EASY AS APPLE PIE

I have been away from the blogosphere for much of the month of January. Instead, Susan and I have been opening boxes after our move from Santa Fe to Southern California. In spite of downsizing, we are still trying to figure out how to cram the accumulations of over 50 years of marriage into our condo that is a lot smaller than the house we left.

For nearly three weeks, our focus has been on getting settled in, but we have made time to spend with our daughter and her family. Carol has suggested that we start a new tradition with family dinners, alternating between our homes every Sunday. Everyone gets a part of the meal to cook. This week, I was assigned dessert. Carol is a great dessert cook, and so is her mother. The pressure was on. It occurred to me that apple pie is a favorite for most, and it certainly fits in with family tradition.

I was right. Apple pie was a big hit, especially with the teenagers who went back for seconds. The recipe I used was my modification of a recipe published by Sam Sifton in the New York Times. His recipe was a modification of one by Kierin Baldwin, a well-known NYC pastry chef. The key to the pie’s success is cooking the filling before you put it in the pie. I added lemon juice and a good splash of Calvados. Cream instead of the usual egg wash gives the pie a nice sheen. I also increased the cornstarch so that the filling became custard-like. For that reason, it is extremely important to let the pie cool completely before you serve it. Also, use a glass pie pan if you can. Everything seems to bake more evenly. Confession: I used a commercial pie crust. If you’re a purist, make your own.

One other diversion we have been able to do when we can’t open another box is to go to the shore and watch the sunsets. This image is of Point Vicente and its lighthouse just as the sun is setting. Truly a beautiful spot.

Point Vicente at sunset

Point Vicente at sunset

RECIPE

Apple Pie

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 5 large Jonagold apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 8 wedges each
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • ¼ cup Calvados
  • 1 carton commercial ready-made pie crusts (2 discs)
  • cream
  • 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

Method

  1. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the prepared apple slices and stir until they are well covered with butter.
  2. Combine the sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Sprinkle over the apples and stir until the apples are completely coated. Continue to sauté until the apples are softened and the coating begins to caramelize. Sprinkle in the flour and cornstarch. Stir and cook until the mixture is smooth, about 3-5 minutes.
  3. Stir in the lemon juice and Calvados. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely.
  4. When you are ready to assemble the pie, remove the pie crusts from the refrigerator. Line a glass pie plate with one of the crust circles. Fill with the apple mixture, mounding it slightly in the middle. Dot with bits of the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
  5. Paint the rim of the filled pie shell with cream. Top with the second crust circle and press the rim firmly to seal the crust. Turn the edge of the assembled crust under and crimp with a fork or your fingers. Paint the top crust of the pie with cream. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Cut 4 slits near the center of the pie. Lower-down slits will encourage the filling to bubble out during baking.
  6. Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet that has been preheated in the middle of a 425°F oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375°F and continue to bake for an additional 30-40 minutes or until the pie is golden brown.
  7. Remove to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely, 2 hours or more.
  8. Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, or sharp Cheddar cheese.

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BLUE APRON WELCOME

After an experience that could only be described as “The Move from Hell’ we are settled into our condo in sunny Southern California – well, actually it has been rainy and overcast since we got here, and actually, much of our furniture and clothing has not yet arrived. Still, it is comfortable to be settled once again after six months of preparing our house for sale, decluttering  (but not enough), dickering with the buyers, removing a hot tub, worrying about an unexpected radon inspection, working through a harried packing day, and rushing through a hurried cross-country drive with a midway stay in Lordsburg, New Mexico.

To top that off, the alarm was ringing when we entered the front door of our new home. In our efforts to disarm the alarm, I unknowingly sent a medical alert to the local fire department. We wondered why the flashing red lights outside, and then in full firefighting regalia the rescue team knocked on our front door. Everyone agreed that there was no emergency, and the team went back to their station, only to reappear about fifteen minutes later. The alarm company insisted that the team had not done their duty, and we still had a medical emergency. We got the matter resolved, and the leader of the team said we should get the alarm company to disarm the system. My call to do so was unsuccessful as I did not know the password. Several calls later, and after the revelation that neither the current nor past owners of the condo were recognized as the responsible person for the service, the alarm company refused to do anything. Finally, with pathetic pleadings from me, a supervisor’s supervisor intervened without my ever knowing the password.

All of this would have finally done the trick in contributing to a mental decompensation from either or both my wife and me. Our daughter was at the rescue. She had arranged for gift cards to local restaurants, subscriptions to the LA Times, and – best of all – a trial of Blue Apron.

