Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Must Be the Season of the Fish
What’s cooking? Simple Salmon Cakes and Joy’s Tartar Sauce

Well, folks, it’s Lent. The season of denial that leads to character building. Maybe that’s my problem, because the minute I decide I’m not going to have a particular food, about five seconds later, I start obsessing over it. Ways to cook it, what to serve it with,... One year, I tried eliminating chocolate from my diet, and within hours, ... well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. Maybe I can hope that, having worked on my character all these years, I can stop building and just do some routine maintenance: spackling, re-grouting, touch-up painting,... and that’s just on my physical appearance. Let’s face it: about the only things I’m good at denying myself are the ones I’m not crazy about in the first place, and I know that backdoor approach isn’t really the point.

But everyone eats fish during Lent. The Pope says no meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday until Easter. So even though I’m not Catholic, that sounds like a good thing. Fish is great for you, and I’ve got a few really good ways to prepare it. One of which, for salmon cakes, I will share with you today! (The rest will be coming later in Lent. The waiting is a character-building thing I will help you with.)

The recipe for salmon cakes came to me in one of the regular emails I get from the folks at America’s Test Kitchen, which is somehow the same and yet somehow different from Cook’s Illustrated. Whatever. I get these missives because I pay for them, which I wouldn’t do if it were just the recipes, as I find most of the dishes a bit boring and underseasoned. But the people at ATK/Cook’s have some good thoughts about cooking processes and various cooking equipment, and they test their ideas until someone cries “uncle!” So they’re a reliable resource, if a bit tyrannical in their instructions. (When I read that I should pat the salmon mixture “into disk measuring 2¾ inches in diameter and 1 inch high,” I got an uncomfortable sensation of being part of Stalin’s kitchen staff.)

Nevertheless, I must say that these salmon cakes looked and tasted terrific. I’ve started having what I call “Guinea Pig Dinners,” for which I invite good friends – people who know me well and won’t mind if I’m wearing my sweats when they arrive – and warn them that I’m trying out recipes. So it could happen – though it hasn’t so far – that we have to order pizza in the end. The salmon cakes starred as the entrée for my latest Guinea Pig Dinner, and were a huge hit.

They key here is to start with good, fresh salmon. Find out which days your grocer gets his fish delivered and go then. You can buy some today and not cook it until tomorrow, but don’t hang onto it for two days unless it’s been flash frozen. And ask the fishmonger if you can smell it – as with chicken, good, fresh fish will not smell like anything. If it smells fishy, buy something else.

The second key is to use a food processor and process the salmon just enough to reduce it to pieces about ¼-inch square and generally uniform in size. Think steak tartare, only with salmon – the best isn’t made from ground beef, but with beef cut into tiny dice. Which gives the cakes a texture you don’t often find with fish cakes: meaty and not gummy, tender and moist inside and crispy outside, with a hint of the parsley and other ingredients of the mix. Because they cooked quickly and don’t have a lot of breading, they also soak up little of the oil. I cooked 11 cakes (two batches) in ½ cup of oil and had at least half of it left in the pan.

Kitchen Goddess note about preparing the salmon: If you buy a salmon fillet with the skin on, buy more than you need. I needed 1½ pounds of salmon, so I bought 1¾ pounds with the skin on. You’ll want to remove not only the skin but the thin, gray layer of muscle just underneath the skin. It’s not hard – just takes a little work. A tip from YouTube: start at the tail end of the fillet and use a paper towel to hold onto the skin (which is slippery) as you slice between the skin and the flesh. Or do what the Kitchen Goddess plans to do, and see if the fishmonger won’t do it for you. Be sure to smile nicely when you ask.

What I particularly liked about this recipe was that I could do the labor-intensive part – cutting up the salmon and mixing it with the other ingredients – ahead of time. Then when we were ready to eat, it took almost no time to scoop the mixture into patties, coat the cakes in panko (no egg mixture – another plus!), and sauté them. I could probably have formed the patties ahead as well, but that part took no more than a couple of minutes. For maximum crispness, you don’t want the panko crust to go onto the raw patties until the very last minute.

Lemon wedges are a nice accompaniment, but I served mine with my friend Joy’s tartar sauce, which is hands down the best I’ve ever had. Tart and fresh, with only a hint of sweetness from the mayo, it’s almost good enough to eat on its own.

Simple Salmon Cakes

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.

Makes about 11 cakes.

6 tablespoons plus 2 cups panko bread crumbs
4 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 large scallion, thinly sliced
1 large shallot, minced
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1¼ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 skinless salmon fillet (about 1¾ pounds)
½ cup vegetable oil

Combine 6 tablespoons panko with the parsley, mayonnaise, lemon juice, scallion, shallot, mustard, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a large bowl.

Cut the salmon into 1-inch cubes and divide them into two batches. Pulse each batch in a food processor until coarsely chopped into ¼-inch pieces. (You’ll need 3-4 pulses of about 2 seconds each.) Transfer the processed salmon to the bowl with the other ingredients and gently combine them until the mix is uniform. At this point, you may cover the bowl and refrigerate it until you are ready to cook the fish. Or you can do the next step and refrigerate the unbreaded cakes.

Place remaining 2 cups of panko in a shallow bowl. Using a ⅓-cup measure, scoop a level amount of the salmon mixture into a patty and set it on a baking sheet; repeat until all the mixture is used.

One at a time, transfer each cake to the bowl of panko and gently coat it in the crumbs while patting it into a disk about an inch high. Return the coated cakes to the baking sheet.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Carefully place the cakes into the skillet and let them cook undisturbed for 2 minutes, at which point they should be golden brown. Using two spatulas to maneuver the cakes, flip them to the other side and sauté another 2 minutes until the second side is also golden brown. Remove the cakes to a plate lined with paper towels to drain. If you have too many cakes for a single batch, place an aluminum foil tent over the first batch while the second batch cooks.

Serve immediately, accompanied by lemon wedges and/or tartar sauce.

Kitchen Goddess notes on the tartar sauce: (1) Make the tartar sauce at least an hour and a half before you serve it, so that the flavors can bloom. (2) For the herbs, I don’t think there’s any comparison between the flavor of fresh parsley and dried, so treat yourself to a bunch of parsley. Rinse it off, spin it dry, roll it in paper towels, and stuff it into a zip-lock bag, and it’ll last at least a week. FYI, the Kitchen Goddess always has fresh parsley in the crisper. Tarragon is another thing altogether, so if you have some growing in your garden or you bought some for another reason, by all means use fresh. But I wouldn’t buy any just to get a single tablespoon of the stuff, in which case dried tarragon is fine. (3) The sauce will keep for at least a week in the fridge, so you may want to double it to have available for next Friday’s fish.

Joy’s Tartar Sauce

Makes about 1½ cups.

1 cup mayonnaise, light or regular
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, chopped (or a rounded teaspoon of dried tarragon)
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons heavy cream (or half-and-half)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1-2 tablespoons minced scallion
1 tablespoon capers, drained, plus ½ teaspoon of the juice
2-3 tablespoons dill pickle relish
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Mix thoroughly, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

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