Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Not your ordinary fish cake

OK, you've got me--I don't even really know what an ordinary fish cake would be. Fact is, you don't see too many people routinely whipping up fish cakes at home. I don't think. But they happen to be a delicious, inexpensive and easy dish that are all too easily overlooked by the home cook. Growing up, my mom routinely prepared salmon cakes using canned fish--unappetizing sounding, perhaps, but in fact they were delicious, quick to throw together, and because they relied on pantry staples, they could be made at almost any time.

I was thinking about those salmon cakes about a week ago when, as I usually do during my half hour bus ride home from work, I was pondering what to make for dinner. It was getting late, I was hungry, and I wanted to make something fast and easy. On the other hand, I was in the mood for something a bit out of the ordinary. And finally, I was feeling like I should eat some fish. At this point in my life, I like most kinds of fish ok, but as a child I found them all to be disgusting, nauseating specimens and I couldn't believe that they passed as food. I remember that when I was young and my parents worked a lot, they designated certain nights of the week for certain foods, for example Pizza Friday, presumably to make the job of the babysitters feeding my brother and me a bit easier. Pizza Friday (always accompanied by a red Hawaiian Punch, in my case, except for that one week in 1992 when clear Pepsi was all the rage), in all its glory, shone even more brightly each week in comparison to the dreaded Fish Thursday. Much as the name implies, Thursday nights were reserved for fish, most often some bland tasteless fillet coated in breadcrumbs and fried in oil, but my delicate palate couldn't handle even that, and nearly every week I would feign illness or even lock myself in the bathroom pretending to throw up, attempting to weasel my way out of having to consume the fetid flesh. To no avail, I might add.

These days, I'll happily eat nearly anything put in front of me, and fish is no exception. And yet it's certainly never found itself on my list of favored foods. In fact, I often simply forget about fish and have to remind myself to eat it since it's light and healthy, and a good swap for meat when I'm not feeling like going totally vegetarian. It doesn't help that fish is often one of the worst purchases you can make these days, what with rampant overfishing and all, and that it can also be pretty pricey.

I'll readily admit that, like most people, price is what I think about before I consider the provenance of the fish and whether it's endangered or not. So that very night when I entered the grocery store and found cleaned, filleted lieu noir for something like 6 euro a kilo, making the one large piece I bought about $1.75, I scooped it up. Later, I did look up the fish--called Atlantic pollock in English (at least before a 2001 marketing campaign attempted to rebrand it colin)--and according to the Monteray Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch List, wild, net-caught pollock is a sustainable choice. So let's hope my lieu noir was, in fact, fished in that manner.

But on to its preparation. As I mentioned, I wanted something a little out of the ordinary, and decided that an Asian flavor profile was the way to go. Actually, since I cook Asian food at least twice a week, it's no longer that out of the ordinary for me personally, but those flavors--soy, sesame, cilantro, lime--never fail to taste beguiling and, yes, exotic. After choosing the pollock for its low price and neutral flavor, I picked up some baby spinach leaves and a carrot to cook with the rice I planned to serve alongside the fish cakes and headed home--all the rest of the necessary ingredients were already there.

After making sure my fish fillet was free of any lingering bones or skin, I cut it into large pieces and dropped it into the bowl of a food processor, then pulsed carefully to achieve a ground, but not puréed, texture. I transferred the fish to a mixing bowl and added salt, pepper, toasted sesame oil, fish sauce, minced shallots, a drop of rice vinegar and a small mountain of chopped fresh cilantro. I stirred this mixture with my hands until it just came together, then formed it into small cakes, rolled them in breadcrumbs, and let them firm up in the refrigerator before frying them in a hot pan. The result? Just as satisfying, and nearly as easy, as my mother's salmon cakes, and somewhat lighter and brighter. Call them fish cakes 2.0.

Asian-Style Fish Cakes
Makes about 6 medium cakes, or 2 servings


- 1 lb. neutral white fish, such as pollock, cod, scrod or tilapia, cleaned and filleted
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1/2 c. fresh cilantro, chopped
- 2 tsp. sesame oil
- 1 tsp. rice wine vinegar
- Dash of fish sauce
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- About 1/2 c. plain dry breadcrumbs
- Vegetable oil


1. Check fish for any remaining bones or skin and remove. Cut the fish into several large pieces and place them in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse carefully to achieve a ground, but not puréed, texture. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the shallot, cilantro, sesame oil, rice vinegar, fish sauce, salt, and pepper. Mix gently just until everything comes together. Shape into 6 medium cakes, roll in breadcrumbs, and let rest in refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour.
2. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and add about 1/4 inch of oil. When oil is hot, add fish cakes and fry, turning as necessary to avoid burning, until completely cooked through, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain briefly on paper towels and serve.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Not your ordinary meatball

Because meatballs--whether made of beef, pork, veal, the classic combination of all three, or some other type of flesh--are among my favorite foods of all time, I was somewhat shocked to realize that I've never shared a recipe for them on the blog. In fact, they're not something I prepare all too often, which is a shame. I guess the reason for this is that meatball-making is a somewhat lengthy process, but since there's nothing complicated about it, it's really something I should tackle more often.

