Ease into austerity season with these salmon cakes

It’s the second week of January, and who isn't  contemplating the “d-word” to make up for holiday excesses at the table? While a slab of fish on a plate with a salad might restore balance, that sort of meal will be about as much fun as landing in a snowstorm after a beach vacation in Hawaii. That’s where these salmon cakes come in: healthy, with a chance of comfort. They are the same size as a burger, and if you want to ease into austerity season, you could enjoy them on a bun.

Paired with mashed potatoes to stretch ingredients, fish cakes have a long history in New England, especially during lent in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s time for a change though; potatoes have been on the collective menu since Thanksgiving. These cakes rely on eggs and panko breadcrumbs to hold them together. Flaky, light, and delicate, panko crumbs are made from bread, but are crunchier and coarser than fine, white breadcrumbs.

To make the cakes, start by spiking the salmon with some smoky paprika, and then undercook it slightly in the oven. Once it’s cooled and flaked, mix it with finely chopped vegetables for color and taste, and add zesty mayonnaise, mustard, capers, and lemon for even more flavor. Eggs and panko bring it all together. Shaping these require a little patience. Press them gently but firmly into balls and then shape them into flat burger-like disks. Handle them lightly as you coat them with the crumbs, and use a spatula to transfer them to the skillet. After browning on one side on top of the stove, leave them in the pan and transfer it to the oven (without turning) to slowly broil in the middle of the oven away from direct intense heat. Broiler heat varies greatly from one oven to another, so keep an eye on them as they cook. You end up with a crunchy golden crust and a center that is hot but not overcooked. You also forgo the mess and fuss of stovetop frying, not to mention the copious amounts of oil required in that method. You’ll feel good starting the year off by eating well without sacrificing one iota of flavor.

This recipe is designed to lessen the frustration and excess amount of oil of frying them. The cakes are a bit fragile until cooked, so browning them on the bottom on top of the stove and then slipping them into the oven under the broiler, solves two problems. If you're so inclined, use olive oil spray in step 5 of the recipe.

Salmon cakes
Makes 4 good size "burgers"

Oil (for the baking dish)
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 1/4 pounds boneless salmon filet with skin
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
5 tablespoons olive oil (or 3 tablespoons oil plus olive oil spray)
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1/2 red pepper, finely chopped
4 scallions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons mayonnaise (low fat is okay)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoon capers, coarsely chopped if large
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 whole egg, lightly beaten
1 egg white

1. Have on hand a lightly oiled baking dish, a large skillet with an ovenproof handle, and a large bowl. Line a baking sheet with parchment, and sprinkle it with 1/2 cup of the panko.

2. In the baking dish, place the salmon. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the smoked paprika. Bake for 7 to 9 minutes, or until slightly rare in the center. Cool in the pan.

3. In the skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the celery, pepper, and scallions. Cook for 5 minutes, or until soft. Transfer to a large bowl. Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel.

4. With two forks, flake the salmon in the baking dish, discarding the skin and bones. Transfer it to the bowl of vegetables. Stir in the mayonnaise, mustard, capers, lemon rind, lemon juice, parsley, salt, pepper and eggs. Stir in 1/2 cup of the panko.

5. Divide the mixture into 4 portions. With your hands, firmly press each portion into a ball. Flatten and press the balls into 4-inch patties. Set them on top of the panko on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with the remaining panko, and gently coat the patties with crumbs, pressing lightly on them to hold their shape. With a pastry brush, dab the tops of the patties with 2 tablespoons of the oil (or spray with olive oil spray.)

6. Set an oven rack in the middle position and turn on the broiler.

7.  In the skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining oil. With a spatula, carefully transfer the cakes to the skillet and cook without moving for 2 minutes, or until golden brown on the bottom. Slip the pan into the oven and broil for from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the heat of your broiler, or until golden on top. Remove the skillet from the oven and serve. 

This recipe was published in The Boston Globe on January 6, 2016.

Posted on January 8, 2016 .