×

Fish time, anytime: Fishcakes appeal for breakfast, lunch or supper

  • This salmon fishcake is shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Salmon, either fresh or canned is often used for fishcakes in Britain. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • This salmon fishcake is shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • This salmon fishcake is shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • These curried fishcakes with mango chutney are shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • These curried fishcakes with mango chutney are shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The recipe for this curried fish cake dish is the basic North Atlantic mix of white fish and potatoes boosted with mild Indian spices. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • These curried fishcakes with mango chutney are shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • These curried fishcakes with mango chutney are shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • These curried fishcakes with mango chutney are shown Jan. 5, 2018 in Claire Hopley's Leverett home. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Gazette
Saturday, February 17, 2018

Every country that borders the North Atlantic has its own favorite fishcake, most of them made by teaming fish with potatoes — a winning combination that’s also a thrifty way to use leftovers.

In “American Frugal Cookery (1832),” Lydia Maria Child, one of America’s first cookbook authors and briefly a Northampton resident, extolled fishcakes as an ideal breakfast dish. In Britain, too, fishcakes have a breakfast history, and still sometimes appear on hotel breakfast menus.

Nowadays, fishcakes more often come as tasty supper dishes. In Portugal, however, they are welcome at almost any time: with drinks, as appetizers, for supper and at holidays — especially Christmas Eve. They even appear cold at picnics.

Portuguese fishcakes are made from one of the country’s favorite foods: salt cod. Over 300 Portuguese recipes call for this ingredient. All of them, including fishcakes, originate in the custom of eschewing meat and dairy foods for Lent, the six-week penitential period that precedes Easter. Fish was permitted, but since fishermen used not to venture out on wintry seas, preserved salted fish from Norway and New England became staple fare — not just in Portugal but in Spain, Italy and most Mediterranean countries, which all have their own fishcake variants. Denmark and other Scandinavian countries also make fishcakes from salt cod, and as in Portugal, cooks take pride in making them light as well as tasty.

While fishcakes got their start in the deprivations of Lent or the stratagems of money-saving homemakers, they are now prized — and not always cheap — dishes in many national cuisines. Potatoes are not an invariable ingredient. Like Maryland crabcakes, fishcakes in Denmark and Turkey are made with breadcrumbs. Syrians use bulgur wheat, and in southeast Asia, egg-white and cornstarch or potato starch do the job of holding everything together.

The global popularity of fishcakes has created myriad ways of flavoring them. While parsley and dill are the most common herbs in New England and northern European recipes, cilantro takes over in the eastern Mediterranean and North African countries. Thai fishcakes have both cilantro and Thai red basil. Spices also play a part: allspice in Turkey, curry paste in Thailand, red pepper in North Africa and curry sauce in Hong Kong.

Appetizing little additions that add texture to the basic fishcake mixture include chopped preserved lemon in Morocco, currants and pine nuts in Turkey and snippets of green beans in Thailand. This variety suggests other less traditional but flavorsome, add-ins. Peas, capers, grated carrot, corn kernels, cooked asparagus tips, chopped hard-boiled eggs, and small slices of mushroom briefly fried in butter are all good examples. A few chopped olives and a sprinkling of oregano and thyme give a Mediterranean vibe.

As for the fish itself, white-fleshed fish is standard. Our regional tradition is for haddock or fresh or salt cod, but other options include hake, whiting or pollock. Salmon, either fresh or canned, is often used in Britain. Writer and fish expert Alan Davidson records eating fishcakes made of fresh-caught sardines and preserved lemons on a Moroccan boat. This suggests other dark-fleshed strongly flavored fish such as mackerel and bluefish are options.

The most important thing is to rein in economy and make sure that fish, not potato, comprises half, ideally more, of the total ingredients.

Among the recipes below, Salmon Fishcakes on a Spinach and Tomato Salad and Curried Fishcakes are variations on the North Atlantic fish-plus-potato formula, while the Portuguese Codfish Cakes is the traditional recipe of the country. Moroccan Fishcakes and Thai Fishcakes exemplify spicier potato-less fishcakes from distant places.

SALMON FISHCAKES WITH SPINACH AND TOMATO SALAD

Salmon gives fishcakes extra flavor and color. Including some bits of smoked salmon adds another layer of taste, but it’s not essential to the recipe if you don’t like it or haven’t got it.

