This dish is something I made a number of years ago, but as spring rolls (no pun intended) in it got me to thinking this would be a nice salad/starter to try again. I originally saw this recipe in the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook series entitled “Restaurant Favorites at Home”. This book is interesting because they talked with some of the great restaurants, picked a signature dish, and then tried to simplify it to make it more accessible to the rest of us while maintaining the best of the original character. This recipe was adapted from the Crab Tower Timbale from the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle Washington.
I hate to see it, but when I did a Google search on this recipe I found many pages with the exact same list of ingredients, the same name, and even the same instructions, but no mention that this recipe originated from America’s Test Kitchen. I really respect ATK’s work and there should be no question where I got this and I hope that my tutorial can add some value to the great work they have done. Please visit their site and watch their TV shows which are mostly broadcast on PBS stations.
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest or minced
- ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon table salt
- ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 12 ounces lump crabmeat (or backfin), preferably Atlantic blue crabmeat, carefully picked over for shell fragments
- 1 yellow bell pepper , cored, seeded, and cut into ⅛-inch pieces (about ½ cup)
- ½ small cucumber , peeled if desired, seeded, and cut into ⅛-inch pieces (about ½ cup)
- 1 medium plum tomato , cored, seeded, and cut into ⅛-inch pieces (about ½ cup)
- 1 small rib celery , cut into ⅛-inch pieces (about ½ cup)
- ½ small red onion , minced (about ¼ cup)
- ½ small jalapeño chile , stemmed, seeded, and minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro leaves
- ¾ teaspoon table salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- 3 avocados (ripe), cut into ¼-inch dice
- ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon table salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons lime juice from 1 lime
- 1 cup frisée
- 2 oranges , peeled using a paring knife and segmented
As you can see, this recipe is broken down into three distinct components. First, we’ll make the crabmeat salad. Then we’ll prep the gazpacho salsa. Finally we’ll do the Avocado Salsa since the avocado is component that will lose its freshness fastest.
Crab Meat Salad
Whisk together the olive oil, champagne vinegar, lemon zest, mustard, salt and pepper together in a small bowl.
Then measure 3 tbsp of this mixture into a medium bowl (this is going to be bowl you mix in the crab meat). Three tbsp will not be all of the original mixture, but it will be quite a bit of it. Now add the mayonnaise and whisk together.
Now add the crab meat to this dressing and thoroughly mix it together and set aside.
An important word is in order at this point…or more accurately before you ever buy the crab meat. Buy the best lump crab meat you can. Much of the canned crab meat you might find in a “regular” grocery store, even if it says “reserve” or “premium” is often not nearly as sweet as this dish deserves. If you have access to King Crab legs at your local Costco or fish counter, that would be a wonderful way to get the crab meat. Otherwise, if you’re paying $3-$5 for a 6 oz can of “premium” lump crab meat then I can assure you that you will be disappointed with the taste. Cheap crab meat can be bitter and even metallic tasting. If you buy the best in a can you might pay upwards of $20-$30 for 10 – 12 oz. Make sure you have a lot of appreciative friends and buying the best will be worth it.
Now we’ll move on to what is the most time consuming part of this dish and that is prepping the gazpacho salsa. Like many things that take time in cooking this one takes time because of the chopping involved. If you’re good with your knife then you’ll cruise through this. If you’re not, then, well, hang in there and get some experience.
The one thing I don’t like about this recipe is that to make this salsa you need a little bit of a lot of things. You’ll use just a little of the jalapeno, a bit of the onion, some of the cucumber, and so on. Save all the leftovers and just cut those up in whatever size you want with whatever mix is left over. Mix it together, throw some olive oil, salt, and pepper on it and you’ll have yourself the kitchen staff’s version of gazpacho salsa for leftovers.
Refer back to the recipe at the top for quantities, but I went ahead and separated all the ingredients and took a photo of it so you could see how large or small I cut the pieces. In a gazpacho like this you are going to want to cut things into a pretty small dice because this sits as a small package on top of the tower. You want all the flavors to come together and for it to look easy to get on your fork. There should be no stabbing involved in eating this dish.
