When I was little, as with most young families, my mother needed to stretch a dollar to make it from payday to payday. She was a master at casseroles, Chipped Beef on Toast, pasta dishes, and other meals that filled us up without requiring a lot of expensive meats. Because she grew up in the Midwest where there wasn’t a lot of fish available, she wasn’t comfortable trying to cook fresh fish. So we were pretty much limited to canned tuna and salmon. While her tuna casserole was good, I really loved her salmon patties and anxiously looked forward to them.
She made them quite plainly with an egg, crushed crackers, and a little salt and pepper. But the salmon itself had a lot of flavor – at least to my limited palate. I loved finding the small bones; it was like a treasure hunt! When I grew up and experienced fresh salmon for the first time, I couldn’t believe it was the same fish as what we got in the cans. I still liked my mom’s salmon patties, but I realized that they could be made better if I used fresh fish instead.
For this updated version, you want a boneless fillet of salmon. Usually I ask for a center cut, but in this case an end cut will work fine. Ask your fishmonger to skin it for you. You can use a steak cut (shaped like a horseshoe) but it will be harder to remove the bones. They run outward from the circular piece like the spokes of a tire. Remove as many as you can and then break the meat with your fingers into pieces. This will be the best way to make sure you didn’t miss any.
No matter how careful they are at removing the bones in the fillet cuts, there are almost always a few left. Run your fingers along the surface of the fish. If you feel any bumps or resistance, check. If it is a bone, pull it out. There are tools made specifically for this; I have a pair of needle nose pliers that I keep in the kitchen. You can also buy a pair of specially made tweezers that work beautifully. They really help you get a grip on the slippery bones. If they won’t come out easily, jiggle them until they are free.
You can make these like my mother did, with just simple seasonings and they are delicious, but I like the combination of Asian flavors with salmon. All the ingredients are easily found at most grocery stores. If you haven’t used it before, Hoisin (hoy-sin) is a thick sauce made from soybean paste, garlic, vinegar, and a variety of spices including chili peppers. These give it a complex flavor that is sweet, salty, and spicy all at the same time. It is an intensely flavored sauce and a little goes a long way. Start with just a little and add more if you want. Panko is Japanese breadcrumbs, much crispier than regular breadcrumbs. Once you’ve tried them I doubt you’ll go back. I use them in nearly every recipe that calls for breadcrumbs.
Fresh garlic and ginger make a huge difference in cooking. Much more pungent and aromatic than dried or jarred versions, it is worth the effort to use fresh. When you are working with garlic cloves, unless you use them all the time, chances are good that your cloves will have sprouted. This green portion is very bitter. To remove it slice each clove lengthwise and pop out the green center, discarding it.
When working with garlic and ginger, as well as other ingredients that need mincing, a garlic press will save you a lot of time and effort with your prep. Garlic cloves are naturally the right size to fit in the press, but you need to cut the ginger into coins. Pressing the ginger gives you evenly sized pieces and a lot of the juice. Always work over a bowl or your cooking vessel when pressing ginger because you don’t want to lose a drop of that amazing juice. You can keep fresh ginger in the freezer for longer storage.
I usually pan-sear these burgers on the stove, but if you want a smokier flavor you can grill them on a barbecue. This is one case where I would absolutely use a grill pan or basket to help keep them from falling apart. Cooking them after fully chilling them will also help. Because they are so tender, you will want to use a double-level heat on the barbecue. If you are using a gas grill, heat one side only. If you are using charcoal, bank your coals on one side of the grill and cook the salmon burgers on the opposite side. This allows you to get all the flavor of grilling while using a gentler heat method. If you want a product that is halfway between the grill and a pan sear, you can use a stovetop grill pan. I use mine all year long. It gives you the grill marks of a barbecue and keeps the food above the surface resulting in less fat than a pan sear.
When you are flipping delicate foods like these burgers, crab cakes, or other foods that tend to crumble, there is a trick that professional chefs use. Remembering that the top surface is not hot, use one hand to manage the spatula while gently holding the patty against the spatula with the fingers of the other hand. This way you can gently flip the patties, easing them onto the second side. If you are careful there is no way you can burn yourself.
Instead of using a plain schmear of mayonnaise on the buns, I make a creamy Soy-Ginger sauce. There is a wonderful ingredient sold that you may never have heard of, Ginger Juice. Ask your grocer if they stock it. I keep it in the refrigerator and add it when I want a punch of flavor in foods. I use it in both sweet and savory recipes and if you love the taste of ginger as much as I do, try this. It is helpful when you don’t have fresh ginger on hand.
A common addition to many burgers, especially from the South and Midwest, is piling a slaw on top. I have included a recipe for my Asian Slaw which continues the flavors contained in the burgers. While you can use any kind of cabbage you like, Napa cabbage is perfect for this recipe. It is also sometimes called celery or Chinese cabbage and is a compact, cylinder shape with slightly crinkled outer edges. It is a bit milder and sweeter than regular green cabbage and slices extremely easily. It is actually hard to get irregular pieces if you take a don’t try to hurry when slicing it. It is the cabbage most widely used to make kim chi and lends itself to many preparations.
