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High Desert Crab Cakes with Avocado Relish, Roasted Red Pepper Sauce and Lemon Aioli

January 23, 2011

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:

  • Mayonnaise
  • 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.

70 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2011 10:17 PM

    These look delicious! I am from the Chesapeake area and am always looking to try out more crabcake recipes!

    • January 25, 2011 8:59 PM

      So many different variations, right? The Painted Pony restaurant hit the jackpot with this one. 🙂

  2. January 23, 2011 10:32 PM

    I love crab cakes! Love your camping pictures. Really beautiful.

  3. January 24, 2011 12:54 AM

    This dish looks so tasty. Thank you for sharing. Beautiful photos!

  4. January 24, 2011 1:38 AM

    The photos are breathtaking, but the snake turned me off! I have never encountered one face to face, but I can imagine that I would not be the picture of bravery!
    On the other hand, the crab cakes look pretty tasty. I love red peppers, especially roasted.
    I have eaten many crab cakes, but have never attempted to make them myself. Now might be the perfect time:)

    • January 25, 2011 8:13 PM

      You know, some years we don’t see too many snakes. We’ve never had any trouble with them but yes, I’d prefer not to see so many!

  5. January 24, 2011 2:06 AM

    WOW. What wonderful scenery 🙂

    Oh and the crab cakes look AWESOME as well.


  6. January 24, 2011 3:59 AM

    Love the pictures from your camping trips! Don’t think I’d be able to deal with all those snakes though! These crabcakes look so divine and unique!

    • January 25, 2011 8:15 PM

      Thanks, Peggy! I’m somewhat used to the snakes now and if it’s early enough in May, it’s really too cold for them to be out too much. In the summer, forget it! It would be too hot in the desert then anyway. 🙂

  7. January 24, 2011 5:24 AM

    The pictures are gorgeous and the recipe sounds wonderful!

  8. January 24, 2011 5:31 AM

    What gorgeous country!!! And lucky you coming home with this delicious looking crab cake recipe!

    • January 25, 2011 8:18 PM

      I was very happy that restaurant owner was willing to let me share his delicious recipe with everyone. Yes, the desert is one beautiful place. 🙂

  9. January 24, 2011 5:47 AM

    You can keep the snakes please!! But I would love one of those little crabcakes!! Thanks for sharing those images with us, right now its 8 degrees and all I see is a frozen tundra….sigh

    • January 25, 2011 8:20 PM

      Yeah, I’d skip the snakes too, Dennis! Alas, they go with the territory and I like the dessert too much. 🙂

  10. January 24, 2011 6:25 AM

    I love a good crab cake and this looks like a wonderful recipe, especially with that sauce! I can’t wait to try it. How gracious of the owner to share it with you! I have a favorite crab cake recipe also (check out my November 17, 2010 post, if you’re interested) that uses fresh basil.

    What gorgeous scenery! I’ve only been to the high desert of northern Arizona and the Grand Canyon but would love to see Utah one day.

    • January 25, 2011 8:23 PM

      Susan, the sauces are wonderful, especially together. I’ll have to check out your recipe using basil–sounds so good!

      Arizona is wonderful too, I think, but if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend seeing all the monuments and parks in Utah. You’ll never forget it. 🙂

  11. January 24, 2011 7:12 AM

    Beautiful pictures – makes me want to go outside now (why is so cold)? Great recipe, beautiful dish – thanks to you and the owner for sharing.

  12. January 24, 2011 7:23 AM

    What a great camping trip you had – the views are incredible! One of my favorite things to make is crab cakes. Yours look supreme! Love the sauce!!! Have a great week and enjoy the Spring like weather! 🙂

    • January 25, 2011 8:25 PM

      Lisa, I remember your delicious crab cakes. 🙂

      As for camping, we have so many pictures from camping the last decade that I might have overdone it here! Oh, well. I wanted to show how beautiful it is out there. 🙂

  13. January 24, 2011 8:45 AM

    Yum, yum, yum! Gosh, that looks so colorful and bright and delicious! What wonderful flavors and textures.

  14. Bonnibella permalink
    January 24, 2011 9:12 AM

    The pics is a good reminder of spring weather. Love the high altitude pictures. I think the avocado relish would be good on everything!

