A few years ago Matt and I were gifted a class at the Dirty Apron Cooking School by a very thoughtful friend. She knew we liked to cook and although we were newly married we had found our places in the kitchen easily, with Matt taking the lead on breakfasts and snacks (so long as they involved eggs, cheese and hot sauce) and cocktails, as well as doing the prep on dishes that I had decided to make. The class at Dirty Apron was specifically for couples, though, and expertly designed so that if each pair wasn’t working together there would be no way to get everything done in the allotted time. We got right into it, prepping Cornish Game hens for roasting in mustard sauce then making a quick salad before joining forces on the coup de grace – individual chocolate soufflés!
When I spotted ‘Date Night In: More than 120 Recipes to Nourish Your Relationship’ by Ashley Rodriguez (Running Press) in a bookshop window recently I was reminded of the fun we had in the kitchen and also of how long it had been since we made anything together. In the years since we’ve changed our eating habits, changed our work schedules and date nights around here have fallen off the calendar. It’s been hot, we’ve been tired, we’ve been busy….you’ve heard the excuses. Most evenings we find ourselves sitting around the back yard (or worse, inside) watching summer slip away. This post from Rodriguez’ blog ‘Not Without Salt’ hit home; “It had been a long time. For weeks excuses were made when Thursday nights would come around. Our Google calendar would notify us of ‘date night’ but I would simply sigh and push it away putting some other task in its place.”
Rodriguez’ book (and a section of her blog) chronicle her and her husband’s attempts to spend some quality time together amidst all the clamours of a busy life – children, work, iPhones, etc. They do this through food. Rather than being a list of recipes, the book is divided up into a series of complete dinner dates – cocktails to start, an appetizer, a main and dessert. Sometimes there is a theme and sometimes the menu is seasonal and as she describes their dinners she also offers a glimpse of their evening and struggle for connection. There were many dishes I wanted to make so I proposed a simple summer menu as a date night in and it didn’t take too much convincing to get Matt on board.
The menu I picked was a summer meal featuring local Pacific Northwest ingredients (Rodriguez is also from the Seattle area), which seems like a no-brainer because it’s the height of summer and I’ve already been buying many of these ingredients at the farmers market. We were going to make plum sangria, tomato gazpacho with crab meat, salmon cakes with chiles and fresh herbs and for dessert – a S’mores terrine which all sounded amazing except for one thing – my husband hates salmon.
In order to grease the wheels and get us back into the swing of things, I probably should have let him pick the meal, or at least compromised in some way (it was supposed a date night, after all) but the cool, summery PNW meal sounded like the perfect thing to sit down to in the backyard and I was urged on by something I read in the description – Rodriguez also hates salmon.
I was encouraged by her admission of dislike and also by her workarounds; first alcohol (via the plum sangria cocktails), then shallot, jalapeños, coriander, cumin and smoked paprika. Fight the fishiness with flavour! There is also another tip, use the freshest (wild only) salmon you can find and roast it only slightly.
The recipes for this dish are based around what’s out and about right now at the height of the season; plums (or pluot or aprium variants), crab, tomato, beans and raspberries and of course salmon. Matt started by making us a jug of sangria with the plums, then cracked a bottle of Pinot Gris while waiting for the flavours to settle while we got started on roasting the salmon. I’ve never been a fan of cooked salmon (or fish for that matter) because it’s so often over done. Wild salmon with fresh cracked salt and pepper, roasted in the oven for 10-15 minutes is about the most exquisite thing I can think about lately (in truth, I ate almost all of it in small nibbles while we were waiting for it to cool and had to roast the other half of the fish for the cakes).
With the oven still on, we made the pie crust for the raspberry tart and let that set, then poured a couple glasses of the purply sangria while mixing the tomato vinaigrette for the beans and then the the base for the gazpacho. I was frustrated that two recipes intended to be made back to back called for different tomatoes – cherry in one recipe followed by plum in another. It would have been easy enough to get a haul from the market and then use it up in these recipes but having not read through them thoroughly enough (as is my wont), I ended up with a plethora of tomatoes – not the worst thing at the height of summer. Then we boiled the green beans and set up the basis for the gazpacho in the food processor; tomatoes, onion, basil and vinegar.
