Creativity born from hunger
Cooking is one of my passions. It’s therapeutic. It’s fun. The end product is usually tasty. And yet, I often find myself completely unmotivated to make dinner. While I live with two great roommates, with our different schedules and habits we rarely eat meals together or collaborate in the kitchen. So, without a girlfriend to impress, I often end up cooking for one. (Yes I know that writing on a food blog is not the best way to tell women that I’m worth it.)
So how do I get out of my slump? To be completely honest, sometimes there’s no way to avoid ordering delivery three nights in a row. But thanks to my frugality, this is rare. When I get really desperate, I close my eyes and imagine I’m on Chopped. When I’m out of ideas I go to the grocery and choose one or two items that I wouldn’t generally buy. I go home and start cooking, using those ingredients and anything left in the fridge or pantry. Hunger, it turns out, is the ultimate motivator.
Last week, instead of schlepping 4 blocks to the store, I just turned to my “pantry” and pulled out two cans of pink salmon, leftover from a food blogger conference. (A conference sponsor had unloaded MSC certified tuna, salmon, and sardines on the attendees.) Though I hate canned tuna and had never tasted canned salmon, I’m not one to let free food go to waste. Instead of slapping the fish on a piece of toast with some mayo and choking down one of the most mundane inventions ever, I got creative.
In a mixing bowl, I combined two cans of salmon with chopped onion, garlic, Old Bay, a dollop of mayo, an egg, and some panko. Once sufficiently seasoned, I molded the mixture into small patties and coated them with a bit of flour, a pinch of salt and a healthy dose of cracked black pepper. The next stop was a hot skillet with LOTS of butter. And voila! The brininess gone, I successfully turned a plain, unappetizing can of fish into a lazy man’s salmon cake.
Transforming the Mundane
When it comes to canned fish, I’m probably not what you’d call an “average American.” I cringe when I see a Bumblebee product and canned salmon seems to be a waste of delicious fish, desperately in need of transformation. Canned sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and herring, however, are my jam. Small, oily, nutritious, packed with flavor and generally sustainable. And unlike tuna-fish, these tasty fish don’t need much transformation. Their flavor profile as canned products is similar to the fresh versions.
My lunch today was simple: spinach salad with oil-packed sardines and a lemon-pepper dressing. While the salad featured strong oceanic flavors, anchovies and sardines aren’t found front and center in many dishes. In fact, I use them more for their umami, or savory quality, than as a main protein. Why do you think Caesar salad tastes so good? Anchovies! By incorporating some anchovy into a dish (like orzo-stuffed peppers, topped with feta), you can add a meaty quality that might be missing, without the overwhelming taste of the sea.
Canned forage fish are also incredibly forgiving to cook, lending them to transformation. Perhaps it’s the oil they’re packed in; I have yet to over cook canned sardines or mackerel. (I’ve tried, albeit unintentionally.) And anchovies just melt when applied to a hot skillet. Last week, I scooped out the pulp of a graffiti eggplant and sautéed it with onions, garlic, sardines, and basil. I stuffed the mixture back in the hollowed out aubergine, topped it with tomato and goat cheese, and popped it in the oven. While fish was present in every bite it did not overpower when paired with the sweetness of the onion, the vibrancy of the basil, and the tangy-ness of the cheese.