I don’t know if your mother was/is similar to mine, but my mom didn’t think she was a good cook. Yet, if you ask any of my siblings or myself what foods we liked as kids, we all have multiple dishes to choose from, all ones my mom made, most of them from scratch. And of course, none of those food memories are stronger than the yummy treats and feasts that came out of her kitchen at holiday time. Whether it be my Gramma’s bacon apple raisin stuffing, or the chocolate wafer cookies we smashed flat with the bottom of a juice glass, those once a year culinary masterpieces are what made the holidays special.
If I had to name only one dish that reminds me most of the holidays, it would be my Mom’s crab dip. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, she would magically transform 3 simple ingredients, canned lump crab meat, cream cheese, and cocktail sauce, into this delectable layered spread. It had all of the attributes a great appetizer should – it looks gorgeous and festive (red and white), feels expensive and elegant (crab), and tastes divine because it’s both creamy and tangy, sweet and savory all in one bite! And the best part is it literally takes only five minutes to make.
Now being a chef, I had to tinker a bit with the original, swapping some of the cream cheese with crème fraiche, as well as adding extra horseradish and a squeeze of lemon to the cocktail sauce. However, if you don’t want to do that and simply want to take one block of plain cream cheese, 2 cans of lump crab meat (make sure its lump, it’s a little more expensive than the cans with back fin meat, but well worth it for flavor and texture), and a jar of cocktail sauce, it will still be fantastic.
The process is simple.
1. Drain the crab meat in a strainer, and discard the juice. You want the meat well drained.
2. Let cream cheese come to room temperature, spread onto a platter in an even layer.
3. Carefully sprinkle crab meat over the cream cheese layer.
4. If you want to serve it at a later time, this is the time to refrigerate, just cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge until 15 minutes before you want to serve.
5. When ready to serve, remove plastic wrap, pour cocktail sauce over the top, spreading lightly to an even layer coating all of the crab meat. You are welcome to leave a small ring of cream cheese peeking out, but covering the crab meat makes the prettiest presentation.
6. Add a basket of your favorite crackers and enjoy! I personally think Triscuits are a great choice with this dip because they offer a good contrast of texture and earthy flavor to the rich creaminess of the dip.
This next appetizer was also a holiday staple for my family, but not at this time of year, rather for the summer holidays of Father’s Day and 4th of July. It’s called Jezebel Sauce. Perhaps you already know and love it, and as much as I would like to, I can’t take credit for its original iteration, as it was a very popular sauce in many a cookbook back in the day. But of course, just like the crab dip, I have tweaked it a bit to make it my own.
The original recipe calls for apple jelly, pineapple preserves, prepared horseradish, dry mustard and fresh cracked pepper. Where I have made changes is in the jelly/preserves I use. I don’t like high fructose corn syrup, and it is very difficult to find those particular ingredients made without it, so I have learned to improvise. In the pictures, I have shown you some pineapple/mango fruit spread, pear spread, and apple cider jam. These are all great choices. I even think that using orange marmalade and/or apricot preserves could be delicious. I do like mixing at least 2 different styles and flavors of the fruit preserves/jam, etc. as it makes the flavor more complex, and I like to have some textural contrast too.
What I really love about this sauce is that the “recipe” is relative. All that is important is to make sure that your jelly to horseradish and mustard ratio is at least 4:1: ½ to start. So, for example, start with ½ cup of jelly (¼ cup of each kind) and then I added 2 Tablespoons of horseradish and 1 Tablespoon of dry mustard.
My family likes it “hot” so we always added more horseradish and dry mustard to taste. Then, crack fresh pepper and mix into to the sauce until you see a nice speckling of pepper. The truth is when I make it, I usually just use the entire jar of both fruit spreads, add about ½ jar of horseradish, and 3 Tablespoons or so of dry mustard. I finish it with cracked pepper to taste.
Another great attribute of Jezebel sauce is that you can make it in advance and just place it in a glass jar at the back of your fridge. It will hold for up to a year, maybe even longer! When you want to enjoy it, just spoon it over a block of cream cheese and serve with crackers. You will have an instant crowd pleaser that tastes like it took hours to make. I have found it to be so versatile that I have even expanded its uses to include topping a piece of grilled swordfish with a spoonful, or as a glaze on grilled pork tenderloin.
The longer I cook professionally, the more I appreciate the flavors of my childhood, especially at the holidays. The memories I made with my mom cooking and baking are the ones I hold most dear in my heart, especially since she is no longer here. And every time I open a can of crab meat to make her famous dip, I can still hear her charm bracelet jingle.
That’s part of what I love about The Chopping Block; we offer families the opportunity to create those memories in our classes. What better way to spend some of your holiday time with family and loved ones than learning to make artisanal breads with your hands or Fried Chicken and Waffles to go with a Bloody Mary Brunch? The time spent will be delicious and the memories made will be priceless.