Chef Gets Creative During Crabmeat Shortage
By Cheryl Costello
You’ve seen the market-price sticker shock at Chesapeake Bay restaurants. The global crabmeat shortage has sent crabcake prices especially high and prompted some restaurants to reduce the crab dishes on their menu.
But Chef John Shields, nicknamed the Culinary Ambassador of the Chesapeake Bay and author of three regional cookbooks, is thinking outside the box. He now serves a crabcake blended with tofu, and swear it tastes like the real thing!
Bay Bulletin went to Gertrude’s, Shields’s restaurant in Baltimore, to learn how he makes it. Shields brought his grandmother’s ideas and recipes to the North Baltimore restaurant, on the site of the Baltimore Museum of Art, in the late 1990s.
But his grandmother didn’t pass down this recipe: filling out crabcakes with organic tofu. The inspiration came from looking for solutions to the high price of crab this year, both locally and on the international market.
“I’m always trying to imagine the Chesapeake kitchen for the 21st century,” Shields explains. “What would it look like given all the different environmental factors, economic factors around this watershed? So I was thinking … a crabcake is really going to have to be a special-occasion thing because of how much money it is for the crabmeat.”
Shields’s imagination took him to something he says has a similar texture or “mouth feel”—tofu.
“Really, what you’re going for is the mouth feel, so as you’re eating it you’re getting a mouth feel of that same texture.”
Shields allowed Bay Bulletin in to see how he makes the creation. He calls them Crab-Fulicious Cakes on his Specials menu—and they’re much cheaper than the traditional Gertie’s Crabcake.
“I take the tofu and push on it and try to get some of the moisture out,” Shields shows us. One pound of tofu and one pound of lump Maryland crabmeat are battered with a couple of eggs, mayonnaise, and Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, parsley, Old Bay, a dash of Tabasco sauce and black pepper are mixed in. And of course, like any old-school Chesapeake cook, he adds saltine crackers to pick up some of the moisture.
But never fear: the cake won’t taste like tofu. “Tofu doesn’t have very much taste of its own,” Shields says. “So the only taste that it’s going to pick up is the flavor of the crab and of the batter.”
And then the mixture is formed into a very familiar shape. “I’ve been doing this for over 50 years with the crabcakes and I kind of know what a crabcake looks like. And I’m telling you, to the naked eye, this really looks like a crabcake,” Shields declares.
While this Bay Bulletin reporter does taste a little tofu in the dish, Shields says that’s only because we watched him make it.
The chef also suggests that mushrooms could also be used for a similar mouth feel—as crab prices continue to run high.
Lindy’s Seafood, a large-scale crab wholesaler in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore, says U.S. prices are up about 20 percent over last year.
We reached out to other restaurants—the owners of True Chesapeake Oyster Company, which has one location in Arlington, Va., and two in Baltimore, say they’ve decided to remove jumbo lump from their menus in response to crab pricing and availability. But they haven’t added tofu—yet.
“I’m hoping that people at home will try this, too, so they can bring the price of their crabcakes down,” Shields says.
If you’re up to the challenge of trying tofu in your next crabcake recipe, send CBM Bay Weekly a photo or a note to let us know how it went! [email protected]