If you don’t know about Blue Apron, you should get acquainted. It is a nation-wide service that is computer-based and geared to the busy home cook. Our daughter has two teenagers, a full-time job, and lots of volunteer activities so it is perfect for her. Once a week the subscriber chooses from two to four or more menus for the week. You can choose 2 or 4 portions for each meal. The menu selection is large. Then, once a week Blue Apron delivers a box filled with the ingredients, illustrated instructions, and recipes for preparing the meals in 30 minutes or less. No fighting the crowds and long lines at the grocery store!

Our trial meal was salmon with orange & soy glaze, sautéed book choy and mushrooms, with rice. It turned out to be fun, easy, and delicious. And there were leftovers enough for lunch the next day. Our daughter has made us believers in Blue Apron. The service is more expensive than buying your own ingredients but cheaper than a restaurant, and you compensate with convenience and professional portion control and recipes.

I’m happy to be in Southern California. And I wish you a Happy New Year.

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OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER WITH BAKED EGGS

This year we decided to stay home for Thanksgiving and not cook. All of our children are spending time with the other grandparents, and we are pleased that they can all get together. Our friends are doing overnights at local but interesting places. We’re filling up boxes; cooking/cleaning up was the last thing that either of us wanted to do. Our neighborhood bistro had an offer that was tough to pass up: complete turkey dinner with clam chowder, salad, all the fixin’s, and five choices of pie all boxed up. That’s what we decided to do, but somehow Thanksgiving seemed to call out for a little bit more. (Isn’t that the nature of Thanksgiving?)

We always like oysters at the holidays, and oysters Rockefeller is one of our favorites. Then I thought how about baked eggs instead? (I had been reading Michel Roux’s beautiful little book, Eggs.) Then I thought, how about combining the two? So that’s what I did.

Oysters Rockefeller is a New Orleans classic that has become popular all over the country. The dish was invented in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, the son of the founder of Antoine’s, the famous French Quarter restaurant in New Orleans. The story his great-grandson tells is that Alciatore was looking for a luxurious dish, but one that would incorporate extra table garnishes like scallions, parsley, and celery. The most “luxurious” name he could think of was Rockefeller who was then the richest man in the world. Rockefeller was never really served oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s. No matter. The name stuck.

To this day, the original recipe is a closely guarded family secret. The family swears that Antoine’s oysters Rockefeller contain not a single shred of spinach. That is an interesting assertion, because recipes for the dish are plentiful. Almost all include spinach. There are three separate versions in the legendary River Road Recipes of the Baton Rouge Junior League. Every one includes spinach.  So does mine. Obviously, I am not privy to the family secret.

There are a couple of cooking notes. First, it is important to cook the spinach sauce over as low a flame as possible. It is very easy to scorch it, and then it is ruined. Second, you can choose not to use the water bath with the baked eggs, but you then run the risk of having tough egg whites instead of the custard-like fusion of cream and egg white. The water bath is the same technique as you might use with panna cotta, flan, baked custard, etc. The contents of the cooking vessel are cooked more evenly than they would be when depending upon uneven air circulation in the oven.

Here is a twist on my version of oysters Rockefeller with the added fillip of baked eggs.

RECIPE

Oysters Rockefeller with Baked Eggs

Ingredients

  • 6 strips bacon
  • ¼ cup panko
  • butter, softened
  • 4 scallions
  • ½ cup Italian parsley leaves, stems removed
  • 1 rib celery, strings removed
  • 9 ounce package frozen spinach
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 6 ounce jar oysters, about 4-6 medium with liquor
  • water as needed
  • 2 teaspoons Pernod
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 dash or to taste Tabasco (optional)
  • 4 eggs, room temperature
  • 4 tablespoons heavy cream
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • boiling water for the water bath

