February 25, 2020

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.

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.