Once all the vegetables and herbs are chopped, mix them together in a bowl along with the sherry vinegar (yellow bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, celery, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro, salt, pepper, olive oil.) Set it aside so it can start to marinate and marry its flavors together.
The final prep step is to make the avocado salsa. This component will form the base of the tower.
If you’ve never prepared an avocado I’ve located a YouTube video that Epicurious did that quickly shows you what to do.
The video shows how to prep the avocado to come out in slices. Simply make cuts in the 90 direction on top of the long direction and you’ll be able to spoon out already diced avocado. Note that the distance between the cuts will define how chunky the avocado salsa is. You don’t want it to be too chunky because you want it to fill the bottom of the form. But if you cut it up too fine you will lose the visual appeal and it will be more of mash similar to guacamole. Take a look at the pictures below and you’ll get the idea.
Spoon out the diced avocado into a medium bowl. Mix it with the ground coriander, salt, pepper, and lime juice. The lime juice is acidic and will help maintain the nice green color of the avocado. Otherwise when avocado is exposed to air it will eventually turn brown, much like an apple.
The Final Assembly
In the final assembly we need a form that is the right diameter. I have a selection of biscuit cutters and chose one that is about 3″ in diameter. As a kid growing up in northeastern Colorado, I saw some grain storage silos being built with concrete. They started at the ground with a circular form that was nowhere near the height of the eventual silo. They poured it full of concrete and as the concrete set up they constantly moved the form higher, pouring more concrete as they went. Building the crab tower is similar.
Spoon in about 1/3 of a cup of the avocado salsa inside the form onto the bottom of the serving plate. Use the back of a spoon to lightly tamp down the avocado so that it fills in the form and creates a level surface for the next layer.
Carefully lift the form straight up, but not off of the avocado salsa layer. You may need to hold the form in place while you spoon 1/3 of a cup of the crab salad mixture on top of the avocado salsa. Again, use the back of a spoon to lightly tamp the crab salad in place and form a level surface for the next layer. (Of course I forgot to take a picture of this step. :-0 )
Continue by lifting the form up further, if you need to, in order to spoon 1/3 of a cup of the gazpacho salsa on top of the crab salad. You may want to lightly reposition some of the salsa so that it’s even, but there is no need to tamp this layer down. In fact you want it to look “fluffy” and light.
Completely remove the form now and you will have the crab tower and it’s now ready for garnish. America’s Test Kitchen garnished this dish with some frisee lettuce dressed with some of the remaining vinaigrette that you made in the first steps. My store wasn’t carrying frisee at the time and I chose to use pea sprouts instead with, I think, great results. Also, America’s Test Kitchen also arranged a few orange segments on the plate around the tower, which I did not try but I think it is a great idea. Once you’ve done one of these the rest will go quickly.
What did I learn?
- Get the best possible crab meat you can. If you are not sure about the quality of the crab meat then I would highly recommend you switch to a good quality prawn which might be easier to find. Clean and boil the prawn and then dice it fairly small. Also, this dish could be really good with a sushi grade Ahi tuna. I will probably try that next time because I love Ahi and the deep red meat would make for interesting visual appeal too. And of course if you’re from Boston and in the middle of lobster season this would be a great place to use some fresh lobster.
- This dish, if prepared in a large enough portion, can be used as a main dish. But it’s probably best as a fresh and hearty appetizer.
- What about make-ahead? You could definitely mix the crab salad hours ahead of time. The gazpacho salsa could also be made hours ahead of time and in fact might even be better after it has marinated for a while. I would be less inclined to do the avocado salsa ahead of time, but it is really not a time consuming part of the dish to prepare and so it’s conceivable you can prepare that right before you’re ready to plate.
- Use the leftovers creatively. Chop up the rest of the vegetables into a fresh vegetable salad. Any leftover components from the crab towers can be mixed together to make a very spunky crab salad for use later on a sandwich or lettuce salad.
Let me know what you think.