Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fish cakes, Fish cakes

As soon as I started thinking about this post, that "Fish Heads" song came into my head. (You know, "Fish heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum." That one. Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can even watch it here. )

For a person who's been mostly a vegetarian for much of her life, I'm perhaps a bit fonder of fish cakes than I should be. They're so hard to resist though--all neat and crisp and compact. I've often ordered them in restaurants, but I only started cooking my own fish cakes in the past 4 or 5 years.

First, I was a devotee of this Amanda Hesser recipe, first published in the NY Times magazine in 2004. These are definitely tasty, and I made them with cod as well as with other white fish. I haven't made them in awhile, but I'd like to again.

Last year, everyone I knew was making these salmon cakes from Not Eating Out in New York, and while I enjoyed them, there was a bit too much mayonnaise in them for my taste, and I never succeeded in not having them fall apart in the pan.

So, I have a history of falling for fish cakes, and it had been a year or so since I'd last made them. So when I saw Melissa Clark's column in the NY Times food section a few weeks ago, I knew I had my next fish cake project before me. Her column was about using leftover mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving, and the potatoes serve as the base for these salmon cakes. She mixes them with salmon, spinach, bread crumbs, and eggs, makes them into patties, chills them and then fries them in a little bit of oil.

I made these last week, pre-Thanksgiving. Alex had made an early Thanksgiving dinner for his daughters but somehow never got around to making the mashed potatoes. Still, he'd peeled and cooked the potatoes and had them sitting in cold water, and he kindly donated them to the salmon cake experiment. (He was repaid in salmon cakes, of course.)

I was also glad that, on a whim, I had bought a little bag of panko at the store. I'd never used panko before, and I can no longer remember what inspired me to buy some, but when I was getting ready to make the salmon cakes (and didn't want to run out to the store again), I was glad I had.

These are quite easy to make, though you do you have to think ahead so that you have your salmon cooked, your potatoes mashed and your spinach thawed. You mix it all together in one sticky mess along with the eggs and bread crumbs.

And then you set up your dipping station--a bowl of flour, a bowl of beaten egg, a bowl of bread crumbs or panko.

And then you take a spoonful of the fish/potato/spinach mixture and make it into a patty, which you then dip first in the flour, then in the egg and finally in the bread crumbs.

After they've chilled in the refrigerator for a half hour or so, you can fry them up in a bit of olive oil. I think the panko helps them not absorb as much oil, but a blotting with a paper towel is advised.

I'd forgotten to buy dill at the grocery store, so I skipped Melissa's suggested garlicky dill cream, though it sounded delicious, and just ate them with tartar sauce out of a jar. (A travesty, I know.)

Next time, I might add something oniony to the mix--maybe some chopped green onions or a bit of shallot. That was the only thing missing, I thought. Otherwise, it's a very nice combo, and the texture is great.

My one warning is that this makes a BIG batch of fish cakes. I believed Melissa when she said this would make 12 patties, and I made a full batch. I ended up with 17 patties, which was more than I'd bargained for. I became the fish cake fairy and brought them to work to give to colleagues to have for their dinners. Next time, unless I'm planning a fish cake party, I'm going to make half a batch instead. I also kept the uncooked ones in the fridge, and we ate them over the course of the week. If you cook them ahead of time, you can just reheat them in the toaster oven, and they still taste good, but I made most of them fresh. One last shot of the plethora of fish cakes, even after I'd cooked the first batch . . .

Still, I think these are definitely worth making fresh mashed potatoes for, and I'm adding them to my fish cake repertoire.

Potato, Salmon and Spinach Patties With Garlicky Dill Cream

from Melissa Clark's "A Good Appetite" column in the New York Times

Time: 45 minutes plus at least 30 minutes’ chilling


10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed

2 cups mashed potatoes, chilled

8 ounces cooked salmon fillet, flaked

2 1/2 cups panko or bread crumbs

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup all-purpose flour


2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt, more to taste

1 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil for frying.

