My dad only had a few recipes when I was growing up. He’s more a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants type cook, making up recipes as he went along. Sometimes they went well, sometimes not, but they were never repeatable. Of his set recipes I only remember a few: tomato and onion salad, chili con carne (Which I hated. Sorry Dad, I never liked kidney beans), and tuna cakes.
My mom did not like tuna cakes which meant we generally had them when she wasn’t going to be home. He would whip them up from a few cans of tuna, whatever vegetables or pickles were handy, and some binder to hold them together. When I got old enough to make them myself I would put them together as a snack and put the extras in the fridge or just cut out the middle man and give them straight to my brother to devour.
I always assumed they were just a weird family recipe until I went to visit Jeff’s family one summer and walked into the kitchen to help with dinner. The menu that night was salad, macaroni and cheese, and salmon patties which bore a strong resemblance to my dad’s tuna cakes. Substitute canned salmon for tuna, leave out most of the extra veggies, form them into larger cakes and serve with red pepper aioli instead of plain. It tasted pretty much like home and they’ve been part of our combined repertoire ever since.
Sometimes we use canned salmon and sometimes tuna depending on who’s cooking and what’s in the cabinet. They usually include a variety of kitchen scraps but they always include celery salt. I’d never used and maybe never even heard of celery salt until I started dating Jeff. I suspect his family keeps it around because of their Chicago roots but regardless of the reason, it makes its way into any caned fish dish we make which is for the better.
This isn’t a fancy dinner. It’s not what you feed when guests come over unless they’re the kind of guests that don’t bother to ask about helping with dinner; they just reach for what’s around and dive in. Still, they’re always good and easy to put together. Jeff insists they taste incomplete with mac and cheese but I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Tuna Cakes/Salmon Patties
2 cans tuna in water (no salt) or salmon in water (no salt), drained and flaked with a fork
½-3/4 cup mixed vegetables, finely diced – pickled or raw. I love to add olive or capers as well. If you add onions make sure to sauté them first so they aren’t raw.
½ cup bread crumbs (optional)*
½ cup mayo
2-3 tbs chopped roasted red pepper (optional)
In a medium bowl combine the canned fish, the finely chopped vegetables, one egg, and the bread crumbs (if using). Stir to combine and add the other egg is the mixture is too dry. It should be moist but not very wet. If you squeeze a handful gently it should stay together. Season with celery salt and let sit for at least 10 minutes.**
While the mixture is resting, in the work bowl of a food processor, blender, or a bowl large enough for an immersion blender, combine the mayo and red pepper. Blend until the mixture is smooth and pink all over. Put in a dish give it a fancy name like red pepper aioli. Or just use plain mayo.
Heat a few spoons of oil in a 10-inch pan (the more you add the more fried the cakes will get) over medium heat. Shape the mixture into 3-inch flattened discs about ½ inch thick and fry for 3-5 minutes per side. The cakes are ready to flip when they are dark brown in spots. Serve at any temperature with a dollop or mayo or aioli (and maybe a side of mac and cheese).
*The bread crumbs will make the cakes hold together a little better and be less crumbly but I like the flavor and texture better without them so I deal with some crumbles.
**Letting the mixture sit allows it to become more homogenous and lets moisture get into any leftover dry bits. That will let it hold together better when you go to fry them.