Food Nerd

Andreae Prozesky can do.

As I write this, above-freezing rain is hurling itself at my office window. Two days ago, I hung clothes on the line to dry. The mountains of frozen black slush have been reduced to mere boulders, and the pothole-riddled streets are flanked by exposed sidewalk as far as the eye can see.

Spring, my friends, is here.

In a matter of weeks, our mainland friends will be enjoying fresh fiddleheads and the year’s first pencil-thin stalks of asparagus. Tender greens will heap themselves on the plates of Canadians while the strawberry plants and fruit trees blossom eagerly.

Here in Newfoundland, well, the crocuses are up, and that’s about it.

We’ve got six weeks to go before the farmers’ market opens, and even then the local agricultural offerings will be in a relatively sprout-y state. In this province, the fall harvest is more our scene. What other people get to nibble on in the spring, we sample for about one week in July. But when Thanksgiving rolls in, well, we’ve got it goin’ on.

But spring really doesn’t have tons to offer on the vegetable front.

As much as I would love to be frolicking about, gathering salad from my natural surroundings, I’m afraid it’s tinned goods for another while yet—plus potatoes and onions. I know the stores are full of apparently fresh produce from faraway lands, but it all tastes like polystyrene and paper to me, and I’m sick to death of it. I’ll have my head in a bowl of turnip greens first chance I get, and no dandelion in my yard will stand a chance against my powerful, leaf-grinding molars. (See? There’s a chemical-free form of dandelion control: just eat the weeds as they pop up. Would that the conquest of all foes were so easy and nutritious.)

In the meantime, there’s plenty of good food to eat in the pantry. A few months back I wrote about pantry staples and how they keep a person sane when there’s eating to be done and not much time to be had. Having been inspired by a feed of fish cakes last night, I’m dragging out an old favourite: salmon cakes. With salmon from a tin. Low-maintenance. Minimal effort. Maximum crispy-edged fried potato goodness.

Tinned salmon is great for you because, in the canning process, the bones get cooked to chalk and you can eat them, giving yourself a good dose of calcium. If you find that thought revolting, well, you can pick them out, but smooshing them up with a fork makes them pretty much disappear into the salmony goodness, and they don’t really taste like anything at all. And is eating bones any weirder than eating anything else?

When I first made these, it was from a recipe in a magazine. The recipe had black beans and cilantro and all manner of stuff in it, but over time I have whittled it down to, basically, an imitation of Newfoundland fish cakes, only with tinned salmon instead of salt cod.I love salt cod, but cooking with it requires advance notice. Salmon in a tin requires naught but a can opener.

There’s nothing fancy about the fish cakes. They’re made up of a sort of mush of fish and potatoes, shaped into patties and then fried. They’re not fluffy and mayonnaisey like crab cakes, but dense and starchy like the potato croquettes that they are. I suppose if you were trying to add a bit of a nutritional edge, you could puree some steamed cauliflower in with your potatoes and only you would know the difference. I would stay away from substituting potato for sweet potato though. The orangey mash and the salmon pink would make a terribly disconcerting combination, methinks. But if that doesn’t bother you, go mad.

If I’m in a very grown-up mood, I serve these with some sautéed Swiss chard or beet tops—but since those are out of season I might just go with some peas from the bottomless bag in the freezer. I know my youngster will eat them, and they taste like what they are instead of like imported styrofoam.

I’ll just close my eyes and imagine gently-steamed dandelions and turnip greens in their place.

Potato-Salmon Cakes

2 medium-large russet potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons oil (canola or grapeseed), plus more for frying
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon summer savoury, crushed between your fingers to break up any twiggy bits
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1 tin wild salmon, drained
2 eggs
sea salt and black pepper to taste
dried breadcrumbs for dredging

1. Peel potatoes and boil them until tender. Drain, and mash roughly; set aside.
2. Sauté onions in 2 tablespoons oil until translucent. Remove onions to a bowl and add herbs. Add salmon, using a fork to mash up any large bones. Add potatoes. Beat one egg and add to the potato mixture. Add salt and pepper to mixture and stir to combine, taking care to leave some chunks of salmon (do not work it into a paste).
3. Break remaining egg into a bowl and beat lightly. Using your hands, shape potato mixture into patties (slightly smaller than burger patties). Carefully dip each patty in the egg, then into the breadcrumbs. Fry patties at medium heat until brown and crispy on each side, using additional oil as necessary. Try to avoid flipping patties before they have browned completely, or they will fall apart.

Serve hot with great heaps of mustard pickles. Makes 8-10 patties.

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