1. Squeeze as much water from spinach as possible. Place in a bowl and add potatoes, salmon, 1 cup panko, 2 eggs, salt and pepper; mix well to combine.

2. Place remaining bread crumbs in a wide, shallow bowl. Place remaining eggs in a second bowl and beat lightly. Place flour in a third bowl.

3. Form spinach mixture into 3-inch patties, about 3/4-inch thick. Dip each patty into flour, tapping off excess, then the egg, letting excess drip into bowl. Coat evenly with panko crumbs. Transfer patties to a large baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.

4. Meanwhile, make dill cream: In a mortar and pestle or with the back of a knife, mash garlic and salt together to make a paste. Stir it into the sour cream or yogurt. Add dill and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Chill until ready to serve.

5. Heat 1/4-inch oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat; if using olive oil, you don’t need to use good extra virgin oil. Cook patties in batches, turning once halfway through, until golden and cooked through, about 3 minutes a side. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve hot, with a dollop of dill cream.

Yield: 12 patties (or, actually, more like 16 or 17, unless you make them really big)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Corduroy Mansions (with brief notes on Sri Lanka)

I've been listening to audio books--first on tape, then on CD, now on my iPod--regularly for about 12 years now and have a good sense of what I like to listen to (which is not necessarily the same as what I might like to read). Over the years, there have been many series, and readers, I've enjoyed greatly, many of which, it turns out, are sort of old-school and British. There's the charming Ian Carmichael reading all of Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, for one. He actually played Wimsey in a 70's BBC version of the books, but I liked listening to him read better, since he's great at doing all the voices. Another favorite is Prunella Scales reading EF Benson's Lucia series. (Actually, Geraldine McEwan, who played Lucia in the BBC version, reads a couple and Prunella Scales, who played Mapp, reads the others. They're both good, though I think I have a slight preference for Prunella Scales.) And, of course, I've already documented my love of Patrick Tull's performances of Patrick O'Brian's complete Aubrey/Maturin series.

A more recent find is all the various series of Alexander McCall Smith, famous initially for his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. I enjoyed reading the first few of those, but then, for some reason, I stopped reading them and started listening to his other series, which include Isabel Dalhousie/Sunday Philosophy Club series and the 44 Scotland Street Series. He originally started writing 44 Scotland Street as a serial novel in a Scottish newspaper--it involves many short chapters centering around the lives of a motley group of people who live at that address in Edinburgh. The short chapters translate particular well to audio, and they've been really fun to listen to. I am looking forward to the newest installment, The World According to Bertie, which was just published in the US. (Bertie is one of his best creations--a precocious six-year-old with a mother, Irene, who spouts Melanie Klein and forces Bertie to go to yoga and psychotherapy and Italian and saxophone lessons and who insists that he audition for the Edinburgh Teenage Orchestra, despite the fact that he is, after all, only six. Bertie getting left behind in Paris, on the Edinburgh Teenage Orchestra's tour, is one of the highlights of the previous book, Love Over Scotland.)

But all of this is a very long introduction. What I mean to say is that Alexander McCall Smith is writing yet another serial novel right at this very moment. This one, however, is an online novel. It's called Corduroy Mansions and is being published on the web site of the British Newspaper, The Telegraph. It's also available by podcast. I just discovered it and have downloaded the first 50 chapters, which are all that have been written so far. (He's writing a new chapter each weekday for 20 weeks, for a total of 100 chapters.) It's similar to Scotland Street, in that it involves the residents of the titular Corduroy Mansions, the nickname of a building in London. There's William the wine merchant and his feckless son, Eddie; the mysterious Sri Lankan, Mr. Wickramsinghe; the smarmy MP, Oedipus Snark (and his mother, Berthea, who is writing her son's unauthorized biography); a dog named Freddie de la Haye who's been trained to be a vegetarian and insist that he be buckled into a seatbelt in the back of cabs; and many others.

