November 14, 2018

Salmon Cakes with Nothing Fake

I’m perpetually trying to cook with minimal ingredients on the weekends because I’m a chef who usually has an empty fridge by Sunday. Trying to figure out how to put together a delicious meal from the meager ingredients left in my pantry, fridge and garden without venturing out to the store has become a “ ‘Chopped’ challenge” every weekend. (“Chopped” is the Food Network reality show in which cooks must create dishes using often unlikely ingredients provided by the show.)

Recently, there were especially slim pickings, but I knew I could rely on an old standby.

I had canned salmon, leftover steamed broccoli, Parmesan cheese, some pickled jalapeno peppers and a jar of tahini. I always keep Israeli tahini in the fridge because, if push comes to shove, I know I can make a sauce, dip or salad dressing out of it with little more than some lemon and garlic.

Cooking in a professional kitchen is physically demanding, a labor of love and much akin to running a marathon every day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy rice and pasta, but when I eat these highly processed foods, it’s difficult to muster up the energy to do my job. I know that if I don’t eat nourishing food, I’m doomed and won’t have enough power to make it through Monday, much less the rest of the week. I was reminded of this recently when on a trip to the States, I was eating out a lot, not minding nutrition as well as I should have, and noticed a marked decrease in my energy levels and even a little bit of emotional distress.

I know it sounds hypocritical of me as a restaurateur to say, but restaurant food is always full of stuff you don’t necessarily want to consume on a regular basis. In my café in Uganda, I have no choice but to make real food. My options for faking it with processed food are practically nonexistent. There is no Costco or Sam’s Club in the middle of the African continent, no Amazon Prime delivery, for better and for worse.

I’m sure that my experience running restaurants in Africa has been a far cry from the experience of chefs in the West. Although I can’t rely on convenience foods or pre-made sauces, I can’t imagine that with my family background I would cook much differently in a Western kitchen because the most packaged thing we ever ate at my house while I was growing up was Rice-A-Roni.

There were always vegetables drenched in olive oil at our table, roasted peppers were a must, as was Bulgarian feta and plain yogurt. I remember after a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was a teenager, being shocked to see a breakfast table covered with doughnuts, pancakes, bacon, cereal and pitchers of milk and orange juice. I watched as my skinny friend picked up a glazed doughnut and spread butter on it. I remember being jealous that she was built like a thin boy and eating the unthinkable for breakfast.

Later in life, I realized that the Israeli-style eating at my house set me up for a lifetime of healthier habits and taste buds that didn’t crave sugar all the time. And what a blessing that is because I suspect it’s your habits overall that matter, not the once-in-a-while order of McDonald’s french fries or the occasional Chips Ahoy craving that undoes you.  Perhaps, it’s the day-to-day presence or lack of real, nutrient-dense food that you consume daily that creates a foundation for good — or not so good — health.

In my restaurant, although I do bake decadent desserts and sugary treats, they are not meant to be regularly consumed. My menus reflect my love of home-style cooking and tasty, fresh salads influenced by the Mediterranean style of eating and my love of the Israeli food of my childhood.

This salmon cake recipe is one I often make, changing it up according to what I have in the house with the priority being grocery store avoidance at all costs. Of course, you can make this with fresh salmon if you have it, but in Uganda, I’m hundreds of miles from the nearest coast and the best I can do is canned salmon. Note that I don’t use breadcrumbs, matzo meal or flour in this recipe. I prefer the salty kick of Parmesan cheese and the texture of leftover cooked vegetables to provide just enough “glue” to hold together these delicious cakes.

Start to finish, this recipe is a worthwhile investment of 30 minutes. If I know I have a hard week ahead, I’ll double it so I have extra to eat hot or cold throughout the week. Pair with a salad, roasted vegetables, a side of tahini or yogurt and cucumber dip, and you have a quick and nutritious meal that will leave you feeling satisfied and virtuous. Make them on the small side if you have last-minute guests and want to serve as canapes or portion them into larger cakes and serve as salmon burgers. My only caveat: Try to find wild-caught salmon because it tastes so much better than farmed and is probably better for you.