  15. January 24, 2011 9:13 AM

    Those pictures are amazing! I am not a big camping person….exactly for that snake picture…brrrrr….let’s talk about a different animal: crab! See I can give up camping for a crab cakes…so much better.
    Have a great week, free of snakes and full of crab cakes (I need to make them too next weekend)

  16. January 24, 2011 9:21 AM

    Now that’s camping! We haven’t ventured yet there, but one day, when the kids are older, perhaps we will! Gorgeous scenery. And those crab cakes, oh my goodness, I am loving all the flavors! It’s got everything I love – spicy, creamy, and tangy all in one 🙂 Oh, and crab, of course 🙂

    • January 25, 2011 8:57 PM

      Liren, you and the fam would really enjoy Zion National Park. We stayed at their lodge when we visited; much easier that way. 🙂

  17. January 24, 2011 10:54 AM

    Lovely pictures of the desert! I’m totally with you on the caterpillars, they are creepy! Thanks for sharing this recipe!

    • January 25, 2011 8:28 PM

      See? I’m glad I’m not the only one! Even worse when they’re coming at you from all directions! 🙂

  18. January 24, 2011 10:58 AM

    Such a flavorful spin on the crabcake. I feel like that’s a dish that’s been done so much that it’s become uninteresting. Thanks for bringing it back

  19. January 24, 2011 12:38 PM

    Wow, these crabs cakes (and relish, sauce, and aioli), look delicious. I’m always looking for a new twist on crab cakes, so I think I’ll have to give this a try!

  20. January 24, 2011 2:15 PM

    Crab cakes are some of my favorites.. I love them and yours look simply wonderful.. your camping adventures sound like a lot of fun as well!

    • January 25, 2011 8:30 PM

      Thanks, Evan. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed camping. No phone service, no other people. Really it’s just the stars and you–it’s special. 🙂

  21. January 24, 2011 3:41 PM

    I can relate to the snakes… ALL are evil poisonous monsters to me.

    Love the crab cakes too… that makes up for the harrowing desert trip 🙂

  22. January 24, 2011 4:12 PM

    Your photos are amazing! Thank you for transporting me to the beautiful outdoors with them … great post!

  23. January 24, 2011 7:37 PM

    Gorgeous hiking/camping photos. My husband and I just moved to the Bay Area in the fall, and we’ve been enjoying a lot of hikes lately. We’re from Nebraska, so being able to hike in sunshine in the middle of January is amazing!

    • January 25, 2011 8:33 PM

      Thanks, Courtney, and welcome to the Bay Area! I bet you’ve been enjoying this unusually warm weather we’ve been having. 🙂

  24. January 24, 2011 8:41 PM

    Jean, you pictures are simply amazing. I have never visited the high desert, but it’s on my list. That pic with the snake just gives me the creeps though!
    The crab cake might make up for the snakes… the colors are so vivid. Lovely!

    • January 25, 2011 8:34 PM

      Then I’m glad I posted only one snake picture, Kim! We have tons! I hope I didn’t make the desert seem snake-infested. It’s really quite nice. 🙂

  25. January 24, 2011 8:49 PM

    I’ve never been to the high desert and you really had me wanting to go, until I saw the photo of the snake! We have rattlers that come in our backyard sometimes, and I don’t like them at all! I hope that crab cake photo gets Top 9, because it is a wow! Hope you have a great week!

    • January 25, 2011 8:37 PM

      Gina, thanks so much for your sweet comment. The Top 9 spot seems elusive lately but that would certainly be nice. :-). I hope you’re having a great week too!

  26. January 25, 2011 12:45 AM

    you’re so badass! i am ashamed to admit i camp with a queen-sized air mattress and a tent my friends have teasingly-dubbed “the palace.”

    • January 25, 2011 8:42 PM

      Haha! Okay, I’ll confess that we have pretty cushy accommodations now. I just didn’t want to bore everyone w/ too many pictures of the trailer too. I did start camping w/ my husband’s old pop up tent trailer. Now that was something! 🙂

  27. January 25, 2011 1:33 AM

    Amazing scenery. Unwinding in a hot spring sounds divine as well! I can’t believe you stood still long enough to take a picture of that snake by your feet, and that the caterpillars bothered you more than the snakes.

    • January 25, 2011 8:45 PM

      Sylvie, it’s wonderful because we have the springs to ourselves. We’ve gone camping for 10 days in the Blackrock Desert without running into anyone. And yes, the caterpillars, in great numbers, bother me more than snakes! Crazy, huh? 🙂

  28. January 25, 2011 6:57 AM

    Great photos Jean!
    I love the crab cakes but could live without the snakes;-)

  29. January 25, 2011 9:07 AM

    That hot springs looks divine and I’m with you on these nature hikes. That snake alone would have sent me over the edge.