So far, it's been quite engaging and enjoyable. Plus, it's not too often that you get to listen to (or read) something that the author is still writing. McCall Smith says that he stays about 20 chapters ahead of the reader, which would make him about 3/4 of the way through now, while the readers are only halfway there. It's interesting to know that all of these threads of stories he's thrown out could be tied together in a multitude of ways and that the fates of the characters have not yet been decided. I have no idea where it's going--and I haven't even been introduced to all the characters yet, 20 + chapters in--but I'm certainly interested to find out.

On a separate (but related) note, when I was in Sri Lanka last January, I stayed for a few nights in the lovely city of Galle. (I stayed in the delightful Lady Hill Hotel, where I was treated like a VIP because my friend Sonia is a regular there. It was like she was a rock star or something. "You are the friend of Sonia Gomez?" people kept asking. Sonia laughed and laughed when I told her this.) I didn't spend as much time in Galle as I would have liked, mostly because there were beautiful beaches just a few miles down the coast, but it is charming little city. A few weeks after I was there, the Galle Literary Festival took place, and as it happens, Alexander McCall Smith was one of the participants. I knew this at the time because I saw his name on the poster, but he must have been influenced by his stay there because Galle keeps turning up in his books. Mr Wickramasinghe, one of the residents of Corduroy Mansions, is a native of Galle; and in the latest Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, which I also just listened to, Isabel's niece Kat goes off on a vacation to Sri Lanka and ends up in . . . Galle. Kat even specifically mentions Taprobane Island, this tiny island immediately off the coast of Weligama, south of Galle, where there's a beautiful villa, once owned by Paul Bowles, and now a very fancy hotel. At least he only had Kat have lunch there (which may or not be possible in real life); to stay overnight (which involves renting the whole place) costs $2200/night in Dec/Jan. Yikes.

For the hell of it, I am including two photos, one of the view from the roof of the Lady Hill and one of the lovely beach at Mirissa--one of the reasons I didn't spend as much time in Galle as Alexander McCall Smith did. I hope to return to Galle on another trip. In the meantime, I'm going to keep listening to Corduroy Mansions and encourage you to do the same!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Leftover Experiment

So, earlier last week, I made a very large pot of soup. It was good soup, to be sure. An adaptation of the Farmhouse Minestrone in Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift's book How to Eat Supper. (I said last week I was having a flirtation with it, and I still am.) It's a hearty soup--with vegetable stock and tomatoes, onions, carrots, and celery, chard and zucchini, cannellini beans and parmesan. For the hell of it, I added some orzo too. And I happily ate the soup for lunch and dinner and lunch again. And I didn't make much of a dent in the pot. (I usually count on Alex to help make a dent, but he was lax in his soup eating this time.)

On Sunday, the large container of soup was staring rather balefully at me from the fridge, and I was worried that I might end up wasting it, if I didn't start eating a lot of it, and quickly.

And then I remembered.

One of the great things about this cookbook is the number of variations offered. And on the very next page, after the soup recipe, was this one: "Tuscan Baked Minestrone with Garlic Bread (Ribollita)."

Ribollita is a classic Tuscan soup--basically bean and vegetable soup with bread. If you google it, you will find many, many variations. But this one turns it from a soup into a sort of casserole.

You take some stale bread, rub it with garlic and tear it into bite-sized pieces, then spread it on the bottom of a casserole dish. After drizzling that with some olive oil, you pour the soup on top of it and add some parmesan. Then you let it sit in the fridge over night. The next day, take it out and bring it to room temperature, then cook it, covered with foil, in a 375 oven for 40 minutes, then uncovered for another 5-10 minutes.

I have to be honest and say that I didn't know what to expect. It certainly seemed possible that it might not be very good. Baked leftover soup and stale bread? Hard to say whether it's a good idea or not.

