Over the years my wife and I have accumulated a lot of experience freezing, cooking and eating fish.
We live in Kodiak, after all.
And of course we’re good at it now. But in the process we’ve sort of boxed ourselves into a corner.
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge has been learning how to portion the fish. Early on we always put more into a package than needed for a single meal.
We have that down to a science now, and every package is just right for two people, except the few whole fillets we reserve for larger gatherings. If we have company and are cooking for more than the two of us, we simply thaw more packages.
Sounds like success, right?
Where’s the corner I claim we’ve worked ourselves into?
The flip side of all those too-large packages was leftover fish. Being thrifty sorts, we learned how to use it rather than discard it. Only now do we realize how many of our favorite preparations started with leftovers.
But we no longer had leftovers.
It’s truthfully not a problem, since we can simply thaw extra for dishes starting with raw fish, or cook an extra pack for those starting with cooked fish.
That’s important to us because many of our leftover dishes have become favorites.
Let’s start with the cooked leftovers.
If you’re in the habit of freezing whole salmon fillets, you know exactly what I’m talking about. That’s a lot of fish to eat in one sitting, even for families larger than ours.
Many of us grew up on salmon patties, salmon cakes or salmon loaf that started with the opening of a one-pound can of salmon.
Maybe you liked it as I did, and maybe you didn’t.
If not, don’t give up until you try it again using cooked leftover salmon rather than canned salmon. The texture is better, and the flavor seems fresher somehow when prepared with fresh-cooked salmon rather than canned.
If salmon loafs, patties or cakes are new to you, the starting point is similar for all of them. Combine a pound of flaked fish with half a cup of seasoned breadcrumbs and an egg, then add other ingredients that appeal. We like ours made with finely chopped onions, bell peppers, even carrots and broccoli.
For our tastes, the results are best when we soften the chopped veggies a little in butter on the stovetop before combining with the salmon, breadcrumbs and eggs.
If you prefer a loaf, form the ingredients into a single loaf like a meatloaf and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or so. Slice and serve plain or top it with Hollandaise, white sauce or our favorite, Bearnaise sauce.
Form patties thin for quick cooking or thicker as cakes requiring longer cook times over lower heat. We especially like patties with crisp outer crusts like crab cakes. Talk about a great start for other great dishes!
You can certainly enjoy the patties or cakes plain, but you haven’t lived until you use either in your favorite fish sandwich. We even substitute the patties into hamburgers with all the traditional condiments usually reserved for beef.
Before moving on, I have to include one variation for the patties that is especially good. Use a fifty-fifty mix of plain salmon and hot-smoked salmon to make your patties. Cook lots of extra patties, because you’ll need them!
In fact, you don’t have to stick to salmon in making your patties, cakes and loafs. We have great results using leftover halibut, rockfish or cod. If your family is blessed with crab, shrimp or scallops, combine those with the leftover fish for especially flavorful dishes.
We also flake leftover cooked fish for salad toppings or folding into fettuccini Alfredo. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a nice Caesar salad topped with smoked salmon or black cod.
We certainly have less trouble keeping a steady flow of salads in our winter diet when we top them with leftover fish of almost any sort.
If you’re starting with raw fish, you have even more opportunities for creativity.
Halibut tacos are an obvious choice, but have you ever made tacos with salmon, cod or rockfish?
Cube the fish of your choice into pieces about the size of a sugar cube and quick-cook it on higher heat with traditional taco seasonings. I like to stir-fry thin slices of onions and bell peppers first, then fold in the fish cubes. It takes less than a minute to cook them through, so avoid overcooking to make them dry, or over-stirring and breaking up the fish cubes.
We substitute bite-size chunks of all varieties for clams in both cream-style and tomato-based chowders. A piping-hot fish chowder is an especially welcome warmer after a long day outdoors.
I also enjoy stir-fries that include chunks of fish. I vary my choice of fish depending on the vegetables on hand, but they’re all good. Salmon adds a nice splash of color to stir-fries and its flavor stands up a little better with many traditional stir-fry sauces.
Whitefish including halibut, cod and rockfish appeal to me even more in stir-fries, but I use very mild sauces to make sure the fish flavor isn’t lost. In my book, the whitefishes are especially good if the array of veggies includes spinach, chard or cabbage.
There’s a trick to including fish in stir-fries, however. In a clear contradiction in terms, you don’t want to stir it too much. It breaks up too easily.
I cook veggies to about the halfway point, then fold in the fish. Don’t stir for 30 seconds to a minute, then carefully fold the ingredients and allow it to cook for another minute or so.
At that point I add my sauce, gently fold the ingredients a last time and remove from the heat. By the time it’s served, the fish is done perfectly.
You can also make stir-fries with already-cooked fish rather than raw, but it’s more of a challenge to keep the fish chunks from breaking up.
I have the best results when I use a sharp knife to cube the fish, but I don’t add the fish until the veggies are done to perfection. Remove the wok from the heat and add the fish cubes to the top, then add your sauce of choice and fold gently.
By the time you serve it the cooked fish cubes will be heated through and ready to eat.
The final leftover we enjoy isn’t leftover at all, unless you’re willing to apply the term to fish you usually leave behind at the fillet table. And of course, you won’t be able to try it until the next time you’re dressing freshly landed fish.
Elsewhere in the world it’s called “spoon meat.”
Remember all that meat left behind on the backbone last time you filleted a fish? Even when you did a very good job of filleting? That’s considered quite a waste in places where fish are scarce and expensive.
Use a spoon to scrape between the spines on the carcass and recover all that meat you usually leave behind. It’s ideal and ready for use in making the fish patties and cakes we like so much. If you have more than needed, you can also freeze it. I would just use it fairly quickly because of all the air mixed with the fish even in a vacuum seal pouch.
Next time you thaw more fish than needed, try these preparations. The results are much better than a chunk of plain fish reheated in the microwave for later meals.
I’m fairly certain you’ll soon be thawing extra fish on a regular basis.