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Date of Issue: February 12, 2009

Judges agree: 'Good cooking'

Susan Lee's Blue Crab Stir Fry.
Eileen Maloney, whose recipe "Shrimp Crab Delight" was chosen "best of show" at The Islander-Cortez Crab Cookoff poses with judges, from left, Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Janette Dunnigan, Maloney, and judge Jo Ann Meilner of Meilner & Sons Construction. Islander Photos: Bonner Joy
Susan Lee shows off her remaining Blue Crab Stir Fry, chosen best entree by the Cortez Crab Cookoff judges.

Three judges in the Cortez Crab Cookoff Feb. 7 agreed on one thing after just one round of tasting a wide variety of crab dishes: “It’s all good. Very good.”

The contest judges gathered Saturday morning at the Florida Maritime Museum in Cortez for the preliminary event in the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival. The festival theme this year is crab, and the cookoff, new this year and sponsored by The Islander newspaper, was a call for crab — blue crab or stone crab — recipes.

Click here to download a pdf of the recipes.

Judging the crab dishes, which were delivered before noon to the museum, were 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Janette Dunnigan, Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash and Jo Ann Meilner, partner in Meilner & Sons Construction of Bradenton Beach. The trio tasted and retasted, mulled, pondered and devoured crab dips, cakes, rolls, balls, a soup/appetizer, several salads, quiche and some “inventive” crab dishes and there was one consistent theme: Very good.

Here’s the good news:

Best crab cake from a restaurant was awarded to Mike Rappaport of Banana Cabana in Bradenton Beach. Banana Cabana earns bragging rights for a year from The Islander newspaper. The really good news? Banana Cabana will have a booth and its top-ranked crab cakes for sale at the festival, Feb. 21-22.

Next up were recipes from individuals, and the judges agreed early on there should be a prize for the delicious soup/appetizer with crusty dipping croutons submitted by Eileen Maloney, a snowbird who winters in Bradenton Beach and spends the rest of the year in Buffalo, N.Y.

Her “Shrimp Crab Delight” was the judge’s favorite from the start. The rich, creamy mixture of crab, shrimp and seasonings was the top pick of all three judges, and “best of show” was quickly named.

Next came the tough choices from among the categories of salad, appetizer and entree.

Judges narrowed the salad winner to the “Captain’s Stone Crab Salad” submitted by Capt. Michael Haley of northwest Bradenton. It consisted of a circle of stone crab pinchers centered by a salad of stone crab “knuckle” meat combined with seasoned and finely chopped celery, red bell pepper and a dash of Dash, and topped with thinly sliced fresh kumquat for the “just right” combination of citrus and crab salad.

The appetizer category proved to be challenging, with a delicious array of crab dips, spreads and other treats, both chilled and warm. After many “retastes” and some discoveries related to the tasteful ingredients, the crab dip recipe submitted by Annette Maddox of Cortez was selected as a standout for freshness and flavor.

Finally, the judges struggled with selecting an entree from some “unique and delicious” crab recipes. “Crabmeat in Puff Pastry Shells,” also from Maddox, although the judges didn’t know at the time, got some attention early on, prompting the judges to inquire about the ingredients. “Something gets my attention here,” noted Dunnigan, “but I’m not sure what it is.”

“Me, too,” said both McClash and Meilner.

Moving on, the trio sampled and resampled, muddled over “original” qualities, textures, flavors and crab, crab, crab.

In the end, it was “Jack and Susie’s Anna Maria Island Blue Crab Stir Fry,” the creation of Susan Lee, that won out. “Very original” was the echo from the judges for the fiery red crabs, as they cracked the claws and shells and tasted the infused flavors of ginger, garlic and scallion in the crustacean meat.

Several of the winners waited outside the museum for the results and there were thrills and hugs among their friends and the judges as well, with much enthusiasm from Lee and the “best” recipe by Maloney.

“It was a tough job,” said Meilner, “and I’m glad I was chosen to do it, but I’m quite full … and satisfied that there was so much good food to choose from.”

And, hey, it pays to work Saturdays, as the museum staff and volunteers enjoyed the benefit of “leftovers” at the conclusion of the contest.

The contest winners will receive their awards on the main stage at the fishing festival at a time to be announced.


More on Cortez cookoff

For Susan Lee, the idea of the crab cook-off was great, but it took place during a slow season blue crabs and her recipe requires fresh, live crabs. Also, the recent extended cold spell had exacerbated the shortage. 

Lee quickly found that there were no fresh, live blue crabs to be found. She was desperate.

“I called people who I knew had crab traps off their private piers. No luck,” Lee said.

And the only active small commercial "crabbers" she knew of in Palmetto, known as "Got Crabs!," had suspended boat trips and trap pulling until the weather warmed up again. 

Lee gave the Got Crabs! folks a try anyway, but owner Kevin Parillo told her the paltry yield was not worth the cost of gasoline to take their boat out.

“Nonetheless, I explained to Kevin that I needed blue crabs to enter the cooking contest, and that I only needed enough crabs for three judges to taste.

“Jack and I offered to pay for their gas, as well as purchase any and all crabs that they could catch. They were kind enough to agree, and set sail.

“All day, Jack and I wondered worried if the Parillos would return with any blue crabs. By 6 p.m., the good word was in. They were able to catch a baker’s dozen.

Needless to say, Lee was much relieved.

“By 7 p.m., Jack and I were the proud and relieved owners of a hodge-podge of various-sized blue crabs and ready to start cooking.

“I send my greatest thanks to Kevin and his small team of crabbers. Without their invaluable help, I would not have been able to share my recipe with the Anna Maria Island community.”

In the future, Lee says, if you want live blue crabs, Kevin can be reached at 941-565-1717.