Steelhead are rainbow trout that have matured in the sea and return to freshwater to spawn. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning once, steelhead may spawn, return to the sea, and migrate back to freshwater streams, where they were born, to spawn a number of times.
If wild-caught steelhead is in your market, buy it! Chances are, however, you will be finding farm-raised steelhead, which, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium list on sustainable fish species, is perfectly okay.
If you’d rather use salmon, wild sockeye and King salmon are available now. You have to be very careful cooking sockeye because it is very low in fat and dries out easily. If you do use it, get it ready for the oven as I describe below for steelhead, but cook it at a lower temperature, 275 degrees instead of 300 degrees. King salmon is so luscious and pricey I’d rather keep their fillets intact and cook them to serve with lemon or with Béarnaise Sauce.
For the cakes, you cook the steelhead in the oven first. Do this early in the day or a day ahead because the fish needs to cool completely and then refrigerate until very cold. Most fish will break into fairly large flakes easily when very cold. Once flaked, prepare the cakes. I like to use Panko crumbs to coat the fish cakes. Panko crumbs are Japanese, and I use the coarse variety to give the cakes a nice crusty exterior to contrast with their tender insides.
The fish cakes are pretty delicate, so handle with care. Be especially careful when turning them over in the frying pan.
All you need to turn the cakes into a meal is a garden salad made with spring lettuces tossed with an olive oil vinaigrette. Crusty garlic bread would also be nice.
Steelhead Trout Cakes
Makes 4 servings
These are my riff on classic crab cakes. Now that trout and salmon season are in full swing, this is the best time to make these cakes. You’ll need to cook the fish a day ahead and let it get good and cold in the refrigerator. The cakes may be shaped and refrigerated for up to 2 hours before cooking.
For the Fish
1½- to 2-pound side of steelhead trout or salmon
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the cakes:
½ cup finely crushed crackers (saltines, Ritz-type, or wheat thins)
1 large egg
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ teaspoon Tabasco
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ cup mayonnaise
Panko bread crumbs, for cooking
Olive oil, for cooking
4 lemon wedges
1. To prepare the fish: Make sure you can’t feel any bones on the flesh. If bones are present, pluck them out with fine tweezers. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with foil and set the fish skin side down onto the foil. Rub the 1 tablespoon olive oil onto the fish and sprinkle lightly with salt. Bake about 20 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the fish registers 125 degrees. Cool the fish completely and peel off the skin. Break the fish into large pieces and store in a covered container overnight in the refrigerator. When ready to make the fish cakes, weigh 1 pound of fish and use your fingers to break it up into largish pieces measuring about 1-inch. If you don’t have a food scale, you should have about 4 cups of loosely measured fish.
2. To prepare the cakes: In a large bowl, whisk together the cracker crumbs, egg, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt, scallions, parsley, and mayonnaise. Add the cold cooked trout or salmon and fold in gently to keep pieces intact. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours.
3. Divide the chilled fish into 4 even portions and flatten each into cakes about 4 inches in diameter. Spread about 1 cup Panko crumbs on a sheet of waxed paper and coat cakes on both sides with the crumbs. Cakes may be shaped ahead of time and refrigerated for an hour or two.
4. To cook, pour about ¼ inch of olive oil into a 12-inch skillet and set the pan over medium-high heat. When hot, carefully add the cakes to the pan. Cook over medium to medium-high heat about 4 minutes, until well-browned; then very carefully, turn the cakes over with a metal spatula and cook the second sides for another 4 minutes. Remove cakes with a metal spatula and set them on paper towels to drain.
5. Serve hot with lemon wedges to squeeze onto the cakes.