If you like a little heat in your slaw, which I think would be great in combination with these salmon burgers, add a little prepared horseradish to the vinaigrette. Mix everything together, taste it, and adjust to suit your personal preference. Remember that as it sits, the dressing flavors will intensify. If you are feeling adventurous, try adding a little minced Japanese pickled ginger to as Emeril says kick it up a notch. While the cole slaw is resting, toss it occasionally to make sure all of the cabbage spends time in the vinaigrette. Cabbage gives off a lot of its own liquid which will blend with the dressing. When you are ready to serve, use tongs and let most of the dressing drip off before plating otherwise you will wind up with a puddle of vinaigrette which is unappealing.
You can top your salmon burgers with some of the slaw or serve it alongside. A crisp, cold dill pickle would add a nice acidic component to the plate. If you want something a little sweet, you can add a side of cucumber salad. You can make this meal anytime of the year and the sides you choose will change with the seasons; a little heavier in the winter, much lighter in the heat of summer. No matter how you choose to serve it, this is a fun way to get your kids of any age to eat healthy seafood, rich with protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Enjoy this variation on the traditional American hamburger!
Kitchen Skill: Forming Perfect Patties
Chefs have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. Chefs often use PVC rings or metal ring molds to create their beautiful presentations. Home cooks can create their own tools without paying a fortune at home goods stores, although browsing through Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma is one of my favorite pastimes.
In order to make perfectly formed patties, especially when you have soft ingredients like today’s salmon, requires a mold. To make your own, use an empty tuna (or similar size) can and remove both the top and bottom. Wash it well and dry thoroughly. Spray the inside with vegetable spray. Set it on a plate or baking sheet and fill with the salmon mixture, compressing it with the back of a spoon or a small offset spatula. Smooth the top and carefully slip off the ring. Continue forming patties, spraying with vegetable spray as needed. Cover with plastic wrap and chill thoroughly – this helps the patties hold together while cooking.
- Salmon Burgers
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 shallot, finely minced
- 1/2 tsp finely minced jalapeno pepper, optional
- 1 clove garlic, green center removed if needed, and finely minced
- 2 tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
- 1 lb skinless boneless salmon fillet, cubed (check carefully for bones!)
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 tbsp hoisin sauce
- 1 egg, well beaten
- 1/4 cup chopped green onions
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs, as needed
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- Olive or vegetable oil for frying
- Soy-Ginger Sauce
- 2 to 3 tbsp mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh green onions, or 1/4 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp soy sauce, or to taste
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp ginger juice, or 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
- 1/2 to 1 tsp sesame oil or to taste
- 1/2 tsp Asian chili-garlic sauce
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- 2 tbsp pineapple juice, optional
- 4 large hamburger buns, Hoagie rolls, or other bread roll
- Lettuce leaves, tough stem ends removed, rinsed well and patted dry
- Make the Salmon Patties: In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat, and cook shallots and jalapeno (if using) for 1 minute, stirring often. Add minced garlic and ginger and cook for another 30 seconds or until fragrant. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
- Place salmon chunks, cilantro, and hoisin in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until coarsely ground. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl. Using a rubber spatula, mix in egg, onions, panko, soy, and pepper. Add the cooked shallots, jalapeno, garlic and ginger. Toss until thoroughly combined. Form into four 1/2-inch-thick patties and set on a plate.
- Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours. This helps the patties hold together when you cook them and gives the flavors time to blend.
- Make the Soy-Ginger Sauce: Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
- Cook the Salmon: Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Sauté patties until golden on the first side. Flip patties and continue cooking until fish is cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Remove from the heat and leave the patties in the pan. The residual heat will finish them gently.
- Meanwhile, toast hamburger buns. Spread both halves of buns with some of the Soy-Ginger Sauce. Transfer burgers to bottom halves of bun, top with lettuce leaves and prop top of bun at an angle against the burger. Serve immediately and pass any extra Soy-Ginger Sauce at the table.
- Yield: Makes 4 servings
- 1/2 medium head Napa cabbage, about 5 cups
- 1 red bell pepper, very thinly sliced
- 4 medium carrots, shredded
- 2 baby bok choy, shredded
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed, finely minced, optional
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp kosher salt or 1/2 tsp table salt
- 1/2 cup bean sprouts, trimmed and chopped
- 3 large scallions, white and light green parts, julienned
- 2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- Quarter and core cabbage. Stack cabbage quarters and press lightly as you thinly slice them diagonally. Turn the pile of shredded cabbage and cut crosswise into thirds.
- Toss cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, bok choy, and jalapeno with the sugar and salt in a colander set over a medium bowl. Let stand until the cabbage wilts and liquids have drained, 1 to 3 hours. Discard draining liquid.
- Combine wilted cabbage with remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Pour in Chili-Soy vinaigrette and toss thoroughly. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for 2 to 24 hours, stirring occasionally. You can make this early in the day or a day ahead. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
- Yield: 6 to 8 servings
- 1 clove garlic, minced finely
- 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1-1/2 tbsp fresh lemon juice or rice wine vinegar
- 1/4 tsp prepared horseradish, optional
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp salt, optional
- 1/4 to 1/2 tsp Asian chili-garlic sauce, to taste
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- Combine all ingredients in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake until emulsified. Will hold in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks.
- Yield: about 1/4 cup