Salmon Burgers, Ceviche and Other Delights

Rather than dwell on the unnamable ball of twisty angst in my gut, today, let’s talk fish. This post is one of those that lay foundering in my draft box, and it’s really not fair to you to keep it locked up. Silver season is upon us.

Now that we are back in Cordova, you are going to be hearing a lot about fish. Namely sockeye  and silver salmon. I know this is a cruel taunt for most my readers, but some fair number of you live in Alaska or the PNW and might appreciate a recipe here and there. Not to mention that most fish recipes are adaptable to whatever species you can lay hands on….

Sockeye season is over here, we are fully in to silvers. For those of you buying from the market, silvers are considerably cheaper and still a great fish. There are other species of pacific salmon sometimes in stores too. Pink salmon has gotten a bad rap from years of shitty canning practices, but can be perfectly fine food. Chum salmon, called “dogs” here, are also entirely edible by humans. I ate them and canned them and enjoyed them before Cordova turned me into a hopeless fish snob. Folks here can get snitchy about these “lesser” species, and it’s true they don’t have near so much flavor and luscious fat as sockeye and king salmon. But that doesn’t mean they can’t spell dinner.

I can’t help it, as a devout Alaskan, I have to preach for just a minute here. Please don’t buy farmed salmon. It’s bad. Bad for fishermen, bad for the environment, and certainly not as amazingly good for you as it’s wild counterpart. Be aware that stores will often label farmed salmon, misleadingly, “Atlantic salmon” as if it came from the Atlantic ocean. Atlantic is in fact the species name, and although there are wild runs of Atlantic salmon, it is the species of choice for farming and that is what you will be looking at in the grocery store. You can be pretty sure unless it is labeled wild salmon, it’s farmed, probably in Chile.

Someone commented awhile back on the conundrum of too much salmon and what to do with it. I have never personally gotten sick of good sockeye salmon, though I have at times eaten it about as much as person possibly can. I think the trick, as for using up any bountiful food item, is two-fold.

1. Take excessive care to preserve it in the highest possible quality. I have most certainly not always done this. In fact, I’m quite sure I have made all the mistakes available to the novice. For example, it’s not at all hard to get tired of frost-bitten, fishy tasting salmon that was packed into zip-locks for reasons of thrift. This is what I believe they call “penny wise, pound foolish.” Ahem. Over smoking is another way to make yourself sorry, as I can also attest. My ex and I once smoked a batch of jerky so much that it made our mouths numb to eat (yes, we ate it anyway).

2. Don’t think about recipes for salmon, per se. Just cook the way you usually cook, but forgo your internal food rules and substitute salmon for every other flesh you might have used (bear in mind that it must never be overcooked!) I love a plain sockeye fillet baked or fried with nothing more than salt, if the quality is very high. But when you are tired of that, or using up a cheaper lesser flavorful fish, just use it in everything you ordinarily cook. Soup, casserole, pot pie, tacos, spaghetti, stir fry. If your fish is getting a little “fishy” use lemon, tomato or a tiny splash of white wine to cut the fishiness back out.

That said, here are my favorite ways to cook salmon, after the thrill is gone.

Ceviche

The only hard part of making unbelievable salmon ceviche is removing the skin and pin bones. Those bones run in a single line down the length of the fillet, and if you are careful you can cut out the whole strip of ’em without losing much meat. Bear in mind as you cut down that they angle toward the belly. Or, you can use pliers to remove each one individually. To remove the skin of any fish, lay it on the cutting board skin side down and run your sharp (essential!) knife right under the flesh. Ceviche is a good time to practice these techniques because you’re going to be chopping up all the fish anyway, so mistakes don’t matter.

Mix 1 lb chopped up fish with 1/2 red onion, 1 red pepper, 1 bunch of cilantro, 1/2 cup fresh lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste. Let the mix sit at least 1 hour, 3 or 4 is even better. Serve with a pile of warm corn tortillas (fried in a lightly oiled pan) and black beans. So, so good, with any species of fish.

Fish Sticks

Everyone loves homemade fish sticks. They convert people who think they don’t like fish, and blow the minds of fish snobs who think they are too good for something that usually classes with TV dinners. They’re just as good with silvers as reds. De-bone and remove the skin as described above. Cut into stick sizes. Use a “bound breading” with Panko and cornmeal, and pan fry in half an inch of olive oil for a phenomenal stick.

Bound breading is a good trick to know, if you don’t already. It makes a perfect, crispy crust. Get three bowls. Put flour in one, an egg or two whisked smooth in another, and Panko, breadcrumbs and/or cornmeal in the last (Panko is a secret to itself, just some incredible kind of  Japanese breadcrumb stuff that blows everything else out of the water.) Dip the fish pieces first in flour, then egg, then Panko. It’s messy, but worth it. Panko is meant for deep frying, but pan frying (just a half inch of oil) works fine for these fish sticks.

To complete the experience, mayo + pickle juice + dill weed=tartar sauce.