But I should have trusted that Lynne Rosetto Kasper wouldn't steer me wrong. (Why else did I take her book The Italian Country Table out of the library every single fall for about 8 years in a row, simply for her multitude of tomato sauce recipes? After 8 years, I gave up . . . and just bought the damn thing.) I should have known that if she said that turning soup into a sort of casserole would be a good thing, it would be.

The resulting dish was savory and cheesy and tomato-y and good. The bread had soaked up all the liquid and was tasty rather than mushy. The orzo, though not traditional, was a nice addition. It turned out to be a fine way to use up a large container of soup I wasn't going to finish eating and 1/3 of a loaf of good bread that was too stale to eat (and, alas, probably even too stale to turn into bread crumbs.)

The only bad thing about this dish--it's not very photogenic. It would not be the thing you'd want to serve to impress someone with your prowess in making lovely food. It is, after all, leftover soup and stale bread dumped in a casserole together, and it looks like that. The taste, however, is more than the sum of its parts. Still, I brought my camera downstairs to take a picture and then changed my mind. A picture would not make anyone more likely to make it, and it's a dish I would encourage people to make.

Next time I make too much minestrone, I'm keeping this in mind. Or maybe, next time I make minestrone, I'll make too much on purpose so I can make this too.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Soup Season

Admittedly, I eat soup year round. Asparagus soup in the spring, corn chowder and tomato soup in the summer. But in the winter, I eat soup all the time. Maybe not every day, but close to it. Because I don't go in to work on Mondays, I often make a big pot of soup (and sometimes a loaf of no-knead bread) on Monday afternoon and then dip into it for lunches and dinners during the week.

For the past two years, my soup cookbook of choice has been Deborah Madison's soup cookbook--officially titled Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen, though I've also relied on her recipes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (especially the lentil minestrone) and The Savory Way (especially the white bean soup with pasta and potatoes), along with very old standards like Mollie Katzen's spinach soup from the original Moosewood. And I don't think Deborah Madison's primacy in my kitchen is really being challenged.

Still, for the past few months, I've been having a flirtation with a different cookbook--The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift. (I'm linking the Splendid Table website rather than the Amazon link for the book, just because there's lots of stuff to look at there, including recipes.) What is interesting to me is that I haven't actually cooked that many things from the book, but I'm still sure that it's a keeper. In fact, I've only cooked three--an oven omelet with chard and green apple, pasta with roasted squash and greens, and the soup I'm going to write about. But I've made the soup and the omelet twice, and I'll certainly make the pasta again. Anyway, what I'm saying is that so far, I'm three for three with this cookbook, which doesn't always happen.

My one caveat is that it definitely takes me longer to make things than the book says it will. (The first time I made the oven omelet, I didn't start til after 8 p.m. and didn't eat until almost 10 p.m.--admittedly, it was my fault for not reading through the recipe to the "bake in the oven for 45 minutes" part, but the prep also took longer than indicated.)

Several of the soup recipes in the Splendid Table book call for either homemade stock or Cheater's Homemade Broth, which is basically canned chicken or vegetable broth doctored up with some vegetables, aromatics, wine and tomatoes. The first time I made this soup, I tried the Cheater's broth and the second time, I made vegetable stock from scratch, but included the wine and tomatoes, which I usually don't do. It was equally delicious both times. It seems like a time/money decision to me. It seemed a little silly to me to spend more than $6 on 6 cans of College Inn garden vegetable broth (which they recommended), when I still needed to chop vegetables and cook it up for half an hour, especially since stock is a great use for the not-so-pretty vegetables I always have in my fridge. Then again, I have a schedule where I can spend part of a Monday afternoon making vegetable stock, and not everyone does. The soup will be delicious either way.

The other secret to this soup, though it's not actually in the recipe, is parmesan rinds. I put one in the stock and another one in the soup, and it really adds another layer of flavor. I was horrified, however, to go to Whole Foods last week and ask for parmesan rinds and discover they were now charging $10 a pound for them. This seemed ridiculous to me, especially since they're throwing at least some of them out. On the one hand, they're trying to present themselves as a place to shop that won't break your budget, and on the other, they're trying to get you other ways. I would like to boycott (and can for the moment because I still have some parmesan rinds in my fridge) but am not sure where else I can find them. This will take some thought.

