Sailor & Galley: Crab Cakes and the Simple Life

As we cruise south from New England, we adjust our diet, enjoying crab cakes in Maryland, shrimp in the Carolinas, and the local catch in Florida and the Bahamas.
Michèle Boulay sailing her Island Packet 37
Michèle Boulay enjoys the simple life on her Island Packet 37. Courtesy Michèle Boulay

When we first left Rhode Island for extended cruising aboard Simple Life, our Island Packet 37, landlubber friends assumed we’d be docking and dining nightly. When we told them we rarely stayed at marinas and mostly anchored out, the wide-eyed response was: But how do you eat? 

This question always made my husband, Joe, and me chuckle. We love good food. We especially love seafood, and I’ve always loved to cook. Cruising and living aboard have only expanded my repertoire. 

When the weather changes in late August, we prepare for our seasonal departure from Narragansett Bay and a monthslong cruise down the Eastern Seaboard to the Bahamas. The goal always is to arrive in northern Florida by November 1, then cross to the Bahamas from South Florida or the Keys. 

As we cruise, we adjust our diet, enjoying crab cakes in Maryland, shrimp in the Carolinas, and the local catch in Florida or the Bahamas. In our Rhode Island home waters, we’ve snagged flounder from the dinghy, foraged for clams ashore, and raked for quahogs (the local name for large, hard-shell clams) in waist-deep water. 

Luckily, our appetite for ­seafood is constantly satisfied. Joe has become a seasoned cruiser and a skilled fisherman. In Abaco, the Bahamas, he taught himself to spear lobsters using a mask, snorkel and Hawaiian sling. On passages under sail, he often snags mahimahi or tuna from a trolling line. Unfailingly, seas are lumpy whenever we catch a fish; why do they never seem to bite when conditions are benign? And whenever a fish is on the line, a brief kerfuffle ensues: Joe wrestles the fish to bring it aboard while I stand at the helm, holding a steady course through the waves and not knocking him overboard. Joe also morphs into a sailing Howard Cosell, excitedly shouting the play-by-play: “It faked left! Now it’s trying to tangle itself between the rudderpost and keel!”

One year, we had a most unexpected catch before even leaving Rhode Island. We were loading the dinghy after a provisioning run when something odd on the dock caught my eye. A closer look revealed masses of large blue crabs attached to every piling. This was a rare sight because blue crabs don’t usually gather in such abundance in Narragansett Bay. 

Quickly, we headed out to Simple Life, offloaded the provisions, grabbed some frozen chicken necks and string I’d saved just for this purpose, and zoomed back to the dock. The tide was still favorable and low. We caught at least 11 of the blue crabs, stopping only when our bucket was filled. We were well under the legal limit, but there was no reason to harvest more than we needed.

We headed back to the boat, spent the next few hours stowing provisions and getting the boat ready to go, and started to think about dinner. Fresh crab was definitely on the menu. 

While living ashore, I’d faithfully followed a crab-cake recipe that was too complex for boat life, with ingredients that could be found only in gourmet markets. Once we moved aboard, I came up with my own boat-friendly version. It has multiple ingredients, but all of them can be found in local supermarkets, including those we use for provisioning. 

The night of our blue crab harvest, I got to work in the galley so we could savor our reward. The crab cakes, made with crabmeat just a few hours out of the sea, were crispy on the outside, and delightfully moist and flavorful inside. 

As we ate and drank in the beauty of our waterfront view, I thought of those landlubber friends who imagined us ­miserably spooning beans from a can, and I burst out laughing. This was living the simple life. If they only knew.

What’s Cooking?

Crisp and Tasty Crab Cakes (makes 6 crab cakes)

Crab cakes with lemon wedges on a serving plate
Crisp and Tasty Crab Cakes. Lynda Morris Childress
  • 1 lb. fresh lump crabmeat (or good-quality canned)
  • ½ jalapeño or serrano pepper (optional)
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise (Duke’s, if possible)
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice (plus lemons for garnish)
  • 1½ tsp. Old Bay seasoning*  
  • 1¼ cup panko or plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 Tbsp. chives, thinly sliced
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt
  • 1⁄8  tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil (not olive oil)
  • Bibb lettuce, parsley for garnish (optional)

* Or substitute ¾ tsp. each celery salt and paprika, and a pinch of cayenne

Pick over the lump crabmeat to remove bits of shell or cartilage. Set aside. 

Seed jalapeño or serrano pepper, and chop finely. Set aside. 

Combine the next seven ingredients in a medium bowl and add chopped peppers. Whisk well. Add crabmeat and fold to blend. Stir in ¾ cup panko or breadcrumbs, and chives, salt and pepper. 

Carefully divide mixture into 6 equal portions (it might be slightly wet). Form each portion into a 1-inch-thick patty. Plate and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes, preferably up to 1 hour. 

Heat oil in a large skillet (I always use cast-iron) over medium heat. Spread remaining ½ cup panko or breadcrumbs on a plate and lightly coat crab cakes. 

Fry until golden brown and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes per side. 

To serve, arrange crab cakes atop bibb lettuce, or garnish with parsley. Serve with plenty of lemon wedges, and bottled or homemade remoulade or tartar sauce.

Difficulty: MEDIUM
Can be made: AT ANCHOR

Cook’s Note: For a quickie remoulade, combine ½ cup mayonnaise, 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, 1½ tsp. sweet pickle relish (or chopped sweet or dill pickle), 1 tsp. minced capers and ½ tsp. Dijon or dry mustard. Whisk all ingredients in a small bowl, and set aside for serving. 

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