I realize that when most people think of a meatball, fish is not what immediately springs to mind. Ground, seasoned meat, bound with egg and sometimes bread, and fried and braised in sauce seems to work for land animals better than those more oceanically-inclined. But I think this is a mistake. After all, what is a fish cake, really, besides a flattened meatball? And crab cakes are such wonderful, beautiful things that, now that summer is upon us, the beach child in me wants to eat all the time (seriously. Lunch and dinner are obvious, but the idea of eggs benedict with a fat, tender crab cake instead of an English muffin fills me with longing). So when it occurred to me that, really, a crab cake was only different from a meatball in shape and mindset, I knew immediately I needed to change both.
The meatball I imagined had to be aggressively herby, bright with citrus zest, and obviously needed to be shallow fried, not braised in sauce. And since N. would not be partaking due to his distaste for shellfish (nobody’s perfect…), I realized I could add shrimp to up the succulence factor even more, and these crab and shrimp balls were born.
You have a few choices when it comes to crab. There’s no sense in harvesting it yourself for this dish – it’s too much work, and the pre-cracked and pasteurized options are perfectly fine. What you really have to decide is whether to blow your budget on lump or jumbo lump meat, which comes in large, sweet pieces from the muscles connected to the crab’s swimming legs, or whether to go for more affordable claw meat. I tend to think the claw meat has a stronger flavor, and since I was going to pulse it up and mix it with herbs anyway (and because I’m cheap), I went with a package of claw meat and was quite pleased with the taste.
As for the shrimp, you want raw, because it will keep the meatball together a bit better, and there’s nothing so unpleasant as rubbery, overcooked shrimp. If you can find it deveined, then all you’ll have to do is pull the shell and tail off before dropping it into the food processor. If you do end up with shrimp that still have the shell and vein, this how-to from the kitchn gives a pretty clear set of instructions for how to do the prep yourself.
Feel free to mix up the herbs to your liking, though I’d include at least one onion-y component. I toyed with the idea of adding a teaspoon or two of excruciatingly finely diced jalapenos, but since I was planning to have this with a spicy salad (more on that next week!), I opted to leave the meatballs themselves heat-free. I do think, though, a bit of fire in these would be lovely, especially if you plan to dunk them into a cooling or fatty sauce of some sort.
Obviously I loved these. I’m a sucker for shellfish in almost any application, and coated in bread crumbs and fried = me rendered completely helpless. Adding citrus zest instead of juice (to control the moisture content of the meatballs) proved to be a particularly good move; it broke up what could have become a monotonous flavor and kept the meatballs feeling bright and light, despite being fried. The panko formed a perfect tight, crisp crust to protect the interior, keeping it hot and relatively ungreasy.
Hearkening back to my childhood when, more often than not, I ordered the fried seafood appetizer platter as my entrée, I ate these meatballs as my main course, accompanied by a banh-mi-inspired salad I’ll tell you more about next week. But they would clearly excel (and go a bit further) as appetizers as well.
Note: you’ll notice that there is panko in the meatballs themselves as well as coating them. I thought about leaving the interior breadcrumb-free, but the resulting mixture was so delicate I feared they would just collapse. Adding this bit of starch and allowing them to chill for 45 minutes before cooking eliminated this risk of disintegration.
Crab and Shrimp Balls
Makes 16 (serves two as an entrée, 4 as an appetizer)
6 ounces crab meat (claw meat is fine, but blow the bank on lump or jumbo lump if you prefer)
8 ounces raw shrimp, preferably peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 teaspoons lemon zest, lime zest, or a combination
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 ½ cups panko breadcrumbs, divided
1 cup vegetable oil, to fry
- Check your crab and shrimp carefully and remove any lingering shell bits or cartilage, then deposit the meat in the belly of your food processor. Add the herbs, the citrus zest, the salt and pepper, the egg, and ½ cup of panko breadcrumbs. Pulse three or four times for two seconds each, until the herbs are well integrated and the crab and shrimp are broken down a bit. You don’t want a paste, but you do want small pieces that will cling together.
- Pour the remaining 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs into a pie plate or other wide dish with sides and spread them out into an even layer. With moistened hands, scoop rounded tablespoons of crab and shrimp mixture, lightly roll them into balls (they will be quite tender), and roll them in the panko until completely coated. Repeat until you have used up all the crab and shrimp mixture, then refrigerate the coated meatballs for 45 minutes to allow them to firm up a bit.
- After 45 minutes, remove meatballs from the refrigerator and set them aside while you heat the 1 cup of vegetable oil in a 10 inch skillet. When the oil is shimmering, or when a spare piece of panko you drop in sizzles and small bubbles are released all around it, it’s time to add the meatballs. Place 8 meatballs in the oil carefully, keeping them separate from one another, and cook over medium or medium-high for 2-3 minutes on each side, until they are uniformly crisp and golden (I know, I realize that meat“ball” suggests an absence of sides, but I usually end up with a semi-round object that needs two or three turns to completely immerse).
- As the meatballs finish cooking, remove them to a paper-towel-lined plate and repeat with the remaining 8 meatballs. They will stay hot inside for 5-10 minutes, but you can place the finished ones in a warm oven while their compatriots cook, just to be sure.
- Serve immediately, with a remoulade or tartar sauce, fries, or a side salad.