The fish that fed the world, traveled from my Aunt’s kitchen to mine, with a few changes along the way.
My Aunt Mary made cod cakes frequently, with a flavor that still tickles the memory after all these years. An old New England standby, these were extremely economical, although usually a bit on the bland side. She made them a lot; the salt cod could be kept on hand ready for service, so it was a back of the refrigerator staple of the time, still is for many folks, as its continued presence in the local supermarkets suggest. They were also a great way to use up leftover mashed potatoes.
The salt-preserved fish that fed cuisines around the globe
Salt cod has a place is almost every cuisine in the world! The abundant fishing beds of the north Atlantic provided this air-dried and salt cured staple that ensured an easily perishable bounty that circled the globe.
By any other name
The French enjoy the popular brandade, a whipped olive oil, salt cod, and potato creation spread on crackers or toast. The Portugese boast hundreds of recipes for “bacalhau” including a tasty stew made with potatoes and olives and eggs, and Greek cuisine has many “bakaliaros” family traditions. Italians love many variations of their ” baccala” often with tomatoes as an enhancement. In Mexico, you might feast on a dish of salt cod and tomatillo sauce, and Asian cuisines also boast their own recipes from this easily transported commodity.
Stewed, fried, flaked, pureed, and breaded, you’ll also find this humble ingredient in dishes from Norway to Africa, the Caribbean to Brazil, and of course Canada and the United States. All this from the beautiful and once bountiful Atlantic cod, that is now controlled but seriously vulnerable from overfishing.
Enter the salt cod cake
In New England, salt cod pretty much means one thing – Cod Cakes, almost always using mashed potatoes.
This is one of those recipes that bring me back to my childhood. Aunt Mary said her mother, my paternal grandmother, taught her how to make these, and she didn’t really have a recipe. My grandmother lived with us for many years and I don’t remember her ever cooking a thing, let alone a recipe that you had to mess with for two days! So this is the closest thing I have to one of her recipes save her gingerbread “receipt,” as she called it. Yes, you need to plan ahead a day for this, but most supermarkets in New England carry the salt cod still. You probably have noticed the little wooden boxes and wondered about it if it wasn’t part of your family weeknight repertoire. If you are not sure, ask your fish monger.
And now, the twists
I’ve changed this recipe up a bit, of course. Aunt Mary used water for the initial poaching liquid, and I’ve swapped milk or even plant milks. She added only pepper to the poach, so I’ve enhanced that with a few other herbs. I’m sure she didn’t use panko breadcrumbs since they were not available when I was a kid. To freshen them up, I added the fresh parsley and the lemon juice. A bit of quick mustard sauce tops it all off.
Aunt Mary’s Salt Cod Cakes
An even quicker method is to use fresh cod. Quite frankly, I think it tastes better, and it certainly is quicker and my preferred method. There was a time when the salt cod was considerably cheaper than the fresh, but that is no longer the case. The last time I made these, I was amazed that the fresh and salted were about the same price per pound.
Experiment! Make the traditional salt cod cakes, then perhaps try the fresh. Add the herbs you like the best, and make it your own.
But no matter the changes, remember they are still my Aunt Mary’s Cod Cakes!
First, the salt cod:
- 1 lb. salt cod
- 2 cups milk or plant milk
- 3 bay leaves
- 3 anise pods
- Dozen black peppercorns, crushed
- Few sprigs of thyme
- 1 small onion, sliced, skins and all
You can find salt cod packed in a wooden crate or wrapped separately in the meat or fish section, often where you find the smoked salmon and other salted fish.
When you unwrap it, it should smell faintly of salt and the sea, with no fishy odor. It will feel strange. Hard and dry, a little rubbery, and quite unappetizing. This is where one must have some culinary faith.
Place it in a strainer and rinse under water for 10 minutes to remove the initial layer of salt. Place it in a deep container and cover completely with water, and tuck in the refrigerator. You will want it to soak for 24 hours at least, refreshing the water at least three or four times. I know, it is a little like babysitting tofu, but give it a try!
After the soaking and rinsing ritual, rinse again. It will have a much more pliable texture by this stage.
Fill a large, deep skillet with a couple of cups of milk, the bay leaves, anise pods, peppercorns, thyme, and onions. Bring just to a simmer for 10 minutes or so to infuse the flavors. Place the prepared cod into its warm little bath, and add more milk if needed, just to cover. Keep at a simmer for 10 minutes, but do not boil. Then cover and set aside to poach off the heat for a half hour.
Drain, and flake the fish, removing any odd pieces of skin or bones, or discolored bits. The transformation will be remarkable. It will feel like flaked fresh fish! You can use the cod in many dishes at this stage, the cod cakes, in soups or stews, or the famous French dish brandade, a potato, salt cod, olive oil, and garlic spread.
Now, the cakes:
- 2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes
- 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 medium onion, finely grated
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 tbsp. whole grain mustard
- 2 tsp. ground anise seed
- 1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
- ½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp. fresh parsley
- Panko breadcrumbs or regular dried breadcrumbs
- Lemon juice
Place the potatoes in a pot, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until tender. Drain and put through a ricer or mash well, and add the butter. Cool. Or, use left-over mashed potatoes. Place in a large bowl and add the cooled flaked cod, the grated onion, the eggs, and the seasonings. Blend together.
Line a cookie sheet with parchment or waxed paper. I find a handy ice-cream scoop works great to form the patties. Place some breadcrumbs in one hand, release the cake from the scoop on top of your bread-crumbed hand, sprinkle the top with more crumbs to coat both sides, pressing the crumbs in gently. After forming, place on the cookie sheet and refrigerate for at least a half hour, longer is fine. Don’t skip this step, it helps the cakes not fall apart in the pan. This makes 12 to 15 cakes depending on the size of your scoop. Make them smaller and you’ve got a great party appetizer.
When it’s time to cook, heat a cast iron or heavy frying pan and add canola or other flavorless oil over medium high. When hot, add the cakes, brown on the first side for a few minutes, turn, and brow the second side. You will need to do this in batches, keeping the first batch warm with a tent of aluminum foil.
Serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and Marvelous Mustard Sauce, below. This makes a bountiful 16 cakes, and they reheat nicely in a hot oven!
Salt Cod and Shrimp Cakes: Add a half pound of chopped shrimp to the cod mix. A delightful flavor and texture.
Marvelous Mustard Sauce:
Mix together ¼ cup grainy mustard and ½ cup crème fraiche, or dairy free sour cream. Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and a bit of minced parsley if you have it, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Capers are great in this as well.
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