Go ahead, wrinkle your nose in disgust. I had the same reaction the first time someone mentioned a recipe that called for canned salmon. Isn’t that akin to 9Lives or Friskies, but for people? The thought of salmon in a can might get Morris the cat excited, but not a foodie like me.
This particular recipe, for Ginger Cilantro Salmon Cakes, ended up being served at an event here in D.C., where a number of chefs in attendance (who were serving their own dishes at the reception), apparently tasted the salmon cakes and gave them rave reviews. Now THAT got my attention. Surely all these accomplished chefs, with palates more refined than mine, couldn’t all be wrong, or could they? To satisfy my curiosity (and disprove the preposterous idea that canned salmon could actually be edible), I decided to put the recipe to the test at home.
After one bite of the finished product, I sheepishly realized that my condemnation of canned salmon had been terribly premature. Damned if those salmon cakes didn’t live up to their billing. Salmon sometimes has a reputation for being a “fishy” fish, and I thought for sure that canned salmon would fall prey to that stereotype, but wrong again. Thanks to lots of grated ginger and chopped cilantro, along with other flavorful ingredients such as garlic, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard, the salmon cakes had a bright, Asian-inspired flavor. Far from revealing their humble origins, these salmon cakes were instead a Cinderella of a dish, worthy of even the most discriminating palate.
Why use canned salmon?
Today, salmon is one of the most widely available fresh fish in supermarkets, so why on earth would you want to use the canned version, if fresh salmon is so easily accessible? I can think of a few reasons.
- Cost. Even the most inexpensive fresh salmon is still more costly than the majority of canned versions on the market. You might pay $3.99 for an 8oz. can of salmon but $9.99-14.99 per lb for fresh salmon.
- Shelf-life. Fresh fish is extremely perishable, so it has to be used within a day or two of purchase. Canned salmon is shelf-stable, so you can keep it in your pantry until ready to use (or until the expiration date stamped on the can).
- Convenience. Canned salmon can be purchased in advance, so you can avoid last-minute trips to the grocery store to buy fresh fish for dinner. The canned version is already cooked, processed and ready to use (or eat), so no messy prep, such as filleting, boning, or skin removal, is required.
Fresh salmon will always have a place in my kitchen, but the canned variety offers a welcome and affordable alternative.
Making fish cakes
Inspired by the original salmon cake recipe, I have since made several different versions of fish cakes, some with salmon, some with tuna. Since salmon contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, I looked for ways to make the fish cakes an even more balanced meal by adding different types of chopped vegetables, beans for more protein, and a range of aromatic ingredients for varied flavor profiles (smoked paprika, fresh basil or dill, lemon zest, soy sauce, etc.). One Moroccan-inspired version included canned tuna, oily Moroccan olives, feta cheese, and some spicy harissa. A Greek-inspired version featured canned salmon, fresh dill, cannellini beans, lemon zest, Kalamata olives, and feta cheese.
Here’s how I typically craft my fish cakes. In addition to the canned fish, I’ll add:
- Base: I start with a base of chopped and sautéed aromatics, such as onion (or shallot, scallion or leek), garlic, and sometimes celery, if I have it. Perhaps a minced hot pepper, such as jalapeño. Depending on the desired overall flavor profile, you can add citrus zest (lime with Asian flavors, lemon with Mediterranean flavors, etc.), minced ginger, and your choice of complementary spices to the base (e.g., smoked paprika, cumin, coriander, cayenne, etc.).
- Vegetables, Olives, and Extra Protein: Generally, 1 Tbsp to ¼ cup is enough of any of these options. Consider adding finely chopped vegetables like zucchini, summer squash, or red bell pepper. Chopped olives are a flavorful addition. Feta is one of the few cheeses that go with fish, plus it adds a nice creaminess as it cooks. I’ve tried adding a few varieties of chopped, canned (drained and rinsed) beans, such as black beans, cannellini beans and chickpeas, but I found cannellini added the best flavor, plus a creamy, not overly firm, texture.
- Binding: To help bind the mixture together, I add a beaten egg (one large egg per 8oz of canned fish), a dollop of low-fat mayonnaise (along with a little Dijon, if desired, but it’s flavor can dominate, so use judiciously), and some whole wheat bread crumbs (¼ cup is usually enough).
- Herbs and Flavorings: Feel free to add any dried or chopped, fresh herbs that will go well with the other flavors you’ve chosen (e.g., dill, cilantro, basil, thyme) – my rule of thumb is usually ¼ tsp dried vs 1 Tbsp (or more, if you love it) of fresh. You can also add flavorings like lemon juice, soy or fish sauce, but a little of those go a long way, so I rarely add more than a teaspoon. Finally, season with salt and black pepper, to taste (remember to add less salt, if you’ve added a high-sodium ingredient like soy or fish sauce).
Once the mixture is formed – the ingredients should hold together firmly but not be too gloppy (if so, add more bread crumbs) – shape it into balls, sized depending on how large you want your patties to be, and store them in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days before cooking. When ready to cook, heat 1-2 Tbsp olive or canola oil in a nonstick sauté pan over medium-low heat. Press the balls into patties, then dust them with panko bread crumbs on both sides (optional step, but panko gives the finished cake a more crunchy exterior). Sauté until browned on both sides, then serve immediately. You could serve these on buns, with some kind of sauce (remoulade or perhaps a blend of yogurt/dill/garlic or yogurt/chopped chipotle in adobo), or just serve plain, as shown in the picture above, over a lemony arugula salad.
Canned salmon…who knew it could be so good?