We didn’t talk much as we worked, saving our conversation for the sit-down meal but we did share a few observations; that this was a LOT more food than we usually ate on a weeknight and that it was getting to be quite late in the evening. Rodriguez’ meal plans helpfully include a grocery list, pantry suggestions and note which parts can be made in advance but what’s lacking is the strong suggestion that if you do not work from home and have the opportunity to start picking away at the prep at a pretty early hour you’d best cut back on the food or prepare to be up late. It may be that we were just dawdling but I did not have the same leisurely feeling of hanging out by the stove while a tomato sauce or stock simmers on a winter weekend, with the understanding that you will have decided what you’re going to make with it by the time it’s near done. It felt like work at that is not something I need on date nights.
We didn’t talk much as we worked, saving our conversation for the sit-down meal but we did share a few observations; that this was a lot more food than we usually ate on a weeknight and that it was getting to be quite late in the evening. Rodriguez’ meal plans helpfully include a grocery list, pantry suggestions and note which parts can be made in advance but what’s lacking is the strong suggestion that if you do not work from home and have the opportunity to start picking away at the prep at a pretty early hour you’d best cut back on the food or prepare to be up late. It may be that we were just dawdling but I did not have the same leisurely feeling of hanging out by the stove while a tomato sauce or stock simmers on a winter weekend, with the understanding that you will have decided what you’re going to make with it by the time it’s near done.
Part of the problem is that the recipes seem to have been developed in isolation. We made pickled sweet peppers with Bavarian sausages that were wonderful (and relatively easy to make together) but for this date, it seemed like several recipes glommed together. I love fish or crab cakes and gazpacho is always a nice choice for summer but the plum sangria did not go with the tomatoes in all the other dishes, nevermind that eating a chilled soup followed by fish cakes – what I normally think of as an appetizer – and then cooked green beans – what I normally think of as a side just felt a bit disjointed. Other menus gelled a bit better stylistically but what I really think is missing here is what was taught in our Dirty Apron class; you are doing a lot of work, let’s organize it logically, streamline the ingredients and the prep and then divvy up the effort. In essence, spending some time / page space to plan out the meals from a timing perspective would have been vastly more valuable than reading about Rodriguez and her marriage.
But when we sat down to our meal, refreshingly cool and simple at a time when the house had also finally cooled down, we were grateful. The sangria was almost gone (and while it was not my favourite flavour, I was happy for a new direction), the gazpacho with crab claw was perfect and I had enough leftover crab for a slough of cakes and hash but the salmon cakes! I snuck Matt a piece of the plain and simple roasted salmon and while he looked dubious he agreed to try a (small) piece and declared it pretty good. When he took at bite of the salmon cake I looked at him expectantly and asked if it was also pretty good, to which he replied (I think somewhat reluctantly), “pretty damn good!” And so I declare this date a success, if only because I have found new ways of sneaking salmon into dinner. But truth be told, we had a great time hanging out with each other in the kitchen and tonight instead of ordering something in, we took the dog for a walk and then came together to make an amazing broccoli tofu coconut curry over rice for our dinner. There were no appetizers and we had whiskey for dessert but my husband and I connected over food in the middle of a busy week and I am pretty sure that’s the point.
Salmon Cakes with Chile and Fresh Herbs
- 8 oz salmon, skin removed (plus more for snacking!)
- pinch of kosher salt, plus more as needed
- fresh ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup finely diced red onion or shallot
- 1 red jalapeño, finely diced
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
- 1 1/2 TBSP capers, chopped
- 1/4 cup mayo
- 1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
- 1 TBSP freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tsp Dijon mustard
- 1/2 tsp ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs (gluten-free works well here too)
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 2 TBSP olive oil
- Creme fraîche or sour cream, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
2. Place the salmon on the sheet and sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper. Roast for 10 minutes, or until just cooked (or even slightly underdone – it will be seared in the end and you don’t want to lose the flavour of the fish). Meanwhile combine the red onion, jalapeño, basil, dill, garlic, Dijon mustard, coriander, cumin, smoked paprika, breadcrumbs, salt and egg.
3. When the salmon has cooled enough to handle, break into small flaky chunks and remove any bones. Let cool to room temperature and then fold into the mix until well combined. Reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees.
4. Take about a third of a cup of the mixture in your hand and form a into a ~2″ round cake. Continue with the rest of the salmon mixture. If you’re making them in advance, the cakes can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 days.
5. Coat a skillet with olive oil and place over high heat. When the oil is hot, sear the cakes in batches until deeply browned, about 1-2 minutes per side. Keep warm in the oven until you are ready to eat, then serve with creme fraîche or sour cream.