12 ounces (about 2 cups cooked flaked) Atlantic salmon fillet

1-2 ounces (2-3 slice or cup chopped) smoked salmon (optional)

1½ cups mashed potatoes

2 eggs, 1 hard-boiled the other beaten

½ cup chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

1-2 tablespoons flour

About ½ cup panko or dried breadcrumbs

2 tablespoons vinaigrette or Italian-style dressing

2-3 cups loosely packed washed baby spinach

1 dozen grape tomatoes, halved

6-8 pitted black olives, halved

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Olive oil or peanut oil for frying

Mix the roughly flaked salmon with the smoked salmon, mashed potatoes, chopped hard-boiled egg, about ¾ of the parsley and a little salt and pepper. Aim for a coarse rather than a smooth blend so the various ingredients show through. Form into 6 or 8 cakes about ¾-inch thick. Lightly dust them with the flour.

Have the beaten egg on a plate and the panko or breadcrumbs on another plate. Dip each fishcake into first the egg then the panko and set aside for 10 minutes while you make the salad.

Put a tablespoon of the dressing in a salad bowl. Drop the spinach and remaining parsley on top. In a small bowl, sprinkle the halved tomatoes and olives with the oregano, remaining parsley and remaining dressing. Set aside.

To cook the fishcakes, heat a quarter inch of oil in a frying pan. Put in the cakes and let them sizzle for 3-4 minutes, then turn, reduce the heat and cook for a further 4 minutes until golden.

Just before they are ready, finish the salad by tossing the spinach with the dressing in the bowl, then topping it with the tomato-olive mixture. Serve portions on individual plates topped by a fishcake.

CURRIED FISH CAKES

This recipe is the basic North Atlantic mix of white fish and potatoes boosted with some of the mild spices typical of Indian cuisine.

2 tablespoons butter

½ cup chopped onion

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons curry powder or more to taste

2 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

¾ pounds potatoes, cooked and mashed

1 pound haddock or cod, cooked

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro plus extra sprigs

¼ cup mango chutney plus extra for serving

Salt and pepper to taste

¾ cup frozen peas, defrosted

About 2 tablespoons flour

1 egg, well beaten

About 6 tablespoons panko or breadcrumbs

Coconut or peanut oil for frying

Melt the butter in a medium frying pan over moderate heat. Stir in the onion, ginger, and garlic and cook gently for 4-5 minutes or until soft. Stir in the curry powder, cumin and turmeric. In a large bowl, mix the potatoes with the fish, breaking up the fish as you go. Stir in the onion mixture, the cilantro and mango chutney — chop any big chunks of mango into smaller bits. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Finally stir in the peas.

Form the mixture into 8-10 fishcakes and dust with flour. Have the beaten egg on one plate, the panko on another, then dip each cake first in the egg then in the panko. Fry in oil for 3-4 minutes per side or until golden and heated through. Serve garnished with cilantro and mango chutney on the side.

PORTUGUESE CODFISH CAKES

Until well within living memories fishcakes made from salt cod were a breakfast or supper staple throughout New England. Now not so common here, they remain popular in southern Europe, nowhere more so than in Portugal. They are best when made with potatoes freshly cooked for the job — though leftovers work too. Once you have mixed everything, you can refrigerate it and do the shaping and cooking up to a day later.

8 ounces salt cod

½ a medium onion

2-3 stems parsley plus ⅓ cup chopped

1 large baking potato, weighing about10 ounces

About teaspoon white pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg

Salt if needed

1or 2 eggs

Olive oil for frying

About 36 hours before you want to eat, rinse the salt cod, put it in a bowl and cover plentifully with cold water. Let it soak for 24 hours, changing the water 3-4 times. When the water no longer tastes salty, remove the cod and pat it dry. (If it remains very salty, just soak it a few hours longer.)

To make the codfish cakes, boil the potato in its skin for 25-30 minutes or until tender. Meanwhile, put the soaked cod in a pan with the onion and 2-3 stems of parsley. Bring to simmering and simmer for 8-10 minutes or until tender.

Drain off the water and discard the parsley. Chop the onion finely and set aside. Shred the cod with your fingers, removing any bones. Peel and mash the potato when it is cool enough to handle.