SPICY SALMON CAKES
1 15-ounce can of wild-caught pink
or red salmon, drained well
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup leftover steamed or roasted
broccoli, cauliflower or zucchini,
finely chopped
1/4 cup green onion, finely chopped
1/8 cup chopped pickled jalapeno
peppers or capers (optional)
1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs of your
choice (I use parsley, cilantro and
basil), minced
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon each of salt, pepper, hot
or sweet paprika, or to taste
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges for serving

Drain the salmon well and break up any large pieces with a fork. I leave in the bones because they are soft and are an excellent source of calcium.

Add remaining ingredients except for egg and oil, then taste the mixture. It should taste like a delicious salmon salad. Adjust your seasonings, then mix in beaten egg. Cover with cling film and let rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven to 350 F.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat and brush on two tablespoons of olive oil. Remove salmon mixture from refrigerator and form patties of the desired size, compacting and flattening the patties with wet fingers. Place patties on a tray with oil and turn them over in the oil a few times to coat.

Bake for about 20 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking or until they are golden brown on both sides.

Garnish with lemon wedges, if desired.

Makes 4 burger-size salmon patties or about 12 appetizer-size patties.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Recipes to please the crowd and de-stress the chef

Passover may be the mother of all kitchen yontifs — but stay cool, and don’t stress. Here are some of my favorite recipes from last Passover that you will love this Passover and all year.

Last year, 99 percent of what I made for Passover wasn’t actually Passover recipes. Of course they were kosher for Passover, but they didn’t require any major Passover ingredient tweaks. These recipes were developed with Passover in mind and have become staples in my year-round repertoire because they were super easy and got the most oohs and aahs.

SALMON CAKES WITH TROPICAL FRUIT SALSA

Croquettes are cute and elegant for your starter course. They’re also wonderfully light and refreshing. The tropical salsa is a combination of fresh pineapple, mango, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice — the perfect complement to the richness of the salmon. The balance of sweet and savory flavors instantly pleases the palate. This is a starter with zing!

SALMON CAKES:

1 (2-pound) side of salmon, skin on
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup diced red onion
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil


SALSA:

1 cup diced pineapple
1/2 cup diced mango
1/2 cup diced red onion
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped Juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

To prepare salmon cakes, preheat oven to 350 F.

On a lightly greased large baking sheet, bake salmon skin side down for 25 to 30 minutes or until cooked all the way through. Let cool completely.

Once salmon is cooled, gently flake away from the skin and break into large chunks. Place in a large bowl. Combine with eggs, red onion, matzah meal, salt and pepper. Stir to mix well.

Scoop about 1/3 cup at a time into your hands and form into a round patty about 1/4 inch thick. Place on a large plate or cookie sheet pan and repeat with remaining mixture until you have formed 10 cakes. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, for salsa, in a medium bowl combine pineapple, mango, red onion, cilantro, jalapeno, lime juice and salt. Mix well and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry a few cakes at a time for about 5 to 8 minutes per side or until golden brown and crispy. Drain on a paper-towel-lined plate while frying remaining cakes.

To serve, top each cake with a few tablespoons of salsa.

Makes 10 salmon cakes.

ZUCCHINI AND RED BELL PEPPER SAUTE

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium zucchini, sliced into ribbons using a vegetable peeler
4 cloves garlic, minced

4 roasted red bell peppers, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add zucchini ribbons and saute a few minutes until slightly softened. Add garlic and saute 3 minutes more. Add roasted bell peppers and saute a few minutes more, until heated through.

Stir in paprika and salt.

Makes 8 servings.

POMEGRANATE BRAISED BRISKET

1 (4-pound) first cut beef brisket
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions, peeled and cut into eighths

6 cloves garlic, smashed
2 cups pomegranate juice
2 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons honey
3 bay leaves

1 small bunch fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Season brisket with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large roasting pan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear brisket about 4 minutes per side or until browned. Remove and set aside.

Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil to roasting pan; saute onions and garlic for 5 minutes over medium-low heat until softened. Return brisket to pan and add pomegranate juice, chicken broth, honey, bay leaves and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Transfer to preheated oven and roast for 2 hours.

Turn brisket over and continue roasting for 1 to 1  1/2 more hours or until tender. Let brisket rest for 10 minutes before thinly slicing against the grain. Strain liquid and serve on the side.

Makes 8 servings.