Method

  1. Sauté the bacon until it is browned and completely rendered. Cool and drain on paper towels, chop,  and set aside.
  2. In a small, dry skillet, lightly brown the panko, being careful not to burn. Set aside.
  3. Butter the insides of 4 ramekins and arrange in a baking pan with tall sides that has been lined on the bottom with waxed paper or parchment.
  4. Chop the scallions, parsley, and celery finely. Cook the spinach according to package instructions. Squeeze the cooked spinach with your hands to remove as much water as possible. Chop the spinach finely.
  5. Combine the scallions, parsley, celery, and spinach in a food processor. Pulse 6 to 10 times, enough to mince the vegetables but not so much as to purée them. The vegetables should retain some of their texture.
  6. In a small saucepan, melt the unsalted butter, add the flour, and cook over very low heat for about 5 minutes until the flour is cooked and the mixture forms a smooth paste. Stir in the liquor from the jar of oysters.
  7. Add the minced vegetables. You may need a little extra water to form a thick sauce. Add the Pernod. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Add optional Tabasco. Cook, covered, over the very lowest heat for 1 hour. Stir frequently. Do not let the mixture come to the boil.
  8. When you are ready to assemble,  arrange one oyster in each of the ramekins. Divide the spinach sauce equally among the four ramekins and spread gently to cover the oysters. Sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of crumbled bacon, reserving enough to top the dish.
  9. One by one, break the eggs into a small dish. Slide an egg onto the top of each oyster and sauce. Repeat until all four ramekins have been assembled. Pour 1 tablespoon of cream over each egg, being careful not to cover the yolk. Sprinkle on the remaining bacon along with Parmesan and panko.
  10. Pour boiling water into the baking pan around the ramekins, being careful not to get water into the dishes. Place the pan with the ramekins in the middle of an oven that has been pre-heated to 325°F (165°C). Bake for 14 minutes or until the egg whites have set, but the yolks are still runny. Remove from the oven. The eggs will continue to cook after you have removed them from the oven. Serve immediately.

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SHRIMP CREOLE

Nearly four years ago I posted a recipe for quick and easy shrimp Creole.  Actually, the real deal doesn’t take that much effort, so I thought another recipe might be in order. The stimulus was my discovery of a bag of shrimp in the freezer. In our de-cluttering effort we are trying to clean out a small chest freezer we keep in the garage. Some decisions of what to get rid of were easy. Down at the bottom of the chest I found dates that went back years (No “Best to use by” labels here.) The shrimp were near the top and represented a fairly recent purchase, so they were moved to the freezer in the house to be used soon. Shrimp creole seemed like the easiest solution. Of course, the star of the dish is shrimp, but it couldn’t be Creole without the so-called Cajun Trinity – onions, celery, and green bell pepper. Those three vegetables are the base for so many Louisiana dishes including gumbo, jambalaya,  and etouffée.  In South Louisiana, many recipes call for Creole tomatoes, which are big, flavorful, and juicy. Large fresh tomatoes of other varieties are a good substitute, but in winter, canned tomatoes will have to do. If you’re using canned tomatoes, use a large can (28 ounces) of whole tomatoes, well drained and crushed in your hands before you add them to the sauce. As to spiciness, some in our household are extremely sensitive to hot chiles, so the seasoning in this version is fairly mild, but you should feel free to spice up your batch as much as you like. Most importantly, enjoy the fruits of your labor.

 

RECIPE

Shrimp Creole

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped coarsely
  • 1 rib celery, chopped coarsely
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped coarsely
  • 3 large, ripe tomatoes, blanched, peeled,  seeded, and coarsely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups fish stock
  • 1 8 ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (adjust according to taste)
  • dash Tabasco sauce (adjust according to taste)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 pounds extra large (16-20/pound) shrimp, deveined, peeled, and tails removed
  • ½ cup chopped Italian parsley (more or less)
  • cooked rice

Method

  1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over a medium flame. Add the onions,, stir, and cover to sweat the onions – about 5 minutes –  until the onions are translucent. Do not let them brown. Add the celery and bell pepper. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes until the vegetables are wilted.
  2. Add the garlic, fish stock, tomato sauce, thyme, bay leaf and basil. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne, and Tabasco. Add sugar and lemon juice. Add more salt if needed.
  3. At this point, you may cool the sauce and refrigerate for later use. The flavor improves overnight, but you probably shouldn’t try to hold it much longer.
  4. When you are ready to serve, prepare a batch of cooked rice according to your usual method. Return the sauce to a heavy pot and bring to a low boil. Add the raw shrimp and return to the boil for about 5 minutes until the shrimp have turned pink and they have lost their translucence.
  5. Ladle into large soup bowls over a mound of hot, cooked rice, garnish with parsley, and serve immediately. Have more Tabasco available for those who like their shrimp Creole spicier. Should serve 4 to 6.

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SPECIAL BIRTHDAYS – SPECIAL FOOD

Our de-cluttering project extends to computers and computer files. In reading the drafts for the blog, I stumbled upon this post that I had written in 2012. I don’t remember why I didn’t publish it, but with a re-reading, I thought it deserved to see the light of day. The event was a very special occasion, and all of our children pulled out all of the stops to make it memorable.