Anyway, the fabulous soup is very simple and very good and just the thing for late fall/early winter. The chard and chickpeas make it good for you, and the cheese and pasta make it filling and delicious. Alex slurped up the last bowl of this last night, but I already know I'll be making it again soon.

Soup of Fresh Greens and Alphabets
Adapted from The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper
by Lynne Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift

8 cups (double recipe) Cheater's Homemade Broth or canned chicken or vegetable broth or homemade chicken or vegetable stock

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup canned whole tomatoes, crushed with your hands. (Don't use canned crushed tomatoes.)

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 medium to large onion, minced

1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2 large handfuls escarole or curly endive leaves (or Swiss chard or kale), fine chopped (2 1/2 to 3 cups)

1/2 tight-packed cup fresh basil leaves, fine chopped

1/2 cup tiny pasta (alphabets, orzo, or stars)

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1. In a 6-quart pot combine the broth, wine and tomatoes. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, onion, chickpeas, greens and basil. Simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.

2. Stir in the pasta and simmer, partially covered, for 6 minutes or until the pasta is tender. Taste the soup for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed. Serve hot, passing the cheese at the table.

My notes:

* I decided to add an extra step and saute the onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil first. You can either do the broth, wine and tomatoes in a separate pot and add it to the sauteed onions and garlic or just add it on top of them.

*I'm not a big fan of tomato pieces in things, so I used my immersion blender on the can of whole tomatoes I used and basically added tomato puree to the soup. I also used a whole can, rather than just a cup, so as to avoid the dreaded container of leftover tomatoes I will forget to use syndrome.

*The first time I made this, I was able to add some of the last fresh basil from my garden. The second time, the basil was gone, so I threw in some dried basil instead--still delicious.

*Swiss chard is my go-to green vegetable, so that's what I used and probably will continue to use

*Don't forget to add the parmesan rind while the soup is cooking, even though you may have to later fish it out of someone's bowl.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This morning, we don't have to apologize to the rest of the world

In 2004, it felt like the only good thing that came out of the election was that "Sorry, Everybody" website, where people held up signs of apology for having re-elected GW Bush.

This morning, we have nothing to apologize for (except for those in the state of California who voted to write discrimination into their state constitution). We can be proud and thrilled and delighted, and the world can feel that way along with us. What a change.

The only time I remember feeling remotely like this was in 1992, the day after Bill Clinton was elected. Then, I was mostly happy to have a pro-choice president and one who wouldn't trash the environment. I'm still glad about those things now, but after 8 years of what we've had, I'm happy for more reasons than I can name. The thought of someone smart, curious, calm, thoughtful and forward-looking in the White House is amazing. It's going to take awhile to get out of the ditch Bush/Cheney dug us into, but at least we won't be digging further down.

The added bonus is that Sarah Palin will go back to Alaska, and, if there is justice, we won't have to hear her opinions on anything else ever again.

Democracy in action is a pretty amazing thing to be a part of.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Pre-election field trip

Saturday was a nearly impromptu day away in Boston. I say nearly because I didn't know til Friday afternoon that it would happen, and given that we had to leave before 7 a.m. on Sat., it feels like it counts as spur of the moment.

Alex had a training thing for work in Waltham that went from 8:30 - 2:30. So while he was there, I went to visit my little nieces (and brother and s-i-l) in Cambridge. (Josie had been a ladybug for Halloween, and Madeleine a witch, and they impressed me with their reading/writing/drawing/spelling/piano-playing skills as only 5- and 7-year-olds can.)

At 2:30, I went to Waltham to meet Alex, and since we were nearby (and since 3 p.m. was a bit early for dinner) we decided to visit the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. I'd been there once before, a year or so ago on a work field trip.

