Teaching myself to cook, one recipe at a time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Oregon Salmon Patties with Lemon Sauce


One of my clients showed very huge differences in mental abilities in different areas. His spatial reasoning was in the genius range (I saw the actual report), yet his social memory and ability was severely lacking. He was engaging and personable, but struggled with personal relationships due to his schizophrenia. His ex-wife had left with their daughter when the daughter was young, and he was very fixated on this period of time. He often asked me if I was born before or after 1980, since that’s when his daughter was born. They were presently estranged, but he spent hours telling me about her and her successes. He was so proud of her that somehow most topics led back to her. He was also very proud of other members of his family and was well-known for showing off old black and white pictures of ancestors and describing the interesting and admirable things that they had done with their lives. He never seemed to remember having done this, so I was shown the pictures on a regular basis. I didn’t mind, as the stories were invariably impressive and interesting, like the one about his father jumping out of a plane over Germany in World War II. One day, he showed me a very old, large cookbook. It was filled with yellowed, type-written clippings pasted on textured cardstock with thick plastic film stuck to each page. My client explained to me that his grandmother had put the book together and used it throughout her marriage. He flipped through it before settling on a recipe for “Salmon Loaf,” describing his grandmother’s rendition of it fondly. He mused that he’d like to make it again someday, potentially even extending an olive branch to his daughter by inviting her over to a dinner of salmon loaf in his apartment. This conversation, like the "Were you born before or after 1980?” conversation and all those conversations we had while looking at pictures, was repeated many times as if it was the first time. Sadly, he was struck by a truck and killed before I could ever work with him to make that dream of inviting his daughter over for salmon loaf a reality. After his death, I spent some time going through the stacks of papers and items in his crowded, musty apartment, looking for important or sentimental papers to pass along to his daughter. He was a hoarder and I was afraid that everything would be thrown away indiscriminately. The more I saw, the more I realized that I didn’t know him the way that I thought I had. With most hoarders, you see a layering effect with the oldest things on the bottom or in a certain area of the room, while the newer things are piled on top and outward (like sedimentary rock). However, this man’s disorganized thought complicated his hoarding tendencies, so none of the norms were true for him. I found grocery lists mixed in with his old driver’s ed certificate from the late 1960s, newspaper clippings of random recent articles in the Washington Post mixed in with faded and ripped pictures of his daughter as an infant. There was no system whatsoever, and I found myself constantly sidetracked by lists that he’d made on every possible topic, ranging from noises that babies make to what he found attractive in women. Finally, I stumbled across his grandmother’s cookbook in the midst of a stack of unpaid hospital bills, community newsletters, and empty cereal boxes. I made sure his daughter received it, along with a box of other personal effects, when she came for his memorial service. She cried and thanked me, and I couldn’t think of a thing to say back.

Not long after, I bought some cans of salmon and bookmarked recipes that were similar to the one he’d showed me (I actually had written down his grandmother’s recipe, but I never separated it from my client notes and ultimately destroyed it for confidentiality). But for some reason, I just never got around to trying to make any of them.

And then last night, I did. For no particular reason. Don’t ask questions.

I had two salmon fillets in the fridge that I intended to use in place of canned, but when I pulled them out, the “use by” date had passed a day or two earlier and they stunk. I carried them out to the dumpster and resigned myself to using canned salmon, as the recipe instructed.

I started off with a small onion.


Although the recipe didn’t call for it, I added some garlic. These cloves were grown by my aunt in her garden and promised to be especially flavorful and delicious.


I melted butter in a skillet and sautéed the onions and garlic past the point of mere tenderness, pulling out a little extra sweetness.




Then I set them aside to cool. Next, I dug into the can of salmon.


The recipe said to reserve some of the liquid, so I poured it into a bowl and set it aside.


The rest, I unglamorously dumped into another bowl.


Slowly, I picked through it, removing bones and skin. Ugh. Not very appetizing. Really wished I had used fresh.


The recipe called for cracker crumbs, so I put a handful of club crackers into a ziplock baggie and attacked it with my rolling pin.





I added half of the crumbs to the fish and set the rest aside for later. Then I added two eggs…


…and some dried parsley, though the recipe called for fresh…


… and some dijon mustard, though the recipe called for dried mustard.



All mushed up, this is what it looked like:


According to the recipe, I was supposed to add in some of the reserved salmon liquid, but given the goopiness of this lump, I didn’t. I just dumped it.

Looking around the kitchen, I rediscovered my onions and garlic. Almost forgot about them! Luckily they had cooled significantly, so I put them in with the mixture and re-mixed everything up.


Finally, I formed the mixture into four patties, though the recipe called for six.


I coated each of them in some more cracker crumbs.


They were pretty damn goopy at this point, so I decided to stick them in the freezer for a little while to firm up.


When it came time to cook them, I put them in a pan with a lot of melted butter and just fried them until they were golden brown on both sides. It was very easy, though they wanted to come apart a bit. I was glad that I’d chilled them because I really think this helped them stay together.


Finally, I made a lemon cream sauce to go with the patties. I didn’t take pictures, really, since I was both watching the salmon cakes and stirring the sauce almost continuously, though I did take this picture of a lemon.


Isn’t that a nice lemon?

Essentially, the lemon sauce is a standard white cream sauce (butter, flour, and milk) with the added joy of fresh lemon juice, salt, and a bit of ground cayenne pepper.

And here you go! I served by putting the patties on hamburger rolls and topping with the lemon sauce. I also served oven roasted asparagus, which tasted even more delicious with extra lemon cream sauce poured over it.


My goal when making the salmon cakes was to not let the kitchen smell too fishy. After boning the fish and forming the patties, I ground up some lemon peels in the garbage disposal, and that seemed to help.


But I was worried that hubby would smell the fish frying and be grossed out. Turns out that I didn’t need to worry. He finished his first salmon cake and served himself another before commenting that they were really good and asking if I’d made them or purchased them.


I guess that means they were a success.

It’s really a shame that my client never had the chance to make his grandmother’s salmon loaf. I wonder if his daughter has looked through the cookbook or if she has any recollection of her great-grandmother’s cooking. I hope so.

Here’s to you, former client of mine.


  1. This is a sweet post. Aaron and I aren't big fish people but I might try this b/c I have some canned salmon left over from when my mom visited.

  2. The patties aren't very fishy, in the end. They're buttery and nice.. I'd give it a try. Don't get discouraged when you open the can, though - ick. Not pleasant until you mix it with everything else.

  3. Aww. I really enjoyed reading this and reminiscing about our client. He would have loved knowing that you were inspired by that recipe :)