I call my dad every day around 9 p.m., just to check in. He lives in Vancouver but we’ve been careful to avoid close contact since my stepmom has health issues that put her at high risk from COVID-19, so daily phone calls are our way to stay connected. The first thing we discuss is what each of us had for dinner, describing in minute detail how we made it. Then we venture into less savory topics, like politics and pandemics, before veering off into theology, art or music. No matter where we end up, we begin with food.
Cooking like jazz
My mother was an outstanding cook, but my technique is closer in spirit to my dad’s, eschewing recipes in favor of total improvisation.
My dad’s dishes are mostly good, occasionally sublime — like the perfect, juicy steak and vegetables he grilled one summer vacation in my 20s, still one of the best meals of my life. Some of his concoctions are marginally revolting, like his avocado, blue cheese, raw onion, tomato, pea, corn chip and sometimes grape salad, some version of which he eats every day; he calls it the Obligatory Salad. He’ll often throw in one jarring element, either out of curiosity or contrariness or sheer genius, I can’t decide. Think eggs scrambled with diced celery and crushed corn chips (he is cheerfully obsessed with finding uses for the powder that accumulates in the bottom of corn-chip bags). Chunky chicken noodle and black pepper soup. Raw broccoli and salsa smoothies.
Experimentalism aside, he’s an extremely capable cook. When I was younger, he was in charge of Sunday breakfast. He was a true maestro of pancakes and cinnamon toast and introduced me to the wonders of eggs scrambled with sliced hot dogs and a bit of cheddar cheese. His thick, cheesy omelets were the fluffiest I’ve ever seen, if slightly burnt. No matter — whatever he made, he consumed with great gusto, animated by the sheer joy of creation. The man cooks with verve.
It was an amusing counterpoint to my mother, who approached cooking as she approached most things: very earnestly, very by-the-book. There was only one way to do things — the best way, her way — and woe betide the person who suggested otherwise. I cannot argue with her delicious results but Dad seemed to have way more fun in the kitchen. I imagine him bouncing between counter and stove, rummaging around in the spice cabinet and rescuing odd ingredients from the back of the fridge, chuckling and muttering to himself.
I aspire to make food as good as my mom’s but can’t manage to imitate her methods. In practice, I’m my father’s daughter.
One of the things he made pretty regularly when I was a kid was salmon patties. The canned salmon contained crunchy little vertebrae that made me gag, but I remembered the concept 20 years later, when I needed to make a can of tuna stretch to feed my own family. Instead of salmon patties, I made tuna croquettes (because “croquettes” sounds fancier) and now they’re on my regular menu rotation. Dad makes them too nowadays, also with tuna. I thought I’d give you both versions — mine and Dad’s — and maybe they can become part of your menu rotation, too. Both recipes can also be made with canned crab, lobster or canned chicken. If you enjoy crunchy fish bones, by all means, use canned salmon. If you can’t make it to the dentist, it’s the next best thing to flossing.
Dad’s Tuna Patties
Mix 1 can of drained tuna with 2 eggs and 1 crumbled slice of bread. Add 1/4 to 1/3 cup diced and sauteed onions. Salt to taste. Form into small patties and fry in a little vegetable oil until lightly browned. You should end up with 4 or 5 patties, but you can double the recipe if you want more. Serve with Dad’s Special Tartar Sauce, which is mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish and a little horseradish.
They’re not really croquettes. Let’s just say they’re croquette-ish. You can pretend to eat them in Paris or eat them in your living room while speaking with a French accent.
Take 2 cans of drained tuna and mix them with 1 egg and 1 cup crushed Ritz crackers, saltine crackers or breadcrumbs. Add 1 diced and sauteed shallot or about 1/4 cup onions plus one small jar of drained pimientos. Add 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise or ranch dressing for creaminess. If you’ve got fresh or dried dill, that’s excellent; if not, add whatever herbs you like along with a couple dashes of lemon pepper and squirt of lemon juice. Salt to taste.
Form into 12 patties, about 2 inches wide and 1/2 -inch thick. They will be mushy and a little sticky, but they will hold together. Roll them in bread crumbs before frying in vegetable oil until golden brown, turning over gently halfway through. Set fried croquettes on a paper towel before serving to absorb excess oil. This recipe makes about 12 croquettes.
Dad might serve his patties with air-fried sweet potato wedges, generously buttered green beans or his ginger carrots, which are carrots boiled until just tender then drained and sauteed with butter, brown sugar and ginger. You can accompany this meal with the Obligatory Salad, but I’d advise against it.