The Jewish Answer to Crab Cakes

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

photo by Randy Mayor

The great humorist, gifted novelist and playwright, accomplished director and screenwriter, and fabulous cook Nora Ephron died June 26 this year. There have been a number of tributes for her over the course of the week; I’ve been particularly struck by how everyone mentioned food in relation to her. Two of her books – Crazy Salad and Heart Burn – include recipes. She also wrote her own, personal cookbook to share with her family and friends with titles like “Joan Didion’s Chicken Thing.”

Food is such an integral part of Jewish life, that Jewish flavor seems to have seeped into American culture. My favorite food writers and commentators are all Jews: Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s “Good Food” and Angeli Caffé; Ruth Reichl, author of Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires, and former editor of Gourmet magazine; and Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at the Los Angeles Times. I adore delicious food and could talk about food all day long.

Many of my clients, friends, and family members no longer follow kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws that prohibit the eating of shellfish and pork, and mandate the separation of dairy and meat during a meal or when making a dish. I am not among the non-observers since I continue to keep kosher, even though it’s not currently fashionable. For much of the history of the Reform movement in Judaism, we didn’t keep kosher. Yet, I find much cultural and spiritual significance in this practice. It makes me aware of my food choices and of being part of a tradition that dates back to Biblical times. Check out my colleague Rabbi Mary Zamore’s book on kashrut, The Sacred Table, for a comprehensive and diverse exploration of this topic in the current climate of observance.

One of my favorite Jewish food stories comes from my grandmother Ruth, whom I called ‘Gram.’ Gram kept a kosher home, and her daughter/my mother, frequently made salmon croquettes as part of the dinner rotation of meals. I once asked Gram where these delicious fish cakes came from, since none of my Christian friends had ever heard of them. She told me that they were the kosher adaptation of crab cakes, which were popular all along the Eastern Seaboard when she was growing up in the 1920s. Now, I don’t know that this is actual fact, but I’d like to think it is. Jews who have kept kosher have often adapted non-kosher foods of their surrounding non-Jewish culture to their taste and observance. I think liquid Coffee Mate is the best non-dairy creamer to use as a milk substitute in sauces, soups, and coffee drinks (I ignore the ingredient list on the bottle – too scary). I’m curious for my family to try turkey bacon and goose prosciutto. I LOVE salmon croquettes.

Salmon Croquettes (Rabbi Wendy’s family recipe)

12 – 14 oz. leftover cooked salmon OR 15 oz. canned salmon (pick out bones and skin)

2 Tablespoons each of chopped fresh parsley and fresh dill (or 1 Tablespoon lemon zest)

1 small onion, grated finely (about 1/4 cup)

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

salt to taste

2 eggs, beaten with 1 Tablespoon water

matza meal for binding the mixture oil for frying

1. Gently combine salmon, herbs, onion, baking powder, and salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

2. Add egg mixture and stir gently to combine. Sprinkle in matza meal to bind the mixture, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture is firm enough to form into patties.

3. Heat oil over medium heat in a 12-inch non-stick frying pan until shimmering. Oil should be at a depth of one-inch in the pan. If the oil is hot, the croquettes won’t absorb a lot of the oil. Heat oven to 300ºF.

4. Scoop 1/3 cup portions of salmon mixture onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or non-stick foil. Form the portions into patties and coat them lightly with matza meal.

5. Fry croquettes in hot oil until they are golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes each side.  Drain on paper towels or brown paper bags. Keep warm on a cookie sheet in the oven until ready to serve.

6. These salmon croquettes go well with a leafy salad for dinner along with some good bread, or as a sandwich with lettuce and tomato for lunch.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

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