I made these savory crispy fish cakes during holidays and served them as tapas on Quebec National Day along with three sauces. Later, on Canada day, I made another batch from frozen leftovers and toted them as fish tacos to the ‘Potluck with Style’ party along with tortillas, assortment of fresh garden veggies, Aioli sauce and lime avocado mayo. They were a huge hit on both occasions and everyone kept asking me for the recipe. Bring a box of these babies to your next potluck party and you can easily come off as a promising young chef from l’Academie, because, I can guarantee, they WILL upstage any food party.
Salt cod is one the most under appreciated and underused foods in our country. Despite its magical flavor powers that can bring most of the dishes with this ingredient to a whole new level, and its availability in almost every grocery; a dirty looking piece of something-dried, covered with gray salt is not very visually appealing. That, plus a very little knowledge of how handle it and/or lack of publicity, keep this valuable commodity in the ‘underdog’ category of foods reserved for the limited consumption by Natives and/or just a few high-end French, Portuguese or Spanish restaurants. Nobody is serving accrass de morue or pasteis de bacalhau in the fast food joints, like they do it in Carribean or in Portugal although, technically, Canada has been one of the major producers of salt cod for the last 500 years. The Old World, however, has been enjoying salt cod for centuries. The famous epicureans like Claude Monet or Paul Cezanne, for example, used to stash the recipes with this precious ingredient in their diaries as their best kept culinary secrets to impress each other.
Dishes with salt cod are in the category of an acquired taste and people usually love or hate them. Here’s the thing: if you like Parmesan, cured meats, anchovies, oysters, soya sauce asparagus, tomatoes, etc. chances are you are going to like these fish cakes big time because of the umami factor apparent in all these foods. The naturally occurring amino acid in salt cod (called umami) is what makes it so tasty and unique. And if you have a hard time with umami, you can always swap the salt cod for canned tuna or salmon and still have very palatable cakes, although with not much umami in them.
A quick, but useful trivia: about a century ago Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered chemical root behind the fifth sensory taste (in addition to salty, sweet, bitter, sour) and called it umami (which translates from Japanese into ‘deliciousness’). The common component producing the flavor of meat, seaweed and tomatoes was glutamate, which gives the sensation of umami. Not surprisingly, Ikeda further patented the manufacture of an arguably infamous Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) food flavor enhancer.
Back to our fish cakes. Once you’ve tripped over the initial shock of actually buying this ‘thing’ (salt cod) and had it rinsed from salt and soaked for 24-48 hours, you are just a few steps away from making this mouth-watering treat. Mashed potatoes, milk, egg, chives, garlic, thyme, cornmeal and frying oil are basically all you need to add to prestidigitate the ‘thing’ into something amazing. It’s completely optional, but this time I added a can of tuna to the mix to make it exactly one pound in fish ingredient without altering the taste. Feel free to make it half & half (salt cod & canned tuna or salmon) and it will still be equally delicious. I also added 1/3 teaspoon of smoked paprika to deepen the flavor depth even further with the touch of heat and smokiness. Finally, I figured that umamiwith umami can only work out for good, so I added 2 tablespoons of fresh Parmesan crumbs to the mix.
Voila, now you can savor the best thing that can ever happen to salt cod. Enjoy them as tapas with variety of sauces like: classic Aioli sauce, zesty Tkemali plum sauce, Lime & Avocado Mayonnaise, Buttermilk sauce, even Herb Lentil Avocado Spread.
My latest favorite is to dress them in tacos, laced with one of the above sauces and garnished with a mountain of thinly sliced summer bounty, including: cabbage, radishes, pepper, tomatoes, avocado, shallots, onion, lettuce, fine herbs, etc. Just have a bunch of corn (for gluten-free) or whole wheat flour tortillas, warm up wrapped in foil for 15 minutes at 375F and serve immediately with some refreshing drinks. Fish tacos allow the cakes to shine with their intriguing umami taste combined with textures and captivating colors of artfully embedded crunchy veggies and tangy sauce. Simply out of this world!
And if you want something absolutely lean and/or diet-healthy (from Paleo to Gluten-free to Carb, Sugar or Elimination diet) go for the lettuce wrap option and the dish will never trigger any guilt alarms – just pure joy and pleasure.
All good to the last bite, hot or cold!
SALT COD & CANNED TUNA FISH CAKES
Serves: 8 to 10 people.
1 lb skinned & boned salt cod (or half & half of 1 lb of salt cod and canned tuna)
1 cup of milk
1 bay leaf
3 big Idaho or Russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
½ cup 10% cream for mashing potatoes
4 tbsp butter at room temperature for mashing potatoes
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small bunch of fresh chives or scallions, minced
1 egg beaten
2 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
1 tsp fresh thyme, minced (optional)
1/3 tsp smoked hot paprika (optional)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
oil for frying (sunflower, canola, peanut or grape seed oil)
4 tbsp butter or ghee for frying (optional)
2 cups corn meal for coating
Lemon or lime wedges for serving
Soak the salt cod in cold water to cover in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours changing the water occasionally.
Drain the salt cod and place it in a saucepan, cover with milk, add bay leaf. Add water if necessary to cover the fish. Bring to boil and simmer over the low heat for 12-15 minutes or until the fish flakes with fork easily. Do not overcook. Transfer the fish to a plate and let cool.
In a separate saucepan bring potatoes to boil and simmer until tender for 20 minutes. Drain potatoes, mash them with cream and butter. Let cool.
Using your fingers or a fork flake the cod (check for the occasional bones, although most of the time it’s bones-free).
Combine the cod, drained tuna, mashed potato, garlic, chives, egg, Parmesan, thyme, smoked hot paprika, salt and pepper in a large bowl and mix it with masher or hands.
Use 1 full tablespoon of the mixture to form a ball, press and coat well with corn meal. Set aside while making remaining cakes. Refrigerate fish cakes until chilled for 10-30 minutes*.
Preheat the skillet to medium high. Add 2 tablespoons of frying oil and 1 tablespoon of butter for each batch. Pan-fry in batches for about 2-3 minutes each side or until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels. Check the seasoning. Serve with lemon or lime wedges, classic Aioli sauce, zesty Tkemali plum sauce, Lime & Avocado Mayonnaise, Buttermilk sauce, Herb Lentil Avocado Spread or other sauce of your choice. You can also serve them in fish tacos wrapped in warmed up corn/whole wheat tortillas, laced with one of the above sauces and dressed with thinly sliced vegetables, such as:cabbage, radishes, pepper, tomatoes, avocado, shallots, onion, lettuce, fine herbs, etc.
*Freeze them on the cutting board if making the dish in advance. When frozen, transfer cakes to Ziploc bag or plastic container and keep in a freezer for up to 1 month. Let thaw in the fridge for 24 hours before frying. Re-coat in cornmeal if necessary for the crispy crust.