Baltimore native Denise Vansant is serious about crab cakes

By Pam George  |  Photograph by Scott Nathan
From the August 2017 issue

recipeWhen Denise Vansant and her husband, Joe, moved to the beach full time in 2000, she was disappointed that she couldn’t find a crab cake that lived up to her standards. Not only did Vansant grow up in Baltimore — where crab cakes are a signature dish — but she was also raised in fine-dining restaurants.

Her father owned two: The Tail of the Fox in Timonium and The Golden Bull in Ocean City, Md. She often accompanied him on visits to the fishmonger to find the freshest products. In the 1930s, her grandparents owned one of the first diners in Cape May, N.J. Her uncle, born in France, was a chef.

Vansant has put her Baltimore background and her culinary know-how to good use at the Crab Cake Cook-Off, a highlight of the University of Delaware’s Coast Day festivities. She’s won two second-place awards, and will go for the gold again on Oct. 1 when the event returns to UD’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes. She could also enter the Seafood Chowder Challenge, which targets professional chefs and cooks. A former history teacher, Vansant now owns Cave Girl at the Beach, which prepares seasonal, local and organic foods-to-go, which are available at the Rehoboth Beach Farmers’ Market.

Participants in the popular crab cake and chowder contests have had time to consider their options. Coast Day was canceled in 2015 due to inclement weather and again in 2016 because of building renovations. Gourmands aren’t the only ones embracing its return. The event — which showcases research done by the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment — includes educational exhibits, UD’s Robotic Discovery Laboratory, magic shows, touch tanks and music.

“I loved Coast Day even before I moved full time to the beach,” says Vansant, whose husband is a Rehoboth High School alum and a recreational crabber. When he took a job with Delaware Technical & Community College, the couple initially lived in what was their Dewey vacation home before moving to their present residence, located west of Route 1 just north of downtown Rehoboth Beach.

For her crab cake recipes, Vansant has looked to “Maryland’s Way: The Hammond-Harwood House Cook Book” for inspiration. The collection of recipes was first published in 1963. She’s added her own signature touches to the basics.

Vansant, who teaches cooking classes, has one crucial piece of advice when “people call me up and say: ‘Mine fell apart.’” Her response: “Did you refrigerate them?” The egg and butter need time to bind, she explains. At home, she likes to serve crab cakes with coleslaw, a dill pickle and saltines.

 

“BAWLMER GIRL” CRAB CAKE WITH OLD BAY BUTTER PAD

(serves 6, depending on the size)

For the crab cakes
2    tablespoons of fresh parsley, chopped
1    tablespoon of fresh lemon juice
8    tablespoons (one stick) of melted butter
1    beaten egg
1    tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
1⁄8    teaspoon of allspice
1    pound of crabmeat
1    cup of fresh toasted bread crumbs or
organic panko bread crumbs
Crisco oil

Mix the first six ingredients together in a bowl. Place the crabmeat in another bowl and then pour the wet ingredients on top. Mix gently. Loosely form into six patties. (Make fewer if you like larger crab cakes.) Pat the cakes just until they hold their shape but no more. Place the bread crumbs on a flat plate. Dip each side of the crab cake in crumbs. Refrigerate overnight, or for at least one hour, to let the cakes set.

To cook, add Crisco oil to a frying pan until you have about 1 inch of oil. Heat the oil, and cook the cakes about five minutes per side or until they are golden brown. Be careful not to burn them, and watch for splatters.

For the Old Bay butter
4    ounces of butter, softened
6    teaspoons of fresh parsley, chopped
4    teaspoons of fresh lemon juice
¼    tablespoon of Old Bay seasoning
Lemon slices

Work the butter with a wooden spoon until it’s creamy. Stir in the parsley, fresh lemon juice and seasoning. Form into a roll, and wrap in wax paper. Refrigerate the roll and let it harden. To use, let the butter soften for 30 minutes, then slice. Put one slice on each hot crab cake. (You can also top some saltines with butter.) Squirt some lemon on each.