Cook: Russian Classics
Hipster Salmon Fishcakes: Updating a Stodgy Soviet Classic
A few tweaks take these classic Soviet fishcakes from Wednesday night stopgap to the opening salvo of an elegant Saturday night dinner.
Salmon fishcakes always remind me of a question a visitor from the United States once asked me: what do I find the most exciting thing about living in Russia.
I could tell she was expecting things like seeing The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi, that Olympics thingy, or maybe something about the mysteries of The Great Russian Soul. Of course, I disappointed her.
My milestones are all culinary.
“Unlimited quantities of affordable salmon,” I answered promptly.
And I meant it.
HRH, my “Handsome Russian Husband” turned up his nose when I suggested I parlay some leftover poached salmon into tel’noe or fishcakes. It seems these small nuggets made from fish and stale bread soaked in milk made a regular and lackluster appearance during his Soviet childhood. The version he remembered were bland and tasteless, made primarily from frozen chunks of halibut or cod, and served with synthetic mayonnaise. (Side note? I have no trouble believing this). He could not imagine an appetizing version of them.
I love it when HRH hurls down the culinary gauntlet, so I hauled out my stack of Russian cookbooks to look for inspiration. Every one of them had a recipe for fishcakes, and they all included the same dull, distinctly uninspiring ingredients: fish, eggs, flour, and stale bread. Okay, the vastly over-lauded, hipster Jamie Oliver-wannabe author of “Real Russian Food,” Maxim Syrnikov (which I’m convinced is a fake name, meaning as it does, “cheesecake”) suggested adding onion and dill, but that is hardly thinking outside of the box, is it?
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And there, in a nutshell, you have problem with the Soviet staples of Russian cuisine: they seriously need updating. Today you can get everything from anise seed to za’tar in Russia, but if I try to introduce even one new ingredient in a recipe, I get a flood of really vitriolic hate mail from Russian readers, particularly those who haven’t lived in Russia for the last 20 years. It’s a sin beyond contemplation, they rail, to throw in some chili pepper here, a little pomegranate molasses there, and dust almost everything, including vanilla ice-cream, with sumac. “It isn’t our traditional Raaaaaaaaaaaasian dish,” they drawl from the general direction of Brighton Beach.
“It’s important to think outside the box, whether you hail from the shores of Lake Baikal or those of Brighton Beach.”
To them, I say, “Nu, i shto?” (So what?) Banking on the fact that even Mr. Cheesecake has a bottle of Tabasco lurking in his fridge, I set about spicing up my fishcakes with a few very Raaaaaaaaaaasian ingredients, such as horseradish and black pepper, and a couple of imports, such as paprika and capers. In addition to grated white onions, I sweated leeks with a bit of zucchini to introduce a contrasting color and texture. The addition of my beloved Russian smoked salmon to the tel’noe takes them from a Wednesday night stopgap to the opening salvo of an elegant Saturday night dinner. I fried up a batch and was delighted to see HRH sneaking a few more from the fridge when he thought I wasn’t looking.
It’s important to think outside the box, whether you hail from the shores of Lake Baikal or those of Brighton Beach.
Seriously, comrades, there is more to life than dill.
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Hipster Salmon Fishcakes
- 3 cups of stale sour-dough or French bread cubed*
- 1-1/2 cups of whole milk or 10% cream or a combination of the two, gently warmed in a saucepan. Do not overboil.
- 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg
- 1-1/2 pounds of fresh salmon leftover poached salmon, or tinned salmon, bones removed, flaked.
- 1 cup of smoked salmon cubed
- 2 Tbls capers mashed
- cup ½of finely diced leeks
- cup ½of zucchini which has been seeded and cored, and finely diced near the skin
- cup ½of yellow onion diced
- 3-4 dashes of Tabasco depending on your taste
- 1 lemon zested, then juiced
- 2 tsp of coarse sea salt
- 5 grinds of fresh black pepper or more if you prefer.
- 1 Tbls smoked paprika
- 1 Tbls flour plus more for dusting
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 4 Tbls chopped dill
- 4 Tbls chopped parsley
- 1/3 cup of best quality olive oil
- Combine the bread, nutmeg, and milk/cream mixture in a non-reactive bowl and let sit for at least 30 minutes.
- Prepare the salmon by removing all of the skin, gristle, and bones. For best results, steam or poach the salmon for 3-4 minutes before you go on to the next steps.
- Skim a small frying pan with a small amount of olive oil. Gently sauté the leeks until softened. Add the zucchini for a final minute.
- Place the salmon, onions, leeks, zucchini, lemon zest, lemon juice, egg, egg yolk, smoked salmon, capers, dill, parsley, Tabasco, 1 Tbl of flour, and paprika in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse five times. Do not over process.
- Strain the bread in a fine mesh sieve, gently pressing the bread so that the liquid runs through the sieve.
- Add the bread mixture to the ingredients in the food processor and pulse a final two times. NOTE: If you don’t have a food processor, take good care to dice all of the ingredients into very fine pieces. Beat the egg and egg yolk together before you add it to the mixture and use large kitchen spoon to combine vigorously.
- Dust a clean work surface with flour and prepare a tray with more flour. Wet your hands with cold water and form the salmon mixture into disks slightly larger than a golf ball. Dredge the cakes in flour and place them on the tray. If you have more than one layer, use parchment paper and more flour between the layers. At this point, you can freeze the fishcakes – between layers of parchment paper in a ziplock bag.
- Heat several tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to spit, gently lower the fishcakes into the oil. Cook for 4 minutes on one side, then use a spatula to carefully flip them over to the other side. Cook for an additional 4 minutes, then flip to the original side for a final crisping minute.
- Serve immediately.
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This recipe first appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines.
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Exploring food markets, developing recipes, and just eating was once my hobby, but now it is a full-time job. I write about food markets around the world, develop recipes, and study culinary history and emerging trends. I have a particular interest in Russian and Eastern European cuisine and culinary history.
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