Mix the shredded cod, chopped onion, mashed potato, ¼ cup chopped parsley and the white pepper.

Season with nutmeg and a little salt if needed, then mix in 1 beaten egg to make a mixture that’s neither stiff nor sloppy. Add the other beaten egg, a little at a time, only if needed to achieve this.

To shape, take a tablespoon of the mixture and scoop it off the spoon by inserting another similar tablespoon underneath the mixture, turning it over as you transfer it. Do this 4-5 times until the mixture forms an oval with a smooth surface. Set aside on a lightly floured board until all the mixture is used.

Heat 3 inches of olive oil in a saucepan to 325 degrees or until a cube of bread pops to the surface in 30 seconds. Fry the codfish cakes a few a time so they are easy to flip over and get out when done. When they are golden all over — about 3-4 minutes — remove onto a plate lined with paper towel to absorb excess oil. Make 14-16 depending in the size of the spoon you use for shaping.

MOROCCAN FISH CAKES WITH PRESERVED LEMON

Like many Moroccan dishes, these fishcakes include preserved lemon, an ingredient made by packing whole lemons in salt, which softens them and gives a distinctive flavor. They can be bought in jars in local markets that stock foreign foods. (They are also easy to make at home.) If you can’t find them, the grated zest of one lemon can be substituted. It will taste quite different, but the fishcakes will still be good.

About 1-pound raw white fish such as haddock or pollock

2 teaspoons ground cumin

½ teaspoon salt

1 crushed garlic clove

1 lightly beaten egg

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Peel of ½ preserved lemon, coarsely chopped

Pinch red pepper flakes

About 4 tablespoons flour

Olive oil for frying.

Lemon wedges for serving

Cut the fish into 2-inch pieces, and put them in a food processor along with the cumin, salt, garlic and egg. Pulse briefly to mix, then add half the parsley, cilantro and preserved lemon peel plus a small pinch of red pepper flakes. Pulse a few more times until the ingredients are chopped rather than pureed. Stir in the remaining chopped preserved lemon peel.

Put the flour on the plate. Divide the mixture into 6-8 portions and with wet hands shape them into patties and place on the floured plate. When all are done, turn them over to flour both sides.

Heat oil in a large frying pan and fry the fishcakes on both sides for 3-4 minutes or until they are golden brown. Serve sprinkled with the remaining cilantro and parsley and with lemon wedges on the side. A spicy sauce of red peppers or tomatoes is often served with fishcakes in Morocco.

THAI STYLE FISH CAKES

In Thailand these spicy fishcakes are favorite street food. Red curry paste, which can be found (along with nam pla) in the Asian sections of supermarkets or specialty Asian stores, zaps them with heat. You can adjust the amount to get the firepower you enjoy.

1-pound white skinless fish such as haddock or hake

1 egg plus 1 egg white, beaten

½ teaspoon white pepper

1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste

grated zest and juice 1 large lime or 2 small ones

2 tablespoons nam pla

1 teaspoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon sugar

½ cup green or red pepper, or blanched green beans cut into pea-size bits

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons cilantro, coarsely chopped plus sprigs for garnish

2 Thai (or regular) basil leaves, coarsely chopped

1-2 tablespoons flour

Canola or peanut oil for frying

Thinly slice the green beans and drop them with a pinch of salt into a small saucepan of boiling water. Cook for a minute then strain them through a colander into a bowl of iced water. Drain and cut them into half- inch bits, pat dry and set aside.

Cut the fish into 1-inch chunks. Reserve about a quarter but put the rest into the bowl of a food processor and add the beaten egg, the white pepper, and curry paste. Process briefly until smooth.

Now add the remaining fish and pulse briefly to break it up just a little. This adds texture to the fish cakes. Turn the mixture into a bowl and stir in the green beans, the nam pla, soy sauce, cornstarch, sugar, cilantro and basil.

Dust a chopping board with the flour. Divide the mixture into eight portions and form each into a 2-inch diameter cake on the floured board, turning them over as you work so each side becomes lightly floured.

To cook, pour oil to the depth of a half inch into a frying pan large enough to take the fish cakes in a single layer. Fry them 3-4 minutes or until the bottom surface is golden Flip and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Serve garnished with cilantro and accompanied by fried rice or stir-fried vegetables.