Friday, March 4, 2016

Fish Cakes

One more fish recipe. That’s all, I promise. 

I live in New England, where spring is late to arrive. I haven’t seen anything green yet, nor any swelling buds, even on my apple trees. Pity those poor early settlers, who had basically run out of everything by this time of year. Imagine salt cod, sprouting potatoes and mushy apples—and little else. 

I’m lucky to have discovered the series of diaries written by the woman of the Massachusetts house I write about in the Orchard Mysteries. Her name was Olive Barton Warner, and we’re distantly related. She kept a day to day journal about the household activities for herself and her daughters (her husband Eugene gets a mention now and then, but he’s usually outside dealing with the farm). She’s surprisingly literate, with a nice hand, although her punctuation is a little unpredictable. Here’s one typical entry:

“I fried a batch of raised doughnuts made a loaf of gingerbread and 6 pies (my first rhubarb made two). Eugene went up and got Ruth after dinner–we cut L's dress earlier. The girls picked our first greens this P.M.”
The date was April 29th, 1880. So you can see we’re not quite close to harvesting any fresh vegetables around here (I don’t do rhubarb!).

But there was still fish. Here’s a recipe adapted from one in the New York Times recently, for a New England staple, fish cakes.

New England Fish Cakes


6 peppercorns

1 bay leaf
1 lemon slice
1 pound flaky white-fish fillets
2 Tblsp unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed
1 heaping Tblsp mayonnaise
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 eggs
1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
Several grinds black pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
1 heaping cup panko
1/2 bunch of parsley
Oil for cooking (I keep finding recipes that call for “neutral” oil like canola oil. I assume they mean anything that is not olive oil)

This is one pound of fish
First you poach your fish. Fill a shallow pan with high sides with an inch of water. Set it over high heat and add the peppercorns, bay leaf, and lemon. When it comes to the simmer, place the fish in the pan and cook at a low simmer until the flesh is just white all the way through (this took literally about two minutes—do not overcook!). Remove the fish pieces with a wide spatula and set aside to cool.

Empty the pan. Place it over medium heat and add the butter and let it melt, then add the onions and garlic and sauté until they soften, then set them aside in a large bowl.

In another bowl, mix the mayonnaise, mustard, eggs, salt, pepper (and red pepper flakes, if you’re using them). Add to the bowl with the onions and garlic. Add the panko crumbs and stir. Add the parsley and stir again.

Flake the cooled fish into the mixture carefully (you don’t want to mush up the flakes!). Make the mixture into patties (this should make 4-6). Place them on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (which is the only way they won’t fall apart when you try to cook them).

Set a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to cover the bottom. When the oil is shimmering, remove the fish cakes from the refrigerator (you don’t need to let them warm up) and carefully slide them into the cooking out, then sauté them until they are golden brown on each side (4-5 minutes per side). (Praying during the flipping operation is advised.)

Serve with a green vegetable (no doubt imported from Mexico or South America).

Believe it or not, the fish stays moist during its cooking.

There's a boat on the cover of A Turn for the Bad. Guess what: it's not used for fishing!

My favorite fish shop in Union Hall, on Glandore
Harbour in West Cork

You can find A Turn for the Bad on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Or in Skibbereen!



  1. I love the diaries! How interesting to look back into someone's life.

    1. I came upon them by accident: the current owner of the house (with whom I have become friendly) "borrowed" the first two from the local historical society (she has since returned them). When I heard she had them, I raced to copy the two. They are a wonderful peek into farm life in 1880, from a woman's perspective, and I'll bet that it didn't change for quite a while. Olive often got up and baked up to six pies before breakfast! I'm not sure whether she sold them or fed the hired hands (none are mentioned). There are plenty of cleaning descriptions, and dressmaking, and remedies. Sometimes they help out family and neighbors. She even made a trip to the dentist in Holyoke. I keep meaning to go back and look at the rest--there are at least two decades worth.

  2. I'm not a fan of fish, but a mystery that includes an old diary sounds very interesting. Another book to add to my list.

  3. Love the fish cakes. I need to get more fish into our diet again and these sound like a great way to do it!

  4. To me, fish and Fridays still go together so a fish recipe seems appropriate! We stil have snow on the ground here in Michigan and won't see anything green until April.

  5. These do sound good.

    I tried some fish cakes last week. My house smelled like them for days and days! They were tasty, though.

    I have a question about what you wrote:
    "and carefully slide them into the cooking out,"
    Cooking pan, perhaps?

    1. Ah, my fingers got away from me. I think I meant oil. It's the "carefully" part that matters (I didn't show you the picture of the one that fell apart along the way).

  6. Or I can find A Turn For The Bad on my bookshelf (Actually in my book box). One of my "Saving it for dessert" books.

  7. Sheila, love the diary. What a busy day she had and she got it all down in three sentences! Wow! ~ Daryl / Avery