“Ew! What is that?”
It’s impossible to slink down on a bench, but if I could have, I would have. This is because the “ew” is directed at me, by my best friend, who is also the leader of our small pack. She is seven, with appraising blue eyes, a quick tongue and a rather judgmental spirit. We follow her like ducks.
The rest of the girls titter into their PB&Js.
“That” is my mother’s favorite leftover sandwich filling: Salmon Loaf.
Piping hot and right out of the toaster oven, slathered in sour cream mixed with fresh dill, I don’t mind Salmon Loaf. I mean, it’s not my favorite dinner. I don’t jump up and down and celebrate. I can think of a thousand things I’d like better; pizza, spaghetti, a turkey sandwich from Weldon’s, a hamburger… my sister’s squashed peanut butter and honey sandwich from the bottom of her bag that she forgot about. Anything, really. Even anything else my mom makes, even chicken. But hot, for dinner, with a side of buttered broccoli and maybe some rice, I’m ok. It’s ok. Like a thicker, very fishy, less luxurious crab cake, but I don’t know that yet because I’m about six.
The day after, however, I do mind. I mind a lot. Because when you open your snoopy lunchbox, and you unwrap the world’s fattest sandwich, and it is two fat slices of whole wheat bread surrounding a thick slab of what looks like bright pink bread, bread mixed with spam even, and that bread stinks like the seal tank at the zoo mixed with the back of the bus and the whole thing is cold, and you (I) are (am) in the first grade… well, this is the dictionary definition of mortification.
Mortification: 1. Great embarrassment and shame 2. Salmon loaf sandwich.
Overall my mom was a pretty good lunch packer. She tended to err on the side of healthy; no candy snuck in for me, except the blissful week between Halloween and my birthday. But I could count on a decent sandwich from the rotating players of cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and bologna with mustard. Maybe there was turkey too sometimes. Often there were repurposed leftovers, like chicken with mustard, which was acceptable but not my favorite. Never ever were the sandwiches on white bread. Inside the little brown bag would also be a piece of fruit and possibly a dried out Chips Ahoy cookie or two, which was a sad sort of treat. No tender notes, no drawings of hearts, just healthy, wholesome food. On the coldest of cold days, my mom would pack alphabet or chicken noodle soup in a thermos as a treat, and I never didn’t thrill to unscrew the cap and find it still warm inside. I think I still would.
But then, there was Salmon Loaf, which I lived in fear of. I have no idea how she made it, but let me take a guess. There was definitely canned salmon, probably bread crumbs or maybe stale bread cut up, some egg and milk to moisten, perhaps some various dried or fresh herbs, all mixed together and then set into an aluminum bread pan and baked in the toaster oven until the house smelled like a cannery. It was certainly nourishing and fattening.
I wasn’t sure how it entered my mother’s repertoire, although a brief Google search told me the dish was very popular… during the Depression. Was it a second generation dish? Was it a Pittsburgh thing? (Why would it be? Salmon are not local to land locked Pittsburgh, as far as I know.) Did my grandmother lovingly bake salmon loaf in a Fire King baking dish? Had she lovingly wrapped it in waxed paper and sent the leftovers with her to school? Was my mom revisiting her own lunchtime humiliation on a new generation of Selskys (now Lerners)?
No, according to my mom. She got the recipe from Craig Claiborne in the NY Times. I did a search and have learned that recipe was first published in 1965! She must have had it from a cookbook, because I don’t think my mom was cooking at 15. And yet, it stuck with her and on her somehow, because twenty years later it was being used to terrify school children.
Robin always revolted on Salmon Loaf nights, and it was always a sight to watch the massive battle of the wills that took place between her and my mother. “You WILL eat this!” My mom would command, “Or you will starve!” Clamping her tiny mouth shut, my sister would shake her curly head, arms crossed, eyes blazing. She would NOT starve. Often, accommodations would eventually be made, sometimes in Robin’s favor: a peanut butter and honey sandwich, or just rice. Sometimes bedtime would come very early for her.
I just ate the stuff. I was lucky though. I liked the sour cream/dill sauce, and Robin did NOT.
I can tell you this much: it won’t be a third generation dish. Instead, I’ll feed my kin wild Alaskan salmon in the summer and the early fall, when it is new in the market. All fish that travels is frozen, but still… it’s more fun as a seasonal treat. And with it, I will serve a variation on a different sauce that my mother made, easy as pie. No one will be humiliated at lunch time, I promise, since there won’t be leftovers.
(My mother dug this up for me. I print it as sent, with no comment. Thank you, Jill!)
1 can salmon or 2 cups cooked salmon
2/3 cup milk
1 cup bread crumbs
1 beaten egg
¼ cup chopped onion or shallot
Salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning to taste
Follow directions in NYT Cookbook
Jill’s Sour Cream Sauce (As I recall it)
1 container sour cream
1 heaping teaspoon dried dill
salt & pepper to taste
Mix in a bowl until blended. Or try fresh dill!
Roast Wild Salmon with Mustard Sauce
1 lb filet of Wild Alaskan King or Sockeye Salmon (you may also use farmed Char which is delicious and ecological, and not as fatty as farmed salmon. Or Steelhead or Tasmanian sea trout…)
Rinse and pat dry
Salt and pepper lightly
Place in lightly oiled baking dish, skin side down.
Roast in 425 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes until done to your liking (we like our salmon rare- flakey on the exterior, pink in the middle.)
Jill’s Mustard Sauce
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (the best you can find. Grey Poupon works too.)
1 tablespoon Hellman’s mayonnaise
Mix in a small bowl til blended.
My tweak- Feel free to add any chopped fresh herbs you have about, paricularly tarragon, parsley or dill. Capers are also nice.
(I threw this one in for good measure, because Rob LOVES it. It is a rare treat when my sister calls with a head’s up that the wild salmon. Last year she held a side of wild sockeye for us and we feasted on this…)
1 lb Wild Alaskan Salmon
1-2 large handfuls cilantro, cleaned and chopped
Juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes
¼-½ chopped red onion to taste
Chipotle Tabasco to taste
Optional- 1 tsp mayonaisse (it adds a subtle creaminess when mixed with the tabasco! Weird, but true! Sometimes I go this way, sometimes I don’t. When I do, I use less citrus juice.)
Salt and pepper to taste (I prefer white pepper here, and very little)
Chop the salmon into small, evenly sized cubed pieces, as best you can. Don’t go too bananas. Handle it gently, with love. If it’s rough, who cares? Toss with the rest of the ingredients, and let sit, covered in the fridge for 30 minute or more. (The longer it sits, the more the citrus will “cook” it. We like it not too cooked.) Serve with a spoon, and warmed up corn tortillas. Perfect on a hot summer night.
A great variation is swapping out the chipotle Tabasco for a little bit of soy sauce, especially if you can get your hands on some shiso. The shiso is game changing, but very hard to find. Lani’s Farm, which is at Union Square on Mondays and Saturdays has it… but it sells out fast. You can use with cilantro or instead of…