When May comes around each year, there’s only one thing on my husband’s mind: Camping. By this time, most of the snow would have melted from the higher elevations and average daytime temperatures are in the mid-70ºF range. I had never gone camping until my husband took me for the first time over 10 years ago and I instantly fell in love with the desert (mainly Nevada’s Blackrock Desert and Utah).
By this time, wildflowers are in bloom…
…and wild animals roam on countless miles of sagebrush country. Have you ever smelled the lemony, piney scent of a sagebrush?
Hiking the high desert hills makes way for discoveries in the form of obsidian arrowheads left behind by Native Americans long ago and for meeting the hills’ current residents, whether you like them or not. My husband happens to be fascinated by snakes, I’m not. I won’t bore you with the story of one camping trip when I encountered five snakes in one day (including a couple of rattle snakes)–it seemed there was one waiting to greet me every few minutes.
Or the time when, after walking all day through tall grass without incident (I can’t imagine all the snakes around me I didn’t see), I noticed some movement around my foot and saw this huge snake slithering by me! I think I would have won the Olympic medal for the highest, longest leap towards my husband. Of course, my shriek of horror probably frightened the snake more than he scared me. As much as I fear them, they haven’t kept me away from the desert.
But one other thing almost kept me from returning: Caterpillars. We hiked through a slot canyon once where the cottonwood trees (that line that area’s water supply) were infested with them. Each brush was crawling with hundreds of these little guys and the ground was covered with them. I begged my friends to leave me in the car while they hiked but they wouldn’t allow it. I must have cried for most of the day. I didn’t sit anywhere, lean on anything, and least of all answer nature’s call…all day! That was like being on an episode of Fear Factor, for me, at least. Now I know to stay far away from all cottonwood trees that show signs of being infested, the cocoons, and even my husband couldn’t get me near them.
Still, whether hiking high ground or low, snakes or caterpillars notwithstanding, the highlight of these camping trips is to unwind in one of the many natural hot springs (constant 105ºF for our favorite).
But during a rest stop in St. George, Utah one year, we discovered another gem: Crab Cakes at the Painted Pony restaurant. St. George is the gateway to some of the Southwest’s natural wonders like Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon. We certainly didn’t expect much beyond the countless motels lining the town but we were pleasantly surprised to see a quaint downtown area where we chanced upon some of the best food we’ve ever tasted.
From the salad to the lamb (we’ve been back a few times), each dish was artfully prepared and beautifully presented. However, one of the dishes that I have never forgotten at the Painted Pony is their crab cakes. Flavorful and delicate, they were accompanied by a couple of dipping sauces that would make Maryland–the home of the original crab cake–proud. But what is noteworthy about these crab cakes is that they are full of the flavors of the Southwest, from the poblano peppers in the croquette itself to the avocado relish and roasted red pepper sauce. The two complement each other so well, one chunky and fresh while the other is smooth and smoky. And get this…I’m not a big fan of red peppers but this dish, especially after recreating it in my kitchen recently, has me eating my words.
The owner of the restaurant was very generous to share his recipe with me and I couldn’t wait to post it here. Unlike other crab cake recipes, this doesn’t use too many eggs to bind the mixture and uses minimal mayonnaise. The star is the crab meat with the sautéed vegetables enhancing their freshness. The preparation is simple but with the addition of the three dipping sauces–avocado relish, roasted red pepper sauce and a lemon aioli–the final product is sophisticated and elegant. Perhaps we’ll make another stop in St. George this May but in the meantime, I have Mr. Randall Richards to thank for allowing me to enjoy these crab cakes between camping trips.
High Desert Crab Cakes with Avocado Relish, Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Lemon Aioli
* Note: This recipe makes 12-14 large crab cakes so feel free to halve but prepare the same amount of the dipping sauces.
For the crab cakes:
- ½ minced poblano pepper
- 1 minced small red pepper
- 2 shallots minced (1/4 cup)
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- 2 pounds lump crab meat
- 1 large egg
- 1 ½ Tbls Old bay seasoning
- 1 ½ Tbls Mayonnaise
- 2 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 1 ¼ cups Panko bread crumbs
Sauté the vegetables in a small amount of olive oil until bright and still slightly crisp, a couple of minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a mixing bowl whisk egg, mayonnaise, mustard and Old Bay. Add cooled vegetables and combine. Fold in the crab meat gently so as not to break up the chunks of meat. When just coated with mixture fold in the bread crumbs. Again, don’t over-mix.
Pack cakes into a 3 inch ring mold or the mold of your choice and chill in the refrigerator to firm them up. Next roll all the cakes in flour and then an egg wash and finally Panko bread crumbs, being sure to coat them evenly. Note: since there’s only one egg in this recipe, it will take some effort to make sure the cakes don’t fall during the egg wash stage. Though I packed them in a mold before chilling, I ended up forming each one into a tight ball and flattening right before dipping into the egg wash.
To cook, place crab cakes in a sauté pan over med-high heat and brown lightly on both sides. Slide cakes into a 350ºF oven for about 5 minutes turning them once midway through.
For the Avocado Relish:
- 1 avocado carefully diced into ¼ inch dice
- 1 scant Tbls Minced poblano
- 2 Tbls minced red bell pepper
- 1 Tbls minced shallot
- 1 tsp cilantro (minced)
- ¼ tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp chili powder
- Pinch salt
- Pinch pepper
- Juice and zest or ½ lime
Combine all ingredients in mixing bowl and fold together being careful not to smash the avocado. When well combined place in smaller container, press down to remove any air pockets and cover touching the relish with plastic wrap to avoid discoloring.
For the Roasted Red Pepper Sauce:
- Two roasted red peppers; peeled and seeded
Place peppers in a blender and season with a few turns of fresh white pepper and a bit of salt. Puree until silky smooth adding a bit of tomato juice or the brine from canned roasted peppers to gain the proper smooth consistency. Note: My sauce was perfect without adding juice or brine.
For the Aioli:
- Fresh lemon juice
- Crushed garlic clove
- Lemon zest
- Salt, to taste
I put this aioli together at the last minute and didn’t measure the ingredients. Use your taste buds to decide what works for you. As a guide, use the following: 1/4 cup mayonnaise, a few tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, one garlic clove, zest of half a lemon and a pinch of salt. Adjust according to your taste.