Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Calculated Risk

Well, no cook is infallible, and in my zeal to create something amazing, I totally blew it. Well, I didn't totally blow it, the dish was definitely edible, but I certainly wasn't going for seconds. Generally when I test a recipe or develop one myself, it's usually pretty good right off the bat. It often requires tweaking here or there to make it great and worth repeating, but it is rarely off putting. This dish, my friends, was decidedly sub par. You see, I'd gotten it into my head a few weeks ago that I should make some kind of fish or seafood cake. As a Marylander and a crab cake fanatic, I of course intended to start with the perfect crab cake. But, really good crab meat is expensive and hard to find in Murray Hill, so I quickly moved on. I'd seen recipes for salmon cakes everywhere from the Food Network to PBS to Gourmet, and they always looked great, and almost always used canned salmon and a few other affordable ingredients, all of which I had at home.

So imagine my surprise when a can of salmon appeared on my desk at work, as what was evidently a coworkers joke, or in my mind, a sign from god--obviously I was meant to make salmon cakes. I contemplated how to go about making them for weeks, researching recipes and taking useful bits and pieces from each. They were all fairly simple and comprised of just a few ingredients and some kind of binder to hold the cakes together. Finally, I had a full evening free after work to play with my food and put together the recipe. I tied my hair back, put on my apron, washed my hands, and started opening the canned salmon. The second I removed the lid it became evident that something was wrong. In all of the cooking shows and magazine recipes I'd seen, the salmon looked like a cross between fresh salmon and smoked salmon--radiant, bright coral flesh that was moist and slightly salty. What I had in front of me was anything but radiant. It was dull, dry (despite being preserved in liquid) and looked like chunky canned tuna. And worst of all? Bones. Lots of bones. After some searching about (thanks google!) I discovered that what I was dealing with was "traditional style" canned salmon, which frankly, seems ridiculous and unnecessary. If you're going to the trouble to buy canned salmon and not fresh, why would you want it with skin and bones?

After the 20-minute buzz kill of removing the bones, I finally got to start mixing the salmon cakes. I really like this type of dish with a bit of a kick, so I added a few pinches of cayenne pepper, some lemon juice and zest, sour cream, a few spices, breadcrumbs and a few other random ingredients. After forming the actual patties I let them sit in the fridge for 20 minutes, as indicated in several of the recipes I'd referenced. Then I coated them lightly in breadcrumbs and set off to cook them in olive oil and butter. I'm not sure if I crowded to pan (which I haven't done in at least 8 years), miscalculated the make-up of the patties, or was too impatient (my personal Achilles heal) but they didn't seem to be cooking up correctly. They weren't quite firming up and the breadcrumbs were sliding right off when I tried to flip them. Normally I like to do the whole flour-egg-breadcrumb ordeal to avoid this messy situation, but I figured if the executive chef at Gourmet was okay with just breadcrumbs, then so was I.

Needless to say (but I will anyway), I did not get the texture or stability that I was looking for. The salmon cakes almost completely fell apart when I tried to plate them and did not develop the crunchy coating that I hoped for. The funny thing is that they tasted great. I loved the kick from the cayenne, the brightness of the lemon juice, and the salmon flavor did actually develop a bit once the patties were cooked. So, I did eat the one enormous salmon cake that didn't completely fall apart, and the flavor did help me recover from the humiliation of my second kitchen casualty in recent months. If anyone out there happens to have a good salmon cake recipe they'd like to share, I would very much like to try it. And if you're at all interested in seeing the finished product (which I served over a simple salad and topped with lemon-cilantro cream), check it out below. And I'll be back tomorrow with one of my favorite, and super easy dinner recipes.


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