Aunt Mary’s Salt Cod Cakes
My Aunt Mary made cod cakes frequently, and they have a flavor like nothing else. An old New England standby, these were extremely economical when I was a child, although usually bland and unmemorable. The salt cod could be kept on hand to use whenever you wanted, so it was a pantry staple of the time, still is for many folks, as its continued presence in the local supermarkets suggest.
This is one of those recipes that bring me back to my childhood. Aunt Mary said her mother, my dad’s mom, taught her how to make these. Now, 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. Yes, you need to plan ahead a day for this.
I’ve changed these up a bit, of course. I don’t think Aunt Mary added much of anything to the initial poaching liquid beyond the cod, and I’m sure she didn’t use panko breadcrumbs since they were not available when I was a kid. So I’ve added the poaching seasoning, as well as the other seasonings in the cake, just because. Oh, I added the fresh parsley too! And the lemon juice. But they are still Aunt Mary’s Cod Cakes.
First, the salt cod:
1 lb. salt cod
3 bay leaves
3 anise pods
1 small onion, skins and all
I like the variety that is not packed in a wooden crate, but wrapped separately in the fish department. It should smell faintly of salt and the sea, with no fishy odor. Rinse it well in a strainer for a few minutes to remove the initial layer of salt. Place it in a deep container and cover completely with water. You will want it to soak for 24 hours at least, refreshing the water 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. Fill a large, deep skillet with a couple of cups of water, the bay leaves, anise pods, and onions. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes or so, until the water is nicely flavored. Add more water, and place the prepared cod into its warm little bath. Bring to a simmer, then cover and set aside to poach off the heat for a half hour. Drain, and flake the fish. The transformation will be remarkable.
Now, the cakes:
2 lbs. potatoes
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely grated
2 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. ground anise seed
1 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Panko breadcrumbs (Aunt Mary used regular breadcrumbs, which also work)
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, and add the butter. Cool. 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 balls or patties. If I am making them for a party, I make them smaller and shape them round; for dinner, a patty shape will do.
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, and press 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.
When 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 lots of luscious tartar sauce, or other favorite sauce. I like them with horseradish sauce! Makes a bountiful 16 cakes, and they reheat nicely in a hot oven!
Tartar sauce: To one cup of mayonnaise, add a 1/3 cup of dill pickle relish or minced dill pickles, 2 tbsp. capers, the juice of a lemon, tablespoon of minced fresh parsley, and freshly grated black pepper.
Modern update: Substitute fresh cod for the salt cod! Don’t add extra water to the poaching liquid, and poach only for about 8 minutes, or until it starts to flake. It’s as simple as that.