Saturday, March 24, 2012

Salmon and Barley Cakes

This golden hulless barley from our Lonesome Whistle Farm bean and grain CSA has a nutty flavor and enough virtuous, whole grain appeal to justify a rich and cheesy accompaniment. Growing up, one of my mother's weeknight pantry meals was Julia Child's salmon gratin (from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volume 1). It consists of a rich, creamy roux, laced with white vermouth, into which you fold canned salmon and sauteed mushrooms, followed by a heavy sprinkling of gruyere cheese. My mother always served her salmon gratin with white rice, but my sister later made the improvement of using nutty brown rice. Julie Powell's Julie/Julia Project (no longer on line) derided this dish as grey and sludgy, but I feel that she entirely missed the point. Here's a dish that transforms a lowly tin of salmon into exquisite haute cuisine. It may not be pretty, but it tastes delicious.

Unfortunately, when I made this salmon gratin for my kids, they, like Julie Powell, could not get beyond the sludginess. This got me thinking about how I could repackage it, and my golden barley offered the inspiration. Barley, I realized, could provide the same nuttiness of brown rice, and also a sticky heft to bind together the salmon into a crispy cake. To recreate the decadent cream and mushroom flavor of the original dish, I made a sauteed mushroom, vermouth-infused, creme fraiche garnish. And to keep the dish from being too rich, I served the cakes on a bed of lemony greens. Biting into one of these Julia-inspired cakes brought back a flood of childhood memories, but with a satisfying crunch.

Salmon and Barley Cakes a la Julia
Makes 12 cakes

for the salmon and barley cakes
1 cup barley (best is golden hulless, or use pearled barley) 

2 cups water
1 medium shallot
1 Tbsp butter
1 egg
2 ounces of gruyere cheese, grated
4 sprigs fresh oregano
6 ounce can of skinless, boneless salmon
plenty of pepper
1 cup panko (divided use)
olive oil for frying

for the mushroom cream garnish
8 ounces cremi mushroom
1 Tbsp butter
salt and pepper
¼ cup white vermouth
¼ cup crème fraiche

salad greens
fresh lemon juice

1. The evening before cover the barley with cold water and soak overnight. The next day, remove any loose hulls that have floated to the top and drain off the water. Add 2 cups fresh water and a generous pinch of salt, bring the barley to a simmer, and cook, covered, for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check the barley for doneness. It will probably still need another 5 to 10 minutes to cook, but if it is still quite watery, you can remove the lid at this point and finish cooking while letting more of the liquid evaporate. When the barley is tender but still has a firm bite, turn it off. You will have more that you need for this recipe, so save some for salads or as a side dish or freeze for another batch of salmon cakes.  Measure out one cup of cooked barley for this recipe and transfer to a large bowl and allow it to cool.

2. Peel and chop the shallot in a small dice. Heat a skillet over medium heat, melt 1 Tbsp of butter, and sauté the shallots, with a pinch of salt, until very soft, but do not let them brown. Add these to the bowl with the barley.

3. Clean and slice the mushrooms. In the same pan that you cooked the shallots, melt another Tbsp of butter and now sauté the mushrooms over medium heat, with a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Let the mushrooms release their own juices and keep cooking them until the liquid cooks down. Now add the white vermouth and cook the mushrooms until this has cooked down. Turn off the mushrooms and let them cool. When the mushrooms have cooled, put them in a food processor with the crème fraiche and pulse a few times to create a textured paste. Reserve the mushroom cream for serving.

4. Now your barley should be cooled down enough to mix in an egg. Then mix in the grated gruyere cheese, oregano leaves, salt and freshly ground pepper. Break the salmon into flakes with a fork and gently mix this into the batter, along with the juices. Now use your hands to gently mix in about ½ cup panko, or more if the batter feels too moist. Form the batter into 12 patties, about two inches wide. Gently roll these in more panko and place them on a parchment paper or silpat covered cookie sheet and chill them in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This will help them firm up and make frying them more manageable.

5. Heat a skillet over medium high heat. Add about 4 Tbsp of olive oil to generously cover the bottom of the pan. When the oil is shimmering, place half of the cakes into the pan. Now leave them alone for a good 5-8 minutes until they are nicely browned (don’t be tempted to flip them too soon). Flip and cook until the second side is nicely browned as well.

6. While the salmon bakes are cooking, toss the salad greens with lemon juice and a small pinch of salt, and arrange on plates. When the salmon cakes are done cooking, place on the bed of greens and top each cake with a large dollop of the mushroom cream.

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