I was on my own for dinner tonight, a situation that often leads to macaroni and cheese and/or tuna. Trying to be a bit more original, I tried something from 660 Curries that didn’t sound too difficult – a defrosted piece of salmon, braised in a sauce of coconut milk, curry leaves and balchao masala (a fiery, vinegary flavor paste that we made up some time ago and now keep in the freezer in tablespoon-size portions). I added some peas for greenery and dumped it over jasmine rice. Not thrilling, but not bad, and with a glass of wine and Netflix it did the job.
Last weekend I was craving oysters, so we picked up a couple of bags at Taylor Shellfish and invited some friends over. The quandary with oyster nights is what to serve for a main course – you don’t want something too heavy, but it needs to be interesting enough so you don’t just skip it and fill up on nothing but oysters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In any case, this time I tried a recipe for salmon chowder from Becky Selengut’s book Good Fish. The base is classic chowder, with celery, onion, potato and cream, but it also adds tomato for color and extra flavor, and the salmon (in this case, a piece of wild sockeye) is cut into small pieces and added just before turning off the stove so it cooks in the residual heat.
It turned out great. I often like the idea of chowder more than the reality, but this was what chowder should be: creamy and flavorful but not gluey, and the salmon was perfectly cooked and not at all fishy. We ate it with some addictive buttermilk rosemary crackers from Offshore Baking in Maine (owned by Neal and Kathy Foley, our hosts from Duckfest, who recently did an Indiegogo campaign to help pay Kathy’s medical bills – the crackers were our perk, and I highly recommend them).
For dessert there were chocolate chip/malted milk ball cookies from the freezer and glasses of good bourbon, making for a perfect winter evening by the fire.
Last week I got an inexplicable craving for salmon cakes. This has been one of our standard pantry dinners for years – cheap, easy and healthy – but we hadn’t had it for a while. I made an executive decision and picked up a can of Alaskan salmon at the co-op.
Oddly enough, this may have been the first time I ever made fish cakes myself. My husband and I have divisions of labor in the kitchen, not always logical, and he’s generally in charge of curries, Thai beef stirfry, burgers, kebabs, and salmon cakes. He must have been busy with something else on this occasion, since I ended up making them myself. Fortunately for me, these are really, really simple. We use a recipe from the Joy of Cooking as our base, then add flavorings as we please. This batch was very basic, as I was also cooking Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes and wasn’t really focusing.
The version I made was just canned salmon (with a little skin and bone mashed in – I rather like the texture, and it’s full of calcium), matzo meal, egg, salt, pepper and parsley. Other times we’ve added red pepper flakes, herbs, or breadcrumbs instead of matzo, but I wouldn’t say we’d gotten really inventive with them. We usually make garlic mayonnaise to liven things up. What do you think would be good in fish cakes?
Adapted from Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. Easily scaled up or down depending on the size of your can of salmon.
- 2 cups canned salmon meat, with or without skin and bones
- 1/2 cup cracker crumbs or matzo meal
- 2 eggs
- chopped parsley
Mash all the ingredients together in a bowl. Shape into patties and fry in butter or oil until browned. Serve hot with garlic mayonnaise.
Recently, and perhaps foolishly, I accepted a challenge from a fellow blogger. Nothing to do with blogging, or even food – instead, the challenge is to hold a plank position for four straight minutes. Our deadline is September, and currently we’ve each managed a bit over two minutes. In a word? Ouch. If you’ve ever done plank exercises, I suspect you’ll feel my pain.
A much more pleasant type of planking is the sort you do with fish. We tried this again recently, with some gorgeous king salmon from Skagit’s Own Fish Market. Planking is a traditional technique in the Northwest, but it’s hard to find fish cookbooks that even mention it, let along give detailed instructions. So we’ve been somewhat making it up as we go along.
I wasn’t sure there was any higher calling for alder-smoked salmon than a bagel and cream cheese, but this risotto may have changed my mind.
Some friends brought this salmon to a party at our house (very good friends, indeed). It was from Pure Food in the Pike Place Market, according to the bag, and it was the best smoked salmon I have ever eaten, juicy and tender with just the right amount of smoke and sweet. I was trying to think of some way to use a bunch of it at once, and Jon said, “What about in that risotto we’re having on Thursday?” Hmmm.
Even after I had learned how to cook most things, I had no idea how to deal with a piece of salmon. It was embarrassing, but I was sufficiently terrified by the idea of cooking, not just salmon, but any fish, that I almost never tried. I was scared of it being raw, but I hated it overcooked. So I just skipped the whole thing, which is really a shame when you live in the Pacific Northwest.
Enter that saviour of timid chefs everywhere, Mark Bittman! All of his recipes tend to have a comforting, you-can-do-this sort of tone, with simple techniques and ingredients. I discovered a stovetop-to-oven method of cooking salmon fillets in his book The Minimalist Cooks at Home, and it worked so well I wouldn’t cook salmon any other way for years. It repeatedly produced fish that was moist, tender and cooked all the way through. It’s simple: crust the fish with herbs and spices, melt butter in an oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat, add the fish seasoning-side down and cook one minute. Flip and cook one more minute. Put the pan in the oven and cook about five minutes or until done how you like. Easy.
It was the asparagus’ fault. Last weekend Jon went to the farmer’s market by himself (it was my Saturday to work) and picked up some unusually beautiful Eastern Washington asparagus. Then he found some really attractive sockeye steaks. It all looked so good, but it needed a little something extra…I decided it was about time I made another attempt at homemade mayonnaise.
I’d been scared of making mayonnaise for a while. The one time I tried, I used the large food processor for too little sauce and it didn’t emulsify properly. But I’ve watched chefs make aioli at cooking classes, and it didn’t look hard – then there was John Thorne’s essay about learning to make mayonnaise with nothing but a plate, a fork, one egg yolk, a little vinegar and some oil. If making it by hand was really that easy, it seemed like I had no reason not to try. Besides, I know I can make a very good hollandaise, so what was I afraid of? I checked proportions in a few cookbooks and gave it a whirl.
I am ridiculously impressed with myself – I made gravlax! Why this should seem to be such an accomplishment, I have no idea – dumping a lot of salt and seasonings on a nice piece of salmon and turning it twice a day isn’t really a lot of work. But I am just really, really pleased with the results.
I discovered I liked gravlax a few years ago, after a family visit to Restaurant Österreich in Leavenworth. Then I realized that I liked lox quite a lot, after a number of bagel breakfasts with J’s family. Lately, I snap up cured salmon wherever I see it – which isn’t very often, in this neck of the woods. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon seems to come fresh, smoked or nothing – salt-cured fish just isn’t happening. So when I saw a very reassuringly simple and well-illustrated article on making gravlax in a recent issue of Saveur, I decided my time had come. Continue reading