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On Christmas Eve morning, an enormous steamer, several huge plastic bins and a stack of plastic tubs filled a parking lot adjacent to Santa Rosa Seafood (946 Santa Rosa Ave.). Fishmonger Mike Svedise, his son Sal and several employees worked nonstop filling orders, transferring cooked crabs from the steamer to an ice water bath, wrestling live crabs and joking with the nonstop queue of shoppers, who chatted with each other.

Before long, 11 crabs were tucked into the trunk of my Beetle and we were on the way to our second stop, for bread and Louis dressing fixings.

A long line snaked from the seafood counter of Oliver's Market on Stony Point Road, while on the other side of the store customers reached for the day's second bake of Costeaux French Bakery's sourdough, which had just arrived.

Spring Hill Butter was on sale.

When did Dungeness crab and sourdough bread become a ubiquitous tradition on Christmas Eve in Sonoma County?

I've been enjoying it for nearly as long as I can remember and often repeat the indulgence on New Year's Eve, but I did not realize so many others did the same thing.

This indulgence leads, almost inevitably, to a Christmas Day and New Year's Day tradition: Crab cakes. I always overestimate how much crab I'll need so that there is plenty left over.

Getting crab cakes just right is challenging. If you make the mixture thick and firm enough that it won't fall apart while cooking, the crab tends to be overshadowed by the ingredients used to bind it all together. Let the crab take center stage and the cakes tend to fall apart.

I opt for the latter and have worked over the years trying to perfect my shaping and frying technique. Yet even when the cakes don't hold together, they are still delicious.

Today's recipes include the current version of my favorite crab cakes, along with an intriguing version I found from among dozens of crab cake recipes. Its simplicity is most engaging.

If you're new to handling our Dungeness crab, you'll find instructions for cooking, cleaning and picking the meat at "Eat This Now," Seasonal Pantry's companion blog, at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

This is my preferred tried-and-true recipe for crab cakes. I love the combination of the earthy beans and briny crab, punctuated by the voluptuous tart mustard cream. Limes are preferable, but when none are at hand, lemons work well, too. If using limes, use cilantro instead of the parsley called for here.

<b>Crab Cakes with Black Bean Puree and Mustard Cream</b>

Makes 2 to 4 servings

<i>Black bean puree (see Note below)

2 tablespoons organic butter, plus more as needed for frying

1 jalape? or serrano, seeded and minced

1 large shallot, minced

2 celery ribs, minced

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a mill

? to 1 teaspoon chipotle powder or ground cayenne, optional

1 large or jumbo egg

? cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice

2? cups fresh Dungeness crab meat, preferably body meat, picked over for bits of shells

3 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

2/3 cup course sourdough breadcrumbs, lightly toasted

? cup creme fraiche, sour cream or plain whole milk yogurt

1 to 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, to taste

Black pepper in a mill

1 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging

Lemon or lime wedges</i>

First, prepare the black bean puree.

Put the 2 tablespoons of butter into a small saute pan set over medium heat, add the jalape? or serrano, the shallot and the celery, season lightly with salt and saute until very soft and fragrant, about 12 to 15 minutes. Season with several turns of black pepper and the chipotle powder or cayenne, if using. Set aside to cool.

Put the egg and cream into a bowl and whisk until light and thick. Add the mustard and lemon juice and whisk again. Set aside briefly.

Put the crab, 2 tablespoons of the parsley and the breadcrumbs into a large bowl and toss together very gently. Add the sauteed vegetable mixture and the egg mixture and mix gently, being careful not to over mix. Refrigerate for about an hour.

While the crab batter chills, make the mustard cream. Put the creme fraiche, sour cream or yogurt into a small bowl, add the mustard and season lightly with salt and several turns of black pepper. Mix, taste and correct the seasonings. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. (If you like, put the cream into a squeeze bottle, which will make squirting slashes of it much easier.)

To finish the cakes, remove the batter from the refrigerator and put the flour into a wide shallow bowl. Set a large heavy frying pan over medium high heat, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter and heat until the butter is fully melted and foaming.

Using an ice cream scoop, make balls of crab somewhat bigger than a ping-pong ball but smaller than a tennis ball. Press together lightly and dredge in the flour, gently working to keep each ball together. Add four balls to the frying pan, leaving plenty of space between each one. Use a metal spatula to press down on each crab cake until it is about ?-inch thick. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, until browned on one side. Gently turn over and cooked on the other side. Continue cooking, adding more butter as needed, until all the batter is used.

While the crab cakes cook, smear a generous pool of black bean puree on individual plates. Set 2 or 3 cooked cakes on each plate, half on and half off the puree. Drizzle a few slashes of mustard cream over the cakes and the beans, garnish with a lemon or lime wedge and sprinkle with a bit of the remaining parsley.

Serve immediately.

Note: For black bean puree, cook about 1? cups dried black beans, along with a shallot, a garlic clove and a bay leaf, in plenty of water until very tender. Remove the bay leaf, add 1 teaspoon of ground cumin and season with salt. Pour off some of the cooking water if a lot remains, puree with an immersion blender, taste and correct for salt. You can, in a pinch, use canned black beans. You'll need two cans and will likely have a bit left over.

In Evan Jones' comprehensive "American Food: The Gastronomic Story" (The Overlook Press, 1990), a simple recipe titled "Tred Avon Crab Cakes" is offered without explanation. Is the recipe named for the Tred Avon River, a 17-mile tributary of the Choptank River in Maryland? For the yacht club of the same name? Or for the Tred Avon Ferry, said to be the oldest continuously operating ferry in the United States?

Jones doesn't tell us, but given that the recipe is from Maryland, we can assume the original called for blue crab. It works just as well with our local Dungeness crab.

<b>Tred Avon Crab Cakes</b>

Makes 4 servings

<i>1 pound fresh cooked crab meat

1 cup fine fresh bread crumbs

? teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce

? cup minced whole scallions

1 egg

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

Oil for deep frying

1 lemon</i>

Flake crab meat, removing cartilage and shell bits. Stir in half of bread crumbs, the salt, a few turns of pepper grinder, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, scallions and egg. When well blended, stir in the mayonnaise.

Use hands to shape into eight cakes, then coat with remaining crumbs. Place cakes on top of wax paper on a platter and chill for at least 1 hour. Heat ? inch of oil in a skillet until a haze develops. Fry cakes until browned; then turn and brown bottom sides. Cut lemon into wedges to garnish plates; tartar sauce may also be served.

<i>Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 - 91.1 FM. Email Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>

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