Taking Back our Kitchens One Salmon Cake at a Time

by : Jean Johnson

It was six of us writers from El Norte with as many Mexican officials, eating mole poblano in a historic cantina where the tequila was making liberal rounds around the table.

"Puebla is considered a culinary center of Mexico," the minister of tourism, German Ruiz, pontificated. "We're known for our mole poblano, and to help keep that tradition alive we have our mole competition every year with all the ladies from this area."

A food writer sitting next to me, not a strand out of place in her stylish bob, was quick. "Are the recipes written down some where?" she inquired.

"Well, you could write them down" said Ruiz, shrugging his Latin shoulders and lifting dark brows over eyes that were momentarily closed. "But in the end it's the way you do it. No?"

It was the same when I stayed with ex-patriot friends in Thailand last year and spent more time in the kitchen with their Thai cook, Dang Ampurn, than I did with them. Day after day, Ampurn turned out one fresh soup and salad after another, all without ever cracking a recipe book.

Now that I think about it, it was much the same in my mother's kitchen, where the first inkling I got that cooking was more than following recipes was watching her make a Caesar, the salad her sons and husband dearly loved. The deluxe fare was contingent on her spotting nice looking romaine at the grocery-and being in the mood. She'd get her greens washed and chilled early in the day and come dinner time she'd work her very particular magic with the garlic oil, anchovies, lemon juice, raw egg, croutons, and parmesan.

We've only had written cooking instructions with their specific ingredients and precise measurements since the early 1900s when science and technology overtook our kitchens. Even then, recipe books didn't catch on right away since women liked the artistry of using what was on hand and tasting their way through their cooking.

Indeed, I think the rise of cookbooks with their sciencey formats are a major reason we buy more ready-to-eat food than our health and budgets can afford. It's just not that much fun doing the equivalent of small chemistry experiments on a busy weeknight when all you want is dinner.

It's true that if you aren't familiar with making a particular dish, guidance is helpful. That's why I count my grandmother's thoughts on making salmon cakes among the most precious things I've inherited.

"Bone and skin a fresh salmon and put the meat through a meat grinder twice. Don't use more than two or three pounds of fish to try out since it accumulates a lot during the making. Then beat it for a while, using a big bowl, and start diluting it with milk, a little at a time until it gets like thick mush. Then season it with salt to taste and nutmeg. It take quite a lot of nutmeg, about a tablespoon for two pounds of fish. Then beat it some more and as it gets thicker, add some more milk until it gets like thick mush again.

Try a little dab on the frying pan first using a spoon dipping in cold water and see if it needs some more milk. Too much makes them flat, when they should be a little fluffy. Brown them slightly in a little oil and then put the cakes to steam for a few minutes in a pan with a little fish broth that you've made by boiling the carcass. Here's hoping..."

The first time I tried this I was uncertain, even though I'd seen my mother make the tender pink cakes and reveled in their melt-in-your-mouth goodness. But I discovered that step by step, it worked.

Filleting and grinding the fish was straightforward, as was beating in the milk for thick pudding. Salt and nutmeg were no-brainers as well. And boiling the carcass in enough water to get a cup or two of nice broth was easy. Finally frying the salmon cakes in a skillet filmed in oil was akin to doing pancakes, so no problem there.

More, I gained enough confidence to experiment on my own. These days, I often do the cakes when nary a whole fish is in sight, using a chunk of fillet from a butcher that sells wild salmon and making a vegetable broth some carrot, onion, celery, and parsley as a stand in for fish broth.

All I can say is 'thank you, Grandma.' Thanks also to cooks around the world who today are still in command of their own hearths. I'm inspired. In fact, I think I'll try pulling together a slaw to go with the salmon cakes.

I'll grate a head of cabbage with enough onion and carrot to please. Dress it with some cider vinegar and oil, along with enough crushed red pepper to get my attention. Garnished with some coconut and a handful of peanuts, it should make a colorful, zippy counterpart to the salmon cakes. Here's hoping...