I recently invented a meatball recipe that, I have to say, has become my favorite way to prepare them. I've been lucky enough to have been hired to cater two events while here in France, both birthday parties, and it was for the occasion of the first one that I made this recipe up, subsequently preparing (and perfecting) it for the second one. I thought meatballs would make the perfect party food, since they're easy to spear with a toothpick, and I also wanted to make something unusual, that would stand out more than the average meatball. That's when I thought to take a cue from Greece, using a meat less commonly seen in meatballs--ground lamb--and to load it up with fresh herbs and chunks of feta. The resulting meatballs, served in a simple tomato sauce, are meaty but not heavy, their richness cut through with the brightness of the herbs and the sharpness of the feta. For the parties I served them on their own, but for a complete meal I think they'd be lovely over some rice, cracked wheat or bulgur.

Lamb Meatballs with Fresh Herbs and Feta
Serves 8 - 10


- 2 lbs. ground lamb (or substitute ground beef)
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 c. breadcrumbs
- 1/2 c. finely chopped parsley plus extra for garnish
- 1/2 c. finely chopped cilantro
- 1/2 c. finely chopped mint
- 6 oz. feta cheese, cut into a small dice
- Salt
- Pepper
- 4 tbsp. + 1 tbsp. olive oil, divided
- 1 large can peeled plum tomatoes in juice


1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the lamb, eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs, feta, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Mix gently to combine. Roll mixture into small- to medium-sized balls. You should end up with about 30 meatballs.
2. Heat 4 tbsp. of olive oil in a large, wide, heavy-bottomed skillet set over a medium-high flame. When oil is hot, add meatballs in batches, turning and shaking them occasionally to ensure even browning. Remove meatballs with a slotted spoon.
3. Empty canned tomatoes into a deep bowl or pot, then use your hands to crush them, leaving some chunks for texture.
3. When all meatballs are browned, wipe out pan and heat remaining 1 tbsp. oil over a medium flame. Add the tomatoes and a generous sprinkling of salt. Cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Add meatballs, lower flame and cover partially, allowing meatballs to simmer until completely cooked through, about 30 minutes. Serve garnished with a sprinkling of fresh parsley.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I'm back

Ahem. I apologize for the long delay between posts, but I was making some wonton soup and it took a long time.

I kid, of course. Well, not entirely. I did make wonton soup--that's what I'm here to tell you about on this sunny, mild Toulouse afternoon--and it did take a long time. But additionally, my less-than-a-year-old laptop decided to bite the dust several weeks ago, and after I sent it in to a repair center, I was left in the lurch, internet-less and unable to share my culinary creations. The cooking didn't stop--actually, I've been cooking more than ever lately--but I'll have to play some catch-up on the blog over the next few weeks.

So let's get right into that wonton soup, shall we? About 2 months ago, I posted about Paris Store, an Asian supermarket where I stocked up pantry essentials like fish sauce, sesame oil, sambal oelek and preserved vegetables. I also indulged in a few impulse purchases, such as Vietnamese nems, chewy sesame candies and a packet of wonton skins. When I got home that day, I threw the wontons into the freezer, not sure what I'd do with them, or when.

Inspiration struck about a week ago, when I was browsing the meat aisle at my local supermarket. As I've mentioned on the blog many a time, poverty frugality often guides me in my cooking. Though eating well is one of the most important pursuits in my life, I do not have a lot of money to spend on fancy ingredients, and so I seek out things that taste good but don't come at a high price. Rather than seeing this as some kind of hindrance, I actually enjoy the sport of bargain-hunting, and feel that it's a fun challenge. Spotting some random food item that has had its price slashed will often completely determine what I'll be making for dinner that night, as I scoop it into my shopping cart.

Such was the case when I decided to make these wonton
s. As I said, I was eying the meat offerings at the store when I noticed two items: first, a two-pound assortment of pork bones, labeled "Bones for animals," and priced at 55 cents; and second, a package of ground pork, on sale for 50% off, making its final price a whopping 2 euros. First a big pot of rich pork stock flashed into my mind (I love making stock, and do so often during the winter), followed by a vision of plump little pork dumplings floating in it. Later that afternoon, at the open-air market, I picked up the rest of the ingredients I would need--a knob of fresh ginger, a bunch of scallions and a small head of Napa cabbage--and I got to work.

