Salmon croquettes aren’t exactly the most elegant dish. Traditionally made with canned salmon, some bread crumbs or matzah meal, eggs and seasoning, they are an easy and cheap way to throw together a meal. These classic patties, which are also referred to as salmon latkes, croquettes or cakes, may seem out of fashion to the young folks who came of age after the food revolutions of the late 20th century, but for me they will always be the ultimate comfort food. With the explosion of increasingly global ingredients at the ready and the emphasis on fresh food, all steered us away from the pre-1970s casserole-from-a-can type of cookery. And yet, classic old-time foods remain beloved, if not perhaps back in fashion.
No one in my mom’s or grandma’s generation made salmon croquettes with fresh salmon. Canned food had become popular during the Civil War, and even more so during WWI, when soldiers needed food that was convenient, safe and tasty. Canned salmon in particular became a household staple during the Depression, when meals had to be nutritious but also as cheap as possible, made with inexpensive proteins and stretched with filler to feed the whole family. New Deal subsidies helped make canned salmon economical enough for most of the immigrant and first-generation Jewish families at the time. And because salmon is kosher and pareve (neither meat nor dairy), the canned kind became ubiquitous in Jewish households, because fresh salmon was neither cheap nor readily available.
Beyond the convenience, ease and cost, salmon croquettes occupy a particular place in my heart because they were also my mother’s last meal before she passed away. She didn’t know it would be the very last thing she ate when she fussed about the kitchen fixing up a batch of salmon croquettes for lunch. But had she known, my mother would have chosen them anyway. They were among her favorite foods and she made them at least once a week for as long as I can remember. As she used to say, “you just mix a can of salmon with an egg and as much matzah meal or bread crumbs as you need to shape them into patties.”
It was the only dish my mother prepared just for herself, and, if I were visiting, for me too. That particular day, my aunt was over and the two sisters shared a salmon latke lunch while discussing whatever two older widowed women talk about in private.
My dad had always refused to eat salmon croquettes because his mother made them so often when he was a kid, he had “enough for a lifetime,” he explained. They were a Jewish staple as far as we knew: Everybody’s mother or grandmother made them for lunch or for a “dairy” meal in the summer, capped off with sliced bananas and sour cream sprinkled with sugar.
The recipe didn’t deviate too much, though my mom would sometimes mixed in fresh dill and a chopped scallion if she had. She shaped them about 1-inch thick and fried them in vegetable oil. We would eat them hot or cold, plain or with sliced tomatoes, and during Passover, on matzah.
While have moved more towards using fresh salmon when I make them, I still sometimes revert to using canned salmon (red, just like my mother said). I’ve added a little of this and that too: one of my family’s favorites includes mashed potatoes and fresh spinach. The thing is, the “recipe” for salmon croquettes is so basic it asks the modern cook to do what our grandmas did: add a bissel of this or that, perhaps some harissa, grated fresh ginger, horseradish, or soy sauce. I’ve seen recipes that call for mustard, cooked peas, shredded carrots, chopped jalapenos, or grated onion. Some people coat the patties with panko before frying them, to give them extra crispiness. And the latest version: salmon croquettes made in an air fryer!
Salmon latkes. Croquettes. Whatever you call them, they’re still going strong. After all, what’s old is always new again.
My mom died suddenly, unexpectedly, an hour or so after enjoying that lunch. I always feel a little sad when I make salmon croquettes, remembering that day. But I also smile to myself, knowing how much she enjoyed that last simple, perfect meal.
- 2 cups cooked salmon, canned is fine
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup matzah meal
- 2 Tbsp chopped chives or scallion, optional
- vegetable oil
- In a bowl, mix the salmon, eggs, matzah meal and chives until well combined.
- Heat about 1/8-inch vegetable oil in a saute pan over medium heat.
- Shape the salmon mixture into 6 patties about 1/2 inch thick. (You can make them smaller to make more patties.) Fry, a few at a time, for about 3 minutes per side or until browned and crispy.
- Drain on paper towels.