  30. January 25, 2011 11:13 AM

    My boyfriend loves to camp too and he takes me out a lot into situations like yours. I was surprised you managed to get a photo of the snake by, I’m guessing, his feet! And caterpillar infestations would totally freak me out. But it’s always the end of the hike that always seems to make it worthwhile. Those natural wonders that only few have made the journey out to.

    • January 25, 2011 8:53 PM

      Your boyfriend sounds like my husband! Mine has taken me on some adventures all right! Glad for most of them, though. I’d have no stories to tell otherwise. 🙂

  31. January 25, 2011 1:14 PM

    Your photos took my breath away. They are stunning. Under normal circumstances I’d be raving about your lovely crab cakes, but they’ve been outshone by photos of the high country.
    I really love to visit here. It is never boring or mundane. Have a great day. Blessings…Mary

    • January 25, 2011 8:51 PM

      Mary, gosh, thank you so much! I’m very happy that you like to visit here–so, so appreciated!

  32. January 25, 2011 2:46 PM

    Wow those pictures are something else. I love the one with the waterfall for sure, but they all tell a little story. Some of my goals this coming spring/summer is to hike more. The air feels bright and there is nothing better than being under the open ski. And my mouth eating those amazing looking Crab cakes. 🙂

    • January 25, 2011 8:49 PM

      Nag, that waterfall picture is from the Escalante National Monument in Utah. Highly recommended. 🙂

  33. January 25, 2011 3:45 PM

    lovely pictures crab cakes look delicious

  34. January 25, 2011 5:16 PM

    i am craving for some of that crab cakes right now.. they look really amazing!

  35. January 25, 2011 7:12 PM

    I just love all this wilderness photos you took. Such beautiful scenery. It looked hot? Was it boiling hot? Haha! Aren’t you lucky to get the recipe from the chef. Looks so yum and great photos too!

    • January 25, 2011 8:47 PM

      In May, it’s not too hot. Otherwise, we wouldn’t go. Ideally, daytime highs would be in the 70s and overnight lows in the 30s. 🙂

  36. January 25, 2011 10:37 PM

    This has to be one of the best posts I’ve seen all week! All of your hiking pictures and experiences reminded me of my childhood in Colorado. I am missing home so much, and I loved remembering all the hikes I’ve been on with my own family. And then…you top it off with an amazing recipe. Those crab cakes look so flavorful! Thank you for sharing, sweet friend. May the middle of your week be full of joy and laughter.

    • January 26, 2011 11:52 AM

      Monet, you’re so sweet, thanks! I’m glad everyone has enjoyed this post despite my mention of snakes and caterpillars. Colorado is so beautiful–I can understand how you would miss it.

      Thanks, as always, for dropping by and I hope you’re enjoying your week, too. 🙂

  37. January 26, 2011 11:18 AM

    A wonderful adventure and it ends with great food. That makes up for the snakes and caterpillars in my mind. GREG

  38. January 26, 2011 11:31 AM

    I love the photos. What gorgeous country. I am so snake phobic, though, that I don’t think I would have left my car, let alone hiked all over. You are braver than I!

  39. January 26, 2011 4:54 PM

    Jean what a lovely dish and trip! I love the outdoors and camping. Thanks for sharing.

  40. January 26, 2011 7:37 PM

    I love all these pictures! I am ashamed to admit the last time I went camping, I was in the Girl Scouts and it was mandatory. I may change my mind if crab cakes are involved! 🙂

  41. January 26, 2011 8:00 PM

    Jean, what an amazing place to camp. I’m not so troubled by snakes, it’s the BEARS here that shake me up a little! The crab cakes look utterly delectable, thanks for the recipe!

  42. January 27, 2011 9:10 AM

    WOW! I would’ve freaked out myself with those snakes and caterpillars!! That must have been so scary! Did you just let them slither away? I guess just let them be and they won’t bother you. Those crabcakes look delicious, Jean. If ever we go camping this year, the spread will be luxuriously delicious and your crab cakes will definitely be on the menu, fried on a skillet over by a fire in a campsite with hopefully no rattlesnakes!

  43. January 28, 2011 12:00 PM

    I love hiking! It’s the sleeping in a tent part I’m not too big on. Eating crab cakes after a nice long hike with beautiful scenery? Now we are talking.
    Spectacular pics!

  44. February 9, 2011 1:35 AM

    Omigosh, when you started talking about caterpillar-infestation, I was so so afraid you would show photos of it! Given my fear of all creepy, crawly things, you can imagine how happy I was to instead see photos of those gorgeous crab cakes – whew! And adding in poblano peppers? Brilliant!

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