************

(original date: August 12, 2012)

Recently we traveled to San Francisco, ostensibly to help Sarah and Evan with babysitting during their early days of getting their new restaurant, Rich Table, up and running.  We did that because both of them were at the restaurant from 10 in the morning to 3 in the morning.

But there was another reason for our trip. Our children had planned a surprise weekend for Susan, with everyone coming from Los Angeles and Silicon Valley to share a family weekend, complete with three children, their spouses, and five grandchildren.

The occasion was the celebration of one of those special decadal birthdays. The highlight of the celebration was a dinner for all the adults and a preteen at Rich Table. Sarah and Evan went out of their way to send out one fantastic dish after another. I would not be speaking in hyperbole to say it was the very best meal – and the very best celebration – I have every enjoyed in my life.

No recipes this time. The dishes were all too complicated and refined for me to try to copy. However, I will do my best to describe my impressions of the food. I can’t even begin to say what my “favorite” was, as every dish stood on its own and was complete in itself.

After a toast with Iron Horse sparkling wine, we ordered drinks. They were all riffs on classic cocktails, but they were all distinctly different. The Barnwood was Bourbon with a dash of bitters and a slice of fresh peach. The Land’s End was gin flavored with a sprig of fresh Monterey cypress.

With the drinks we got corn fritters and sardine chips. Both of these are destined to be signature dishes, and  they will probably soon be showing up on menus throughout the Bay Area.

The corn fritters came as a stack of perfect globes with the thinnest, crispest shell imaginable, dusted with powdered yeast. When I broke the crust, a liquid center filled with kernels of grilled corn spilled out to mix with the cilantro salsa verde.

The sardine chips were big potato chips with a slim sardine fillet woven through and the whole thing fried to a crunchy, crisp texture. I could have made a meal of these, and ordinarily I don’t even like sardines.

Italian peppers  so sweet that they tasted almost like candy were grilled to perfection and then stuffed with slivers of succulent duck. We fought over who got the last of this dish.

Plancha bread was served as an anvil-shaped flat bread topped with burrata, summer squash and squash blossoms with a hint of shiso.

Who would believe that watermelon and squid would go together – along with black olives and crispy onions? My daughter, Carol, and her daughter, who don’t eat onions, were dueling each other for the last of the crispy onions that came on the top of this dish.

Beef tartare with cucumber yogurt was delicious, but I was more partial to the tagliatelle Bolognese with marrow and crispy leaves of kale.

The Pacific halibut with crisp pork belly and transparently thin Tokyo turnips was as beautiful to look at as it was to eat.

Throughout the meal we feasted on chunks of levain scented with wild fennel pollen and served with butter churned in-house after it had been cultured for several days. This was definitely not your ordinary restaurant bread.

I liked the spaghetti with yellow tail tuna and broccolini espellete. The sauce was so smooth and buttery that it coated your mouth with a taste you didn’t want to give up.

We had one dish that was not on the menu – rabbit cannelloni served with tiny, sweet tomatoes. Another dish that I could have easily had seconds and thirds.

Our dessert was also off the menu. Sarah had made a “birthday cake” of Hyde Park Café peach pudding. Susan and I had enjoyed the tasty dessert many times with Sarah when she was in Austin. Susan had managed to talk the cafe out of the recipe, and she had baked it for Sarah on special occasions. This was turn-about at its highest level. The cake capped the end of a warm and wonderful family celebration.

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THREE-CHEESE ROASTED CAULIFLOWER

Cauliflower is a beautiful vegetable. The usual variety is snowy white and reminds me of the huge cumulus clouds that build over the New Mexico mountains during the summer and fall. Those clouds are very much a part of the art of Georgia O’Keeffe. Now there are cauliflower varieties of  electric green and purple. They are also gorgeous and beg to be eaten. A creative cook can find many ways to prepare cauliflower. You can use it raw as a crudité along with a dip, or heaven forbid, ranch dressing, or in a garden salad. You can roast it in thick slabs, and then it tastes almost like steak. The Indians use it for delicious pakoras. There are other ways to prepare it, but the fallback in most home kitchens is a steamed head of cauliflower smothered in cheese sauce. Actually, I love that combination, but in my hands the cauliflower gets soggy in the steamer and the cheese sauce slides off the cauliflower into a pool on the plate. This is my effort to correct those shortcomings by roasting the cauliflower and using a thick sauce that clings to the head  of cauliflower and  browns quickly in the oven.

