Per serving: 59 calories, 1 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, O.5 gm fat, 0 cholesterol, 7 mg sodium.