Thursday, February 25, 2010

Local Sourcing Crab Cakes in Portland

Right now is dungenous crab season and it is one of my favorite foods.  Luckily, if you live in Oregon, we have these delicious little critters crawling around on our coastal shores.  Oregon crabbing has done an excellent job of sustainably harvesting the local crab resources.  Another benefit--Dungenous Crab is listed as a "Best Choice" by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

All of that eco-goodness aside, Crab is delicious.  And when something is so good on its own, you don't want to mess with the flavor too much.  Crab cocktail is a good example--plain cold crab meat with a little cocktail sauce and lemon--has a great clean flavor.  The crabby goodness is not muddied by all kinds of other stuff

Pretty much the only way I like crab cooked is in crab cakes (or stuffed into fillet mignon). I've been disappointed many many times by this dish in restaruants.  Sometimes there is too much fillers.  Sometimes there is too much bell pepper (WTF would you put bell pepper with crab?).  There seem to be a lot of ways to F* up crab cakes, and everyone seems to do it differently.

So, I started reading.  About 12 of my cook books have recipes for crab cakes.  About 6 of my cookbooks have good recipes for crab cakes. Cynthia Nims has a good, clean recipe for crab cakes in her Crab cook book. It is amazing how much crap people want to put in their crab cakes.  Interestingly, every recipe I had included green onions.  These were worthless in my estimation--no real favor benefits, just some green flecks.  What I was looking for was something simple that kept the crab texture and flavor clean while adding some depth and complexity.

Now, by "depth and complexity", what do I mean?  Crab has a bright, strong, wet flavor.  It's sort of a transient flavor also--the after-taste is different than the initial bite.  To my pallete, strong earthy flavors wouldn't work.  Herby flavors might be okay.  Acidic flavors only is small amounts.  Salty would be good.  Black pepper could be neat.  Hot pepper could be neat too, but in very small amounts.  Sweet could go in too.  Bell peppers are not okay.  Slippery flavors wouldn't be good.  Either would fruity or bitter.

Overall, the ideal crab cake should have a clean crab taste that is supported by mild earthy and herby undertones and peppery highlights.

After many trials and errors, this was as close as I could get to the perfect crab cakes:

Lump Dungeonous Crab
I kept it lumpy because crab paste cakes was not what I was going for.  I have to be honest, I bought my crab meat at Costco.  One pound of fresh dungeonous crab meat (from Pacific Fresh in Clackamas) for $16 is a steal.  And since it's 100% dungenous crab, it can't be from too far away.  Again, I run into my "local industrial" conundrum.

Bread Crumbs
From leftover bread I got at the farmer's market.  I forget the name of the bakery, but you can find several local bakers at the Hillsdale Farmer's Market through the winter.  Where does the wheat come from?  I have no idea (saving that one for another time).

From Noris Dairy.  They do home delivery.

From Noris Dairy also.

Olive Oil
From Belle Ragazze Olive Orchards

From the Farmer's Market. I'll update with the farm.

For this one I tried several things.  Spice is very important to crab cakes, I found out.  A few recipes call for Old Bay seasoning, which I bought and didn't like for its too strong celery flavor.  What turned out to be the best was my own BBQ seafood rub.

In a blind taste test, one out of one pregnant wives prefer my BBQ seafood rub to everything else.

  • Black Pepper
  • Salt
  • Paprika
  • Brown Sugar
  • Garlic Powder
  • Dried Oregano
  • Cayenne

All in all, this combination turned out really good.  I may refine it over time, but I was satisfied with these results far more than the cook book recipes.  And, on the local sourcing score card, I did okay:

Local Local: bread, egg, butter, shallot

Industrial Local: Crab

Other stuff:  spices

Total score: 75%  (I'm giving myself half points for the crab).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Local Portland Olive Oil

Every time I cook, I use some kind of oil or fat for something.  There is always some kind of lubricant needed, especially in saute.  With a nice braise, maybe you can get away with no added fats.  But who really makes pot roast every night? Not me, and that is fo' sho'.

There are certain things in cooking that we just can't do without and we cannot get locally.  Salt could be made locally (although I haven't found any).  Pepper is impossible since it is the dried berries of a jungle plant.  Most spices, in fact, come from warmer and dryer places than Portland.  Coffee, which most Portlanders love, comes from half a world away, literally.  Tea too.

So what to do about cooking oils?  Well, I found a list of 4 olive oil producers in Oregon.  Just as the wine industry has migrated north into the Willamette Valley over the past decade or two, so is the olive oil.  The Willamette Valley's Mediteranean summers have worked out really well for wine makers.  Since olive trees love to grow in the same places grape vines do, there is a lot of potential for the olive oil industry in Oregon.  However, the industry is still very small.  So small, in fact, that the Department of Agriculture is not even tracking it.  The 2007 census showed 8 farms with a combined total of 13 acres.  

Of the four farms, only one close enough to Portland to make it convenient.  So, that is the one my lazy self focused on.  

Belle Ragazze farm is just outside of Portland in Yamhill, OR.  Kim and I drove out to get some olive oil this weekend.  It was a longer drive than I thought, but worth it.  Meeting Hank and his wife was a real pleasure.  They are the nicest people you could hope for and told us a lot about the nascent olive oil industry in Oregon.  

As it turns out there are about 8 olive oil farms in Oregon.  Belle Ragazze is the second largest with 5 acres of trees.  That's right, only 5 acres.  The largest producer is Red Ridge Farms, and he has about 13 acres now.  This is an industry in its infancy.  

None of the farms have been around for more than a couple years, and it has been a hard couple years.  Abnormally cold weather this past December wiped out almost all of his baby trees.  The previous year was no different.   After all the work of planting and tending 3000 new trees over the summer, it looks like they all may need to be replaced.  I can't imagine how disappointed Hank and his family must have been.  

The story is the same for all the growers in Oregon.  Even in the south, unusually cold winters two years in a row have decimated the olive farms.  It takes years before an olive tree can start producing olives, and each time a cold snap happens the timeline for the entire industry has to restart. 

I was impressed by how brave these olive farmers are.  They're creating their own future and attempting to build an industry, all on speculation and a lot of really hard work.  

Until things start growing better, all the olive farms are getting their product from California.  Some import olives, and some import oil.  All are private labeling the oil and selling it direct.  For now it's all about generating awareness and establishing a market.  When the trees start producing olives in a few years, then they will be pressing their own olives grown in Oregon.  So for now, it's more of a regional product than a local one.  

Hank is not currently selling at the farmer's markets or in any stores, but hopes to in the near future.  If you can't make the drive out to Yamhill county, he does offer to mail your order to you.  Bottles are $15 for 500ml.  This is a great reason to buy a new bottle of Oregon olive oil.

Here is a 4 minute video from Red Ridge Farm of how olive oil is made.

Other Local Cooking Fat Alternatives
If you are going for local and need to lube your food, there are some other ways to go.  These aren't as healthy as olive oil, but here are a few ideas:

Use butter.  This is the easiest way to find local cooking fat producers.

Use nut oils.  This a great one because nut trees grow all over the place in Oregon.  Usually nut oils are reserved for salad dressings or specialty dishes.  However, this does not need to be the case.  

Use bacon grease.  I personally like this one a lot.  Local pork is not hard to find.  Buy some bacon, save the drippings, strain them to get any grizel out, store in the refrigerator for as long as you want, and use sparingly for saute and other hot prep needs.  This is especially good when making scrambled eggs for the wee little people in our lives.  It is also really good when you saute white fish, like cod.  You can't go wrong, because everything is better with bacon.