RECIPE

Three-Cheese Roasted Cauliflower

Ingredients

  • 1 large cauliflower, washed, trimmed of leaves and stem
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup milk
  • ¼ pound sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • salt and pepper
  • ½ cup grated Swiss cheese
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons panko
  • melted unsalted butter

Method

  1. Place the cauliflower head in a well-buttered baking dish. Bake  in the middle of a pre-heated oven at 350°F for about 30 minutes or until the cauliflower is easily pierced with a kitchen fork. Remove from the oven and cover with aluminum foil until you are ready to add the sauce.
  2. While the cauliflower is roasting, prepare the cheese sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook for a minute or two to remove the raw flavor of the flour. Add the milk, and stir until the mixture is thickened. Stir in the Cheddar cheese and nutmeg. Stir until the cheese is completely melted and the sauce is smooth. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  3. Spread the sauce over the roasted cauliflower, sprinkle with the Swiss cheese, Parmesan, and panko. Drizzle melted butter over the top.
  4. Return to the oven and increase the temperature to 400°F. Roast until the topping is lightly browned and bubbling, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately while still warm. I served it with sliced New York strip steak, but it will go with just about any protein you might like.

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SALMON CAKES AND MUSHROOM SAUCE

The de-cluttering campaign has moved to the pantry. There are lots of opportunities there: several boxes of salt, two or three tins of sardines, and five – or is it six? – different varieties of vinegar. One item caught my eye, a can of salmon. Fortunately, canned salmon is one of those virtually indestructible items like Spam and Twinkies. It can sit on a shelf for years, just waiting for some culinary emergency. This can had sat on the shelf for longer than I wish to recount, so it seemed like the time had come to use it.

When I was growing up, my mother often used canned salmon. I think that may have reflected her growing up in a Dakota sod-buster family on the flat and isolated prairie. She used to tell of waiting for shipments of otherwise unavailable foods to arrive , preserved in one way or another, on the trains from Minneapolis. Salmon loaf was one of my mother’s  specialties,, and salmon salad sometimes showed up with the salmon straight out of the can. You were able to eat it that way because the canning process essentially cooked the salmon, bones and all. I was never a fan of the bones that you could find. The little vertebrae had a fascinating shape, and they crunched easily between your teeth. But when I found out what they were, those little bones finished off my enthusiasm for canned salmon. These days, we often have salmon, but it is grilled or roasted, and always a fresh steak or a beautiful filet. Canned salmon seemed like a distant memory but a good challenge. Salmon cakes were an obvious choice.

I also had to deal with mushrooms. The other day, Susan wanted to make her favorite Hungarian mushroom soup from the Moosewood cookbook. The recipe called for 2 pounds of fresh mushrooms. When I bought some at the grocery store, I carefully weighed out 2 pounds. It seemed like a lot. Clearly the scale at the store was not working because we wound up with enough mushrooms to make several batches of soup.  It occurred to me that mushroom sauce for the salmon would be a good way to use up at least some of the mushrooms. The sauce I made was thicker than you might like, but you can always thin it out with stock.

RECIPES

Salmon Cakes

Ingredients

  • 1 large, thick slice good-quality sourdough bread
  • ½ cup cream
  • 1 14 ounce  can salmon, drained
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon dried dill weed
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • vegetable oil

Method

  1. Tear the bread into chunks and place in the beaker of a food processor. Pulse several times to form coarse crumbs.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the bread crumbs and cream. Stir in the salmon with a fork, breaking up the fish into shreds about the size of the bread crumbs. (This should collapse any intact vertebrae)
  3. Stir in the mustard, dill weed, lemon, seasoning, salt and pepper until thoroughly combined. Shape into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  4. When you are ready to make your salmon cakes, remove the salmon mixture from the refrigerator and divide into four equal balls. Between two pieces of waxed paper, form each ball into a patty about ½ inch thick.
  5. Heat just enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of a large skillet. Over medium-high heat when the oil is shimmering, add the salmon cakes. Sauté until crisp and lightly browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Turn once and brown the other side. Serve while still warm.

Mushroom Sauce

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ½ pound Cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups vegetable stock + more if needed
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the mushrooms and sauté  until the mushrooms are cooked through and lightly browned
  2. Stir in the flour so that the mushrooms are completely coated. Cook another minute or two.
  3. Add the vegetable stock, stirring continuously until it is completely incorporated and the mixture has thickened. Add more stock as needed for your desired consistency. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  4. Serve over warm salmon cakes.

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