I have to say that my plan, when I started this post, was to write about how going to art museums reminds me in a very strong way that I'm not a visual artist. But, you know, it's the day before the election, and I don't want to admit how much time I've spent over the past few weeks reading political blogs and poll sites . (Nate Silver, I'm very grateful to you for all you've done and think you should win some kind of public service award. Still, I'll be glad to ignore you and your site for awhile after Nov. 5. Just because, you know, I need a little break.) Needless to say, I've been a bit distracted.

Anyway, the main exhibit was called "Drawn to Detail" and had many drawings with teeny tiny motifs. I have to say that some of them gave me a bit of a headache just looking at them and I wondered how tightly wound those artists had to be to focus so intently. There was a cool set of glass bottles with images inside and drawings done in candle smoke inside the bottles. There was a spider web kind of string sculpture that was interesting.

And there was one piece I really liked--of course, it was the one with the clearest story. It was by an artist named Jessica Rosner and called "The Diary Project." She lost a diary from when she was young and out of the blue, 14 years later, it was returned to her by a stranger. When she got it back, she decided to use each page of the lost and found diary as the basis for a new piece of art. At the DeCordova, all the pages were displayed on one wall as a whole. I liked some of the pages individually, and I liked the patchwork quilt effect of the whole thing. And, as a former diary keeper, I liked the story and the way she made visual the words she'd written all those years ago. I love the deep blue on page on the left, and I laughed when I saw the one at right close up; I even recognized the phrasing of some of those rejection letters.

Afterwards, we wandered around in the sculpture park and looked at sculptures and dying plants and turning leaves.

We saw two identical twin toddlers with red hair named Calvin and Dennis. (No photo, alas. This double headed sculpture will have to represent them.)

And we briefly befriended a little girl named Julia and her mom at the exhibit called "The Musical Fence." Julia was greatly enjoying herself, racing back and forth running a stick along the sculpture (which sounded like a xylophone, only deeper). But after awhile, she offered us her sticks so we could try too. And I enjoyed myself too.

After that, we headed back to Inman Square for Indian food at Punjabi Dhaba.

It's certainly not the best Indian food I've had in the US, by any means, but it's decent and cheap, and they do lots of things right. Alex ate lamb, and I ate shahi paneer, and we both ate samosas and naan and rice and drank mango lassis. I brought home an alu paratha, for old time's sake, to eat with yogurt. (When I lived in Jaipur, the only time I've ever had someone to cook for me in India, Jaimala used to make me delicious alu parathas on nights when I was too tired to decide what to eat and she was too tired to cook anything extravagant. I ate them with homemade curd, and their deliciousness can not be replicated. Still, an alu paratha on occasion, even one not made by Jaimala, does the heart good, if not the waistline.) (When I was in India in January, I made the mistake of watching while Ram Singh, Sunil's cook, made parathas, and I got to see in somewhat horrifying detail exactly how much ghee he used.) One of my favorite things about Punjabi Dhaba is that they sell tiny containers of dessert. (They used to cost $1 and now are up to $1.25.) After a heavy Indian meal, I usually don't want a lot of dessert, but their tiny containers of kheer are just the thing. The crowds waxed and waned while we were there, while the TV in the corner blasted bhangra and Hindi music video clips. The people watching and the food were both very satisfying. Plus, I like it that there's a clock on the wall set to Indian standard time.

And only 24 hours now til maybe we can all concentrate again. Or, maybe, 48 hours, with the second day built in for frequent sighs of relief alternating with expressions of jubilant celebration.

And, to make sure I give credit where credit is due, Alex took a bunch of the pictures above (only because his camera battery died and he was using mine) including the first two of Julia and the musical fence and the ones of Punjabi Dhaba. You can find some truly wonderful photos of his at his blog, Photographing America. (End of public service announcement.)

Everybody go vote tomorrow!!