I first spotted fish cakes on an inn’s menu on Martha’s Vineyard. After daring to order them for breakfast, I’ve made them at home ever since — though more often for dinner, with a spicy dipping sauce alongside.
As high-flavored or mild as you like, fish cakes speak of cozy kitchen-table gatherings, New England frugality, and the Portuguese sailors who began settling in Provincetown almost two centuries ago, bringing their beloved potato-cod cakes — bolinos de bacalhau — with them.
They are a marvel of economy, both in terms of time and money, because only a modest amount of fish is needed to make fish cakes for a family. They’re absolutely in tune with the project underway in our $5 Dollar Foodie household: to eat well and with awareness not only of our budget but also of the need to be kinder to the planet by conserving precious resources.
Cod, once abundant here, is traditional for fish cakes, but many other kinds of fresh fish from local waters, including fluke and pollock, work well and are less expensive.
Preserved salt cod would reflect the Portuguese tradition, as it long provided sustenance for New England sailors and fishermen. Before that, Viking explorers made salt cod, and even earlier many of our coast’s indigenous people also preserved fish by salting it. But in the age of refrigeration, salt cod has become unfamiliar. It is primarily enjoyed by those who grew up with it — fans find it chewy, nicely salty, and worth the effort that goes into desalting it properly.
I prepare cakes whenever we have some extra cooked fish on hand. Matters are further simplified if we also have leftover mashed potatoes. But I’ll admit we also often make extra of both ingredients, with fish cakes in mind.
Starting from scratch just means boiling the potatoes while you cook the fish for a few minutes, and you’re ready to go. The potatoes, mashed with seasonings and herbs, are combined with flaked fish and formed into cakes, then dredged in corn meal and lightly pan-fried. I’ve found that finely ground corn meal gives a pleasing crunch, while medium cornmeal can be gritty. The egg is important for holding everything together.
I like to top them with a quick spicy chipotle mayo. But Hugo, remembering his cooking days in Provincetown and thinking about the Blessing of the Fleet, wanted to pay tribute to Portuguese tradition and came up with his own take on classic lemony Mozambique sauce.
If you’re serving fish cakes for breakfast or brunch, top them with poached eggs. They’re good for lunch, too, on fresh rolls with a few lettuce leaves. And now that it’s summer, they’re just right with corn and tomato salad for supper.
New England Fish Cakes
Makes 6 fish cakes
¾ pound haddock, hake, pollock, cod, or other fish fillets
½ pound potatoes (about 3 medium potatoes)
Salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
2 Tbsp. each grated onion, minced chives, parsley
¾ cup corn meal, finely ground (or breadcrumbs)
1/3 cup canola or other mild oil
Prepare a dipping sauce (recipes below) and set it aside.
To cook the fish, heat 1 tablespoon of oil to a shimmer in a medium-size frying pan and add the fish fillets in a single layer. Cook them for 2 to 4 minutes, depending on how thick the fillets are. Test for doneness with a fork to see if the fish breaks apart easily. Remove fish to a plate.
Boil the potatoes and, when cool, peel them if the skins are tough, mash them, and season generously with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Then stir in the beaten egg, onion, chives, and parsley. With a fork, gently combine cooked fish with the potato mixture; the fish will flake into bite-size pieces. Shape the mixture into 6 cakes.
Place corn meal (or breadcrumbs) in a shallow bowl and coat the fish cakes well.
Wipe the frying pan clean