Growing up on St. Joe Beach seems like a dream to me now, in retrospect. How lucky I was! My sister and I never took our amazing access to the beach for granted. We walked on the beach frequently, even in cooler weather, and we went to the beach to swim and lie in the sun often during the years we lived there.
It was where I did much of my playing as a child, with my parents and grandparents, and later, much of my planning and praying about my future as a young adult. It was home.
My sister and I return to Gulf County as often as we can, as do many of our friends and family who have moved away for various reasons. The gulf seems to lure us back, the scent of the beach almost palpable in our memories. There is something about that salty air, the scent of seaweed and washed up shells and sea creatures of all kinds co-mingling there. I will always know that scent, even when far away from the coast.
Now that I don’t live right on the water, I miss the luxury of buying right-off-the-boat-fresh seafood: shrimp, mullet, oysters, scallops, and the like. What a treasure. But even better than that were the times we were able to get fresh crab from the waters of our very own beach during crab season.
Dad would creep along Highway 98 in his car back in the ’70s and ’80s, watching the clear water, because at certain times of the year, you could see dark spots in the shallow water near shore. They weren’t really "spots," though; they were crabs! He’d come home and pull out the crab nets and five-gallon buckets, and the four of us would go down to the beach and gather the ones that didn’t have eggs; we’d leave the females to continue to reproduce, as the law required.
We’d take home our crabs and dad would prepare the meat, and mom would make crab cakes and other delicacies from it. You can imagine how good that was; fresh from the water two hours ago, now on the plate in dad’s crab cake recipe he got out of an old issue of Southern Living magazine. Heavenly!
When I buy crab now, I sometimes make those same crab cakes, but I also like to make crab-stuffed portabellas. I love mushrooms, and crab meat paired with them couldn’t be anything but GREAT to me.
I found some lump crabmeat in the grocery store seafood department and it worked very well. It really did remind me of my childhood crab feasts when I took that first bite into the crab stuffing; so sweet, salty, and tender. If you’re looking for something new to try, take this recipe for a spin and let me know how you like it.
Makes 6 servings
6 portabella mushroom caps
1/2 pound lump crab meat
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1 small white onion or two shallots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or scant 1 tsp dried thyme
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup grated Parmesan, Grana padano or Gruyere cheese
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Use cooking spray to lightly coat a baking sheet, or use a sheet of parchment paper to line the baking sheet.
Carefully remove the stems from the portabella caps, then finely chop them and place in a mixing bowl. (You’ll use them as part of the filling.)
Remove the mushroom “gills” from the underside of the caps, brush the caps clean of any debris, and arrange them in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Season each mushroom cap with salt and pepper.
Add the crab, egg, bread crumbs, onion, garlic, thyme, lemon juice, salt and pepper to the chopped portabella stems in a bowl. Gently combine by folding gently with a spatula, then divide the mixture evenly between the mushroom caps, pressing down lightly to make a firm mound of crab cake in each cap. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the crab mixture is set and golden brown.
Remove from the oven, top with the grated cheese and bake for an additional 2 minutes, or until the cheese melts down into the crab cake.
I serve these with a spritz of lemon juice and a few shakes of Ed’s Red Hot Sauce, which is a family favorite for its sweet spiciness.
These make a nice meal along with a big salad and perhaps some crusty French bread and garlic butter or herbed olive oil, or just about anything you like with your seafood! You could also make these with baby ’bellas and serve as an appetizer. They’d go over well with your seafood-loving guests, I’m sure!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who can eat their weight in crab cakes. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.