Monday, April 5, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Salmon Croquettes

This is another of those cooking-to-save-the-planet postings that some readers keep encouraging me to write.  And so I do just that, hoping that these postings aren’t a bore to readers for whom cooking and eating are not engaging topics.

I have no idea how widespread the dish about which I’m going to blog is, though I have the impression that, like pimiento cheese, another fixture of my childhood, it’s something we in the American South take for granted without realizing that people in other parts of the country or the globe don’t know these dishes.  I was reminded just last week of how regional salmon croquettes (the subject of this posting) are, when Steve and stopped at a little down-home restaurant between Nashville and Memphis and found salmon patties (another name for the dish, though not the name we used in my family) on the buffet, along with barbecued chicken, beef stew, and a vast array of vegetables including lima beans simmered with bits of ham, fried squash, turnip greens, boiled and buttered new potatoes, and corn.

Salmon croquettes were simply a given as I grew up.  We had them every week or so, because 1) we loved them (though I now learn my brother pretends to find them disgusting and a reminder of poverty), and 2) they could stretch a bit of healthy fish into a meal that would feed a number of hungry folks, when unadulterated salmon for each family member was beyond the reach of a family’s pocketbooks.

Somewhere in the far recesses of my mind is a mental footnote—or perhaps “impression” is a more accurate word—that dishes like this may date from the early 20th century, when I find croquettes of all sorts discussed in the cookbooks on which my grandmothers relied for ideas, rather than recipes, since they already knew how to cook, but were encouraged by ladies’ magazines to modernize their kitchens and learn what high-class folks who lunched rather than ate noonday dinner put onto their tables.  Potato croquettes, croquettes of chopped and creamed vegetables, and salmon croquettes.

For whatever reason, the latter seem to have stuck, for Southern tables.  And here’s how Steve and I fixed them on the weekend.

On Friday, Steve had grilled half a salmon outside, and we ate that for Good Friday supper with parslied potatoes, peas and carrots, and a green salad.  The following day, there was a good bit of cold salmon left, along with a bowl of the potatoes.  Hence the croquettes . . . .

As I was growing up, salmon croquettes were always made with canned salmon.  I now most commonly make them with leftover salmon that we’ve grilled a day or so before.  I do so in part because, I’ll freely admit, I’m simply not a big fan of cooked salmon—except when it’s made into croquettes.  And so we usually have quite a bit left when we grill salmon.  I do like cold salmon with a vinaigrette sauce and vegetables.

But the somewhat mushy texture and often fishy taste of salmon when it’s heated and served as a main dish don’t appeal to me, though I eat it gratefully, knowing it’s supposed to be good for us (when it’s not saturated with mercury, as it’s all too often likely to be).

I don’t follow a recipe for croquettes, but if I were describing to someone else my unwritten rule of thumb for making them (handed down, I’m sure, by my mother and her mother and sisters, as I watched them prepare this dish), here’s what I’d advise: take equal parts of crumbled, mashed salmon and mix with equal parts of mashed potatoes.

For about every cup and a half of the mix, add a beaten egg, two tablespoons of finely minced onion, a tablespoon of finely minced celery, and chopped parsley and marjoram.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Let the mix sit a bit to “set” (that is, let the mashed potatoes soak up any liquid they will soak up, as the mix sits for a half hour or so).

If the mix is then still too soupy to permit you to pat it into small, hamburger-shaped patties that hold together, add a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs.  In fact, you can add some breadcrumbs from the outset, diminishing the amount of mashed potato, if you wish.

Have a skillet of oil heating.  We use olive oil, and I never heat olive oil to the smoking point, because I’ve read that this is unhealthy.  I heat it until I can just begin to see almost invisible wisps curling above it.  Though I notice that when I google “salmon croquettes,” most recipes call for deep-frying them, we never deep-fried salmon croquettes, any more than we did chicken.  Both are traditionally pan-fried in well-seasoned black iron skillets, with only a half inch or so of hot oil in the skillet.

Slip the patties carefully into the oil as it just begins to near, but does not reach, the smoking point.  Immediately turn the fire down to medium high, and let the patties brown well on one side, shaking the pan carefully to assure they’re not sticking.  When they’re brown on one side, flip them over and do the same with the other side.

And that’s all there is to this delicious, nutritious meal.  Serve while they’re nice and hot with a slice of lemon and a garnish of parsley.  If you make more than you need for one meal, they also freeze well, and can be reheated in the microwave or a dry skillet for another meal in the future.

In the springtime, I particularly like to accompany the salmon with asparagus vinaigrette.  I steam whole asparagus (with the woody ends snapped off, of course) until it has just begun to lose its crunch, or I cook it quickly in boiling, salted water.  When it has just started to become tender, I remove it from the steamer or the water and plunge it into a bowl of ice water.

Meanwhile, I mix lemon juice or white wine vinegar and olive oil in proportions of about a third vinegar/juice to two thirds oil, and add a toe or two of chopped garlic, a pinch of dry mustard or a small spoon of Creole mustard, and salt and pepper.  When that’s well mixed, I carefully drain, dry, and chop the asparagus (into lengths of about two inches) and toss it in the vinaigrette.

I let the salad sit for a few minutes, but not long enough to permit the salt in the vinaigrette to begin drawing water from the asparagus.  And then I serve the asparagus vinaigrette on a bed of shredded spring greens, including—when I have them—some escarole and/or dandelion.

The salad is a wonderful, piquant accompaniment to the croquettes, and is—for me—the essence of springtime.  The time of year in which we ought to eat as many greens with as much relish as we can muster, with gratitude for the miraculous way in which nature renews itself annually.