Every seafaring country has its favorite version of the fish cake, and I confess I love them all. This perfect marriage of convenience — yesterday’s leftover cooked or smoked fish mixed with yesterday’s leftover mashed or baked potatoes — is far more than the sum of its parts.
After spending years of summers on Madeline Island, I’ve experimented with endless versions of the humble fish cake and definitely favor using smoked whitefish from Lake Superior. Of course, smoked trout, salmon or herring work nicely, too. While cooked fresh fish is always an option, smoked fish is a convenient choice, already cooked, with a kiss of smoke and salt.
For a fluffy, light fish cake, you need a light, fluffy mash. The russet or baking potatoes that have high starch and low moisture are the best choice, though Yukon Gold potatoes (medium starch) will work in a pinch. Waxy new potatoes and red boiling potatoes are much too dense and moist.
Too many recipes call for the addition of eggs, cream, mayonnaise, flour or breadcrumbs, which results in a confusion of flavors and a heavy, dense texture. Keep things simple by using a ratio of about three parts fish to one part potato.
One of the beauties of fish cakes is how easy they are to experiment with. The very blandness of the potato and mild fish nicely offset bolder flavors. Feel free to add the following to the basic recipe: a few tablespoons of capers, fresh dill and lemon zest; or chopped chives, thyme and shredded carrots for color. Serve these with horseradish-spiked mayonnaise, tartar sauce or ranch dressing.
Take a completely different tack and substitute the same amount of mashed sweet potatoes for the russet potatoes and add a few sweet, tart, spicy flavors. Season those cakes with chili oil, lime zest and lime juice; or grated fresh ginger, curry powder and lemon juice; or chopped chiles and cumin. Then garnish these with chopped cilantro and serve with a side of whole-milk Greek yogurt.
When our kids were young, these fish cakes became a weeknight staple, far better than frozen fish sticks and just as easy to dip into any sauce. They’re also terrific for breakfast or brunch topped with a fried egg; at lunch, try them on a soft bun slathered with tartar sauce and a slide of coleslaw. Paired with a crisp green salad and a thick wedge of crusty bread, they make a fine, light easy meal.
Smoked Whitefish Cakes
Serves 4 (easily doubled).
Note: You can easily substitute smoked trout or salmon. Serve with horseradish-spiked mayo, a tangy tartar sauce or ranch dressing. From Beth Dooley.
• 2 russet or baking potatoes
• 1/4 c. chopped green onions or chives
• 1 tbsp. grated lemon zest
• 2 to 4 tbsp. milk or cream, if needed
• 1/2 lb. skinless, boneless, flaked, smoked fish
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
• Generous pinch red pepper flakes
• 1/2 c. flour
• 2 to 4 tbsp. vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Poke a few holes in the potatoes with a fork, and bake until tender, about 35 minutes.
Remove potatoes from oven and, when cool enough to handle, peel and pass through a coarse sieve or ricer or mash in a bowl.
Work into the potatoes the chopped onion, lemon zest, and just enough milk or cream to make a light mash. Fold in the smoked fish and season with the salt and pepper and red pepper flakes.
Place the flour in a shallow bowl. Shape the fish cakes into 4 or 8 patties, then lightly dredge in the flour and set aside on a separate plate or parchment paper.
Put enough oil in a heavy skillet to thoroughly coat and set over medium-high heat. When the oil sputters slightly, fry the fish cakes in batches until browned and very crisp, about 3 minutes per side, adjusting the heat if they’re browning too fast. Hold the cooked fish cakes in a 250-degree oven until ready to serve.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 245 Fat 8 g Sodium 590 mg Carbohydrates 27 g Saturated fat 1 g Total sugars 2 g
Protein 17 g Cholesterol 20 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 carb, 2 lean protein, 1 fat.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.