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Published May 07, 2013, 11:40 PM

Home with the Lost Italian: Walleye cakes a taste of the lakes

In a normal year, Saturday’s Minnesota fishing season opener would mean it’s time to get the boats back in the water and resume the pursuit of the state’s most sought-after fish, the walleye.

By: Sarah and Tony Nasello, INFORUM

In a normal year, Saturday’s Minnesota fishing season opener would mean it’s time to get the boats back in the water and resume the pursuit of the state’s most sought-after fish, the walleye.

I grew up spending summers at the lake and enjoy fishing when the opportunity arises, which sadly isn’t often enough.

Tony, my city-boy husband, grew up in Toronto with Lake Ontario practically in his backyard, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about fishing or “the lakes.” He has no interest in these country pursuits; in fact, the very thought of touching a worm is enough to keep him in the concrete jungle of Fargo-Moorhead.

No matter how Gio and I try to sell it, Tony may never understand the lure of life at the lake (pardon the pun), or the thrill of finally catching a fish after hours on the water. But he does enjoy cooking and eating fish, and walleye has become a favorite for him.

Before we were married, Tony had never even heard of walleye, even though it is as popular in Canada as in Minnesota. When we first opened Sarello’s, he refused to offer it on the menu, wrongly believing that it couldn’t compete with its cousins from the great big ocean. This was unlike him, as he’d never even tasted it. It took me, and our customers, years to convince him otherwise, but he finally relented and put walleye on the menu.

Tony was surprised and delighted to discover walleye is indeed a superior fish in every way – delicate and flaky, with a fresh, mild flavor. Walleye made its debut at Sarello’s in 2009, and after becoming an instant hit, has remained on the menu ever since.

We’ve served walleye in many different styles, but one of my favorite preparations is our most recent appetizer, Walleye Cakes. Tony’s recipe is a great way to utilize extra fish trimmings and really showcases this local favorite.

There are a couple key tips to know when making fish cakes. First, the fish is the star of the show. Great fish cakes taste good because the main ingredient, fish, is not overpowered by the stuffing. Second, the secret ingredient of a great fish cake is Old Bay Seasoning, a combination of 18 herbs and spices with a wonderful, zesty flavor. Hornbacher’s in Fargo and Central Market in Detroit Lakes carry it, and your walleye cakes will suffer without it.

The cakes can be formed three to four days in advance and served either as a main course, or in smaller, bite-size cakes as an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre. Most other fish can be substituted for walleye, including salmon and jumbo lump crabmeat.

We recommend serving the cakes with our Tuscan Bean Salad featured in The Forum on Jan. 9 and the Roasted Red Pepper Aioli from last week, both of which can also be made in advance.

Mother’s Day is Sunday, so make the aioli on Thursday, our Flourless Chocolate Torte (from Feb. 13) or classic Tiramisu (April 10) on Friday, and the Tuscan Bean Salad on Saturday morning. Then, fish all day Saturday and again on Sunday morning before coming in to prepare this walleye feast for your mother. But be sure to have the dessert ready because then she won’t mind if you left your walleye in the lake.

Walleye Cakes

Makes 4 to 6 servings (approximately 10 entrée-sized cakes or 15 to 16 appetizers/hors d’oeuvres)

Ingredients

1 pound walleye fillets

1/4 cup real mayonnaise (if using a fresh Basic Aioli, omit the garlic powder below)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

3 dashes Tabasco

4 dashes Worcestershire sauce

1 whole egg

1/3 cup diced red pepper

1/3 cup diced red onion

Juice of half a lemon

1 teaspoon granulated garlic or ½ teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning

1/2 to 1 cup Japanese-style (panko) breadcrumbs

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and bake the walleye fillets whole in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before using. When cool, use your hands to break the walleye up into small 1/2 inch-pieces, or use a knife to rough chop.

Use a whisk to mix all ingredients together except the walleye and breadcrumbs. Add the walleye and a half cup of breadcrumbs. Use a rubber spatula to lightly toss all ingredients until well combined.

Test the mixture by squeezing some in your hand: if it crumbles, the mixture is too dry; add more mayonnaise or aioli, one teaspoon at a time. If liquid leaks out, it is too moist; add more breadcrumbs. The mixture is ready when it can hold the form of a cake.

Form the mixture into desired-sized cakes. Heat 3/4 cup of oil in a 10-inch pan over medium-high heat. Test for readiness by tossing in a few breadcrumbs. If they sizzle, the oil is ready.

Place the walleye cakes in the pan, being careful to leave a little space between each cake. Sauté golden brown, about two to three minutes each side. Serve immediately with Tuscan Bean Salad and Roasted Red Pepper Aioli.

Tony’s Tip

The cakes can be made and formed in advance, and refrigerated for up to three or four days before cooking. If preparing many cakes at once, keep them warm in a 200 degree oven after frying, until ready to serve.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com

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