One of my goals for this year was to cook more. For someone who has a small (yet it still counts) modicum of independence, I do a surprisingly little amount of cooking. I have been more a fan of the quick re-heat, microwave or oven meals, which probably played a significant role in my current body situation.
I have always loved cooking, baking especially. For me there is just something about knowing I’m creating something out of nothing to share with people that just makes me feel good. Knowing that someone is going to enjoy something that I make is inspiring, and an instant pick-me-up. It’s one of the same reasons why I love to write. Even if just one person happens to read something I’ve written and if they like it, it resonates with them, makes them think, it’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced!
Culinary speaking, I have to say that my absolute idol is Nigella Lawson. The way she speaks quite aristocratically and yet relatable really appeals to me and, let’s face it, she’s also a stone cold fox. Her way of cooking, somewhat improvisationally, is very much like my way of doing things. She’s unapologetic in her love for sumptuous yet convenient cooking, and is pretty much just amazing.
Tuesday I made salmon fish cakes for my brother and my dad from Nigella Bites. The recipe is in the comfort food chapter of the book and is actually relatively easy. The crux of it is basically tinned salmon, cold mashed potatoes, eggs, matzo meal and a fryer. I happened to take my brother (who always goes for the less processed, more organic option) who convinced me to go for salmon portions from the freezer section of IGA rather than tinned. We were also unable to find any matzo meal so I substituted some garlic and pepper bread crumbs.
One thing I was unsure about after making my choice of salmon portions over tinned was whether the salmon would need to be cooked somewhat before adding them to the mashed potatoes. Luckily the packaging had some handy instructions on how to defrost it, though I will say I was surprised at the speed that 250g of frozen salmon defrosted in cold water (is it any wonder I failed year 11 chemistry!).
It soon became apparent that between the needing-to-be-thawed salmon, the needing-to-be-cooled hot mashed potatoes and the required sitting time in the fridge that what is a simple recipe would probably take me quite a while to make. I’m embarrassed to say that whenever I go to make mashed potatoes I almost always have to ask someone how long I should boil/microwave them in water for. I used five small to medium sized potatoes peeled and cubed, adding about a tablespoon of butter and a quarter cup of milk once they were ready to mash.
I put the mash in the fridge to cool down as much as it could while I prepared the salmon. Upon reading further in the recipe I determined that the frying would cook the salmon through, especially being that it would be in very small pieces within the cakes. I started cutting the salmon into small pieces (not knowing how to or that it would be easier to flake it) and added it to the mashed potatoes, along with one beaten egg, a few pinches of salt and pepper, as well as a pinch of paprika (instead of the cayenne pepper Nigella suggested purely out of a lack of cayenne pepper). I also added juice from half a lemon, a variation on Nigella’s zest of half a lemon. To be fair, I did attempt to zest the lemon but for the life of me I just couldn’t figure out how to grate it finely enough. Because the mash was on the softer side and still a bit warm I added about a third of a cup of the breadcrumbs just to be able to mould the cakes better. I also thought the herbs in the breadcrumbs would add some texture and more flavour to the potatoes.
I realised while mixing it all together with one hand (much to my dad and brother’s delight; I have a reputation somewhat of not liking getting my hands dirty and true to form I was wiping my hands about every ten seconds) my potato to salmon ration was quite low. Unlike the beautiful coral coloured mixture Nigella described, mine was decidedly more speckled. Nonetheless I shaped ten handful sized patties and a smaller sized one for testing, put them on a baking paper lined tray and sat them in the fridge for about 20 minutes (or most of Being Lara Bingle, don’t laugh).
Nigella says to use both oil and butter in the frying pan, which I did however I did find it an odd choice. My dad (and Nigella) did say to heat the oil until it started to fizzle though with the butter in there it didn’t take too long (another sidenote, I only just learned the difference according to my brother between butter and margarine. Butter is a dairy by product while margarine is from seeds, not just more processed butter as I used to think. Is this right, would very much like to know). I set up my batter station; two beaten eggs and a bowl of breadcrumbs. Perhaps due to the texture from the warmer than recommended mashed potatoes along with the shortened firming up time I found that I could not dip the cakes into the egg for very long before they started coming apart in my hands. After the first few I started using a spoon to poor the egg over the patty on both sides before liberally coating with breadcrumbs.
I have never been a good fryer. Either I let the oil get too hot and I end up burning whatever I’m frying without it cooking all the way through, or the oil is too cold and ends up getting absorbed by whatever I’m frying. In the case of the salmon cakes, my tester went really well, though probably due to the size, and was crisp and golden on the outside but soft and light on the inside. Moving onto the normal sized cakes however, I thought I was doing alright until Dad came in the kitchen and said “the oil is burning” at which I turned the cakes finding them much darker than I’d like on the first side (never burned; I don’t burn food!) and had to take the pan off the heat. After the first three though, which I put down to the first pancake theory, the rest turned out just as crisp, browned, crunchy and crumby on the outside as I wanted. I did find though (unfortunately I have no picture of it) that once the coating cracked, the inside liked to squeeze out a little, which provided a really nice contrast between the brown and the glossy soft inside.
When I make this recipe again, and I will because after everything the end product was really enjoyable, I will probably make some adjustments. Firstly, making sure the mashed potato/salmon ration is weighted more in the fish’s favour. The mixture would probably have been served better if it was allowed to cooI down and firm up longer in the fridge. I would like to try it with matzo meal though the bread crumbs worked just as well, I’d maybe add more spices to the coating or even the potato mix next time. On Tuesday I served the salmon fish cakes with tomato chutney and cous cous, though ideally I think I would have gone with salad or chips and peas. This was my first time cooking with fish, it wasn’t as smelly and gross as I thought it might be. It was also the first time I’d eaten salmon, and though it may have been overpowered by the potato I have to say that I liked it. As a southern hemisphere girl trying to desperately live a summer existence to avoid this dreary winter, salmon fish cakes I would say are a good way to inject the fun and warm summery feelings fish always seems to evoke with the comfort and cosiness needed in winter through the warm golden brown frying. This was the first recipe I’ve tried from one of Nigella’s books, and I’m looking forward to the next time I get to make my brother and dad sit through my cooking!
What tastes instantly transport you to other places? What is the difference between butter and margarine, and how do you flake fish? Summer feeling winter recipes – gimmie!