Gravlox

Do you know this stuff? It’s “cured” salmon, meaning you salt it heavily and let it sit (in the fridge) for a few days, then eat it uncooked, sliced thin on crackers. Sounds very unpromising, right? I was incredibly skeptical the first time I had it. But I could hardly stop eating it! If you like salmon sushi, you will like Gravlox. This isn’t exactly a using it up recipe, you need absolutely prime perfect salmon to make it, and a little goes a long way. But it is soooooo good, and so easy, I just have to share it. Silvers make equally wonderful Gravlox. Just take a fillet which has been frozen for several days at least (to kill any potential parasites since you won’t be cooking it), lay it into a glass baking dish and cover with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons freshly dried dill (not ancient tasteless dill from the bottom of your spice drawer that you’ve had longer than your children, throw that shit away right now!) Cover and leave in the fridge for at least one, preferably 2 or 3 days.

Now, this is the hardest part, slice the cold Gravlox paper thin (a 15-30 minute stay in the freezer will help, but don’t forget about it!!!!) and serve with crackers, cream cheese, finely sliced red onion and lemon wedges. I assume you will do this for a special occasion, but don’t pre-assemble them, or the crackers get soggy. Let folks make up their own, squeezing just a few drips of lemon onto each bite. Oh glory! It is a show stopper. Absolutely mind blowing.

An entire fillet makes a huge crowd’s worth of Gravlox. Too much for all but the most enormous party really. This year, I made up a fillet and then cut it into four chunks, vac-packed and froze each separately. I think it will slice up even better when it’s still mostly frozen, making it a relatively quick, totally fabulous treat to share with unexpected guests.

The Best Salmon Burgers Ever

Here is the requested recipe that started me on this post in the first place. It makes the best salmon cakes or burgers you’ve ever had. I have at times in my past nearly lived on very humble canned salmon patties– a jar of salmon with just enough flour mixed in to hold things together, shaped and fried. Very spare, very emblemic of a particular period in my life.

These are not they. These are made with fresh (or thawed) fish, a bit of old bread and that coy magic– mayonnaise. Nothing makes good like mayonnaise.

The original recipe is from Cooks Illustrated, crown glory of annal retentive perfection in the kitchen. I discovered it via a friend, who explained that rather than take a perfectly good fillet and mince it up into tiny bits as the recipe instructs, she scrapes down her filleted carcasses with a spoon and uses all that residual goodness. Having done both, I can say that the latter actually makes for a better texture, and certainly a more profound frugal housewife righteousness. It is an especially useful trick if you are still learning how to fillet and leave lots of good fish of the carcass. Myself– not to toot my own horn, I am incredibly slow— I have gotten to be pretty good at removing all the flesh intact to the fillet. So good that I am actually a bit disappointed how much is left to scrape up for burgers.

But, when I did up those 20 sockeyes in July, I did get a giant bowlful of scrappy bits. I made a whole big batch of these and popped most of them into the freezer. You can cook them straight from frozen, and you will really feel like a rockstar.

Note: I think these would work with any kind of fish, though they might be a tad dry with a less fatty kind. Maybe add more mayo…?

The Best Salmon Burgers Ever

  • 1 1/4 pounds salmon, or a pint sized mason jar packed full and heaped up high
  • 1 slice stale (but not dried out) bread, ground up in the food processor or very finely minced
  • 2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 Tablespoons grated onion, don’t be tempted to just mince it, grating is important
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • a bit of fresh parsley or dill if you have it, minced super fine

for the breading:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 3/4 cup Panko or regular breadcrumbs

If you are using a fillet of fish, use a sharp knife to finely slice/chop/shred the flesh, you want it to look like ground meat. Do not be tempted to put it into a food processor, which will turn it into a disgusting paste. I have however had great luck running fish through my Kitchen Aide’s grinder attachment using the coarsest blade.

Once you’ve got the fish looking right, just mix it with the rest of the ingredients up top. It will be very sticky. Form patties as best you can and lay onto a baking sheet dusted heavily with flour. Put the sheet into the freezer for 15-30 minutes (don’t forget!) until they are very firm.

Now get set up for a bound breading experience as described in the fish sticks section. Bread each patty and set back onto the sheet pan. Obviously you can skip this step, they will still be very good, but this is what really what blows them out of the water. So to speak.

Fry the patties in a half inch of oil, till nicely browned on each side. Serve hot, on buns with full garnish, or just plain jane on a plate with some fresh steamed rice and a salad. Yum!

4 thoughts on “Salmon Burgers, Ceviche and Other Delights

  1. I love the “just cook it with everything, like you already cook” advice. Good advice for practically anything anyone might want to cook ever! And oh man, homemade fish sticks!! I was just thinking about how I might make some, since the gross fish sticks in the box are heritagenous for me, but OH so gross to my adult palate. Real fish sticks!! I am excite!

  2. I became a vegetarian around 40 years ago. In your summer of 2011 my husband I travelled from New Zealand to Alaska to visit friends now living in Fairbanks – and I ate my first flesh in all those years – a teaspoon of fresh Alaskan salmon from the Chitina – not very far from you by Alaskan standards! The salmon was lovely – I felt I just HAD to try it and it didn’t make me sick as I had feared after so long.

    1. in fact, chitna is just upriver from us. so you were eating copper river salmon!
      welcome Cally, i’ve been to NZ too, so we’re even ;) my favorite thing– the wild foods festival! could you have guessed?

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