One of the perks of being a food blogger is that now and then you get invited to experience a very good meal. I would say, “Don’t be jealous,” but that would be disingenuous. You’re going to be jealous.
Diane Thieke, editor of Hunterdon County Taste, and I were treated to a 6-course crab-tasting dinner at the Stockton Inn this past week, part of a monthly series of special menus, collaborating with great regional chefs. At the beginning of June, the Inn’s Executive Chef Alan Heckman partnered with Chef Max Hansen (Max Hansen Caterer and Carversville Grocery) to create a 5-course salmon dinner. This month, the focus is on crab, and Heckman’s partners-in-crime are Chefs Ian Knauer and Shelley Wiseman of The Farm Cooking School, just up the road at Tullamore Farm. Knauer and Wiseman are former Gourmet magazine editors and cookbook authors. They opened their school a year ago, and offer intimate classes and dinners in an old farm-house.
The Stockton Inn has undergone a lot of renovation in the past six months and I was curious to see what had changed. It is still cozy, the dining rooms bathed in soft browns and ochre, the walls covered with the famous murals – which have been fully restored (no more murkiness and squinting to try to figure out what is in the painting). The Dog & Deer Tavern is still warm and snug, now with a tavern menu featuring small bites and flatbreads.
And, yes, there are (at least) six ways you can prepare crab, fresh and abundant this time of year on the East Coast. Come, sit down with us and enjoy the freshness of summer.
Our dinner companions were Jay Rosen and his wife, Gail. As the owner of Washington Valley Cellars in Martinsville, NJ, Jay designs and builds custom wine cellars for clients, and of course, he knows his wine. He reviewed the menu before coming and brought with him a selection of white wines and champagne to accompany the meal. My wine knowledge is basic – I’m as confused as the next person standing in the state store – so I love having a real wine expert at the table.
Before serving got underway, Jay opened a bottle of Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, a grower champagne. It was a sweet way to kick off a very pleasant and delicious evening. Here’s a little about each course, to whet your appetite.
First Course: Thai Spiced Watermelon Soup: Crab and Cilantro Salad and Confit Lime
A watermelon soup? Although I do like seafood or lobster bisque, I’m not a big fan of cold soups (not even gazpacho). I didn’t know what to expect but this was divine: light and fresh with a nice kick from the Thai spices and a sweetness to balance it out.
Second Course: Crab and Radish Roll: Carrot-Ginger Emulsion, Creme Fraiche and Crispy Carrot
For the second course, Jay pulled out a bottle of Riesling from Joh. Jos Prüm, a 2001 Graacher Himmelreich Spätlese. He thought it would go well with both the watermelon soup and the radish course. The wine, sweet and bold, also hid a little spice. The thinly sliced radish, wrapped around the crab meat, didn’t overwhelm the crab meat and nicely held it to form.
Third Course: Crab Cake Duo: Chef Ian’s Great Grandmother’s – with Classic Remoulade; Chef Alan’s – with Cucumber and Jicama Slaw
Now things got really interesting. The chefs presented two distinct crab cakes. On the left side of the wide, white plate, Chef Ian’s preparation of his great-grandmother’s recipe, sitting atop a nice dollop of creamy remoulade. On the right, a less traditional interpretation by Chef Alan: a meaty crab cake accompanied by cucumber and jicama slaw, with a fresh, herb-inspired flavor. After much debate at the table, we decided both crab cakes were delicious, but Chef Ian’s edged out Chef Alan’s. (Bonus: We have the recipe below!)
In the meantime, Jay opened a bottle a 2006 Chardonnay from Marc Aubert. It’s buttery and round, he told us, and it paired wonderfully with the next course.
Fourth Course: Tagliatelle a la Esca-NYC: Crab and Uni Butter
No tasting menu is complete without pasta, and this tagliatelle had an interesting twist: crab with uni butter. The uni – the Japanese name for sea urchin – was blended with butter and sea salt. The result was a creamy, oh-so-buttery sauce with just a hint of sea urchin, which went perfectly with the sweet crab.
Fifth Course: Sautéed Soft Shell Crab: Roasted Corn, Cherry Tomato and Basil
Ah, the fifth course. I am not a fan of soft shell crab. Just not my cup of tea. But unlike the typical fried version, the crab was sautéed and had a hearty taste with just a little burn at the back of the mouth. And it was accompanied by local roasted Jersey corn and bright cherry tomatoes. The corn had a nice kick to it too.
Sixth Course: Lemon Chiffon Mousse: Blackberry, Candied Lemon, Olive Oil Cake with edible Flowers
By now, we were bursting, but not so much that we would pass on dessert. Big, purple juicy blackberries surrounded a savory olive oil cake with a sweet chiffon on top.
If you love crab, this tasting will not disappoint. For the adventurous foodie who likes to experiment with new versions of old favorites, there’s a lot here for you too.
The 6-course crab tasting menu is available until August 2nd and is priced at $76 per person. However, if you’re not in the mood for 6 courses of crab, the Stockton Inn is offering a double portion of the crab cakes (versus the tasting portion) along with sides for $34 as an entrée.
And if you want to try Chef Ian’s grandmother’s crab cake in your own kitchen, print out the recipe below.
Ian Knauer’s Great-Grandmother’s Crab Cake
2 slices firm white sandwich bread
½ pound jumbo lump crab meat, picked over
2 tablespoon mayonnaise
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
Tear bread into small pieces into a bowl with crab. Add mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, 2 Tbsp egg (discard remainder), and a pinch of salt. Mix together gently but thoroughly, then form into 4 patties (about 3 inches in diameter).
Heat butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook crab cakes, turning once, until golden brown, about 6 minutes total.
French fries and/or baby greens tossed with lemon vinaigrette. Or your favorite remoulade.