First, I trimmed the pork bones of
excess fat, then chucked them into a deep soup pot that I filled with cold water, brought to a boil, and dropped to a simmer. Then, I mixed up my wonton filling, seasoning the ground pork with salt, grated ginger, and sesame oil, and mixing in finely chopped scallions and cabbage. Then, I laid out my (defrosted) wonton skins on a clean, cornstarch-dusted work surface, 9 at a time, keeping the rest soft and supple under a damp paper towel. I filled each dumpling with one teaspoon of pork filling, no more, no less. You want a plump, juicy end result, but it's essential not to over-stuff your wontons, or you'll risk them bursting apart in your soup:

Next, I dipped my forefinger in a little bowl of water, ran it over two sides of the wonton squares, then pinched the dumplings into a triangle shape, making sure to press out any air and to verify that the edges were well bound together. I attempted to make a pretty pleated dumpling but failed, so I sort of folded the dumplings into little envelopes, sealing with a bit more water once they were folded. You can make any shape you like, as long as everything is well sealed:

With my dumplings done, it was time to finish my pork stock. I skimmed off any foam and fat that had risen to the top, then dropped in a knob of ginger, a halved onion, a chopped carrot and some peppercorns, and continued to simmer for another hour. I skimmed again, then strained the stock and returned it to the heat, adding dashes of soy sauce, fish sauce and rice vinegar. When it came to a gentle boil, I slipped the wontons in in batches, stirring gently and flipping them to ensure even cooking. When they were cooked through, about 8 minutes later, I scooped them out with a slotted spoon and tossed them with a little vegetable oil to prevent any sticking. I like to keep the wontons separate from the broth until I heat myself up a bowl of soup, so that they don't get soggy.

To serve, I heat the broth and dumplings up with a bit more shredded cabbage just until it's wilted, then stir in additional sesame oil and sambal oelek. Yes, it's a long process, but it results in a filling, delicious soup best tackled with a deep spoon and a pair of chopsticks:

Pork and Cabbage Wonton Soup
Serves 8 - 10


- 8 - 10 cups Asian pork broth (see recipe below)
- 1 package wonton skins
- 1 1/2 lbs. ground pork
- 1 scallion, thinly sliced, white and green parts
- 1 small head Napa cabbage, finely shredded and chopped
- 1 tsp. grated ginger
- 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Water
- Vegetable oil
- Additional sesame oil, for serving
- Sambal oelek, for serving


1. Prepare the wonton filling: in a medium bowl, combine the pork, scallion, 1 cup shredded cabbage, ginger, sesame oil and salt. Knead to combine. Set aside.
2. Make the dumplings: dust a clean work surface (counter, table or kitchen towel) with cornstarch. Lay out the wonton skins 9 at a time, keeping the remainder under a damp paper towel. Place one teaspoon of pork filling in the center of each wonton. Dip your forefinger in a bowl of water and run water over 2 edges of dumpling wrapper. Pinch the dumplings together into a triangle shape. Press out any air pockets and ensure edges are well sealed, then pinch or fold into desired dumpling shape. Place finished dumplings on a dish and sprinkle cornstarch over to prevent sticking.
3. Bring the pork broth to a simmer and drop in the dumplings, working in batches to prevent crowding. Stir the soup gently and flip the dumplings around so they cook evenly. When cooked through, about 8 minutes, remove to a dish with a slotted spoon. Toss dumplings with a small amount of vegetable oil, to prevent sticking.
4. To serve soup, heat desired amount of broth with dumplings and a handful of shredded cabbage per person. Divide soup among bowls and serve with additional sesame oil and sambal oelek.

Asian Pork Broth
Makes 8 - 10 cups


- 2 lbs. assorted pork bones, trimmed of excess fat
- 12 cups cold water
- 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
- 1 carrot, scrubbed and cut into pieces
- 1 small knob of ginger
- 1 tbsp. whole peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- Light soy sauce
- Fish sauce
- Rice wine vinegar
- Salt


1. Combine bones and water in a large, deep stock pot. Bring to a boil, then drop to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 3 hours, skimming foam and fat as it rises to the top.
2. After 3 hours, add the onion, carrot, ginger, peppercorns and bay leaf. Continue to simmer for one hour.
3. Skim any remaining foam and fat and strain stock to remove bones and aromatics. Return broth to pot and season to taste with dashes of soy sauce, fish sauce, rice wine and salt.