The lure of the fish cake


There are myriad types of fish cakes, and it’s hard not to love them all.

They can be the frugal kind, made from leftovers: yesterday’s fish, flaked and folded into yesterday’s mashed potatoes. They make pretty good eating with a dab of tartar sauce. Or there are fancier uptown versions, made with crab meat or lobster, if you’re feeling flush.

I was raised on salmon cakes, aka salmon patties, made from a canned salmon concoction rolled in cornflakes crumbs. Very Midwestern, and mighty fine. Or is it nostalgia that makes me think so?

Codfish cakes are traditionally made with salt cod, which needs a day or more of soaking to soften and desalinate the salted fish. Salt cod bestows a deep, complex flavor; some people find it a bit too powerful, but when properly prepared, it is divine. For the most part, though, salt cod has gone out of style, at least in North America. It’s too bad, since there are so many wonderful Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and French dishes that feature it.

As an alternative, I devised this version, which uses lightly cured fresh cod and a bright mix of green herbs. You can use cod, haddock or scrod for these cakes, or another white-fleshed fish like snapper, halibut or flounder. The curing process is straightforward: Fresh cod is lightly sprinkled with salt and pepper, then refrigerated for a few hours or overnight. This light cure gives the fish the seasoning it needs, but it also helps keep the flesh firm when cooked and gives the cakes a moist texture.

I wanted a somewhat Iberian profile for these, so I added lots of chopped herbs (heavy on cilantro) to the fish mixture, and I chose to serve them with colorful stewed sweet peppers and onions flecked with bits of chorizo.

With all fish cakes, you need something to bind the mixture, whether it is potatoes, béchamel, a little mayonnaise or breadcrumbs, and some beaten egg. I went the breadcrumb route. Though I love potato-bound cakes, they can sometimes taste more like potato than fish. These are lighter, and more fish-forward. Besides, I wanted to serve roasted potatoes with them.

I also chose not to dip them in flour or crumbs before cooking. Instead, they are gently fried, uncoated, in olive oil until golden. They are downright delicious warm or at room temperature.

Codfish Cakes with Sweet Peppers and Onions

Total time: 1 hour, plus 3 hours’ curing

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds cod, scrod or haddock fillet

Salt and pepper

A few thyme sprigs

2 bay leaves

1 cup breadcrumbs, soaked 10 minutes in 1 cup milk and squeezed dry

1/2 teaspoon lemon zest

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

3 tablespoons chopped mint

1 cup chopped cilantro, leaves and tender stems

4 scallions, white and light green parts, very thinly sliced

Extra-virgin olive oil

4 ounces Spanish chorizo, diced (optional)

4 cups thinly sliced sweet red peppers (such as Corno di Toro, Cubanelle, Jimmy Nardello or red bell), from 4 medium peppers

2 cups thinly sliced onion, from 2 medium onions

Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

Pinch of pimentón

3 garlic cloves, minced

Lemon wedges, for serving

Preparation

1. Season cod fillet all over with salt and pepper, then wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or overnight. Rinse briefly with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.

2. Fill a saucepan with water. Add thyme and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Carefully slip fish into the water and turn off heat. Wait 2 minutes and test with a fork; the fish should be just done. Drain fish and let cool, then transfer to a mixing bowl and flake.

3. Add breadcrumbs, lemon zest, parsley, mint, cilantro and scallions to fish. Mix with a wooden spoon until well combined. Taste and adjust seasoning.

4. Form mixture into 12 balls, flatten them slightly, and arrange on a baking sheet in a single layer. Wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes, or until ready to cook, up to 4 hours in advance. (Mixture may seem loose and crumbly, but the cakes will hold together when cooked.)

5. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add chorizo, if using, and let sizzle for a minute, then add peppers and onions, red pepper flakes, pimentón and garlic. Season with salt and pepper and stir to coat. Let mixture cook, stirring frequently, until onions and peppers soften and begin to brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set pan aside. Reheat just before serving.

6. To cook fish cakes, pour about 1/4-inch olive oil in a wide cast-iron skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, carefully place fish cakes in the pan in one layer without crowding (work in batches if necessary). Cook until browned on first side, about 3 minutes. Turn cakes over and cook for 2 minutes more, until browned. Serve with the stewed peppers and onions, and lemon wedges.

Fish Cakes with Herbs and Chilies

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil, more for frying

2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

1 pound firm white fish fillets, such as hake, black sea bass or flounder

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons dry vermouth or white wine

1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (2 cups)

2 eggs

3 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro

3 tablespoons roughly chopped basil

1 scallion, white and green parts, finely chopped

1 serrano chili, seeded and minced

Pinch cayenne

Finely grated zest of 1 small lime

1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons chopped lime pickle or preserved lemon (optional)

1/2 cup mayonnaise

Lime wedges, for serving

Preparation

1. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add garlic and cook until golden brown at the edges, about 2 minutes.

2. Season fish with 1 teaspoon salt and the pepper, add to pan and let cook for 1 minute. Add vermouth and 2 tablespoons water. Turn heat to low, cover and cook until fish is just barely cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Move fish to a plate, keeping any liquid and garlic in skillet.

3. In the same skillet over high heat, add potatoes, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and water to just cover. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook until tender, about 15 minutes.

4. Flake fish. Drain potatoes and garlic, and place in a large bowl. Roughly mash potatoes and garlic, then add flaked fish, eggs, cilantro, basil, scallion, chili, cayenne, lime zest and panko, and combine. Season with salt if needed. Cover and chill for at least 3 hours.

5. Place flour on a plate. Form generous 1/4 cup fish patties about 1/2-inch thick. Dip patties into flour to lightly coat each side.

6. In a large, preferably nonstick skillet, heat 1/8 inch of olive oil over medium heat. Cook fish cakes until golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes each side, adding more oil as needed. Move to a paper-towel-lined plate.

7. If using lime pickle or preserved lemon, stir into mayonnaise. Serve fish cakes with the mayonnaise (with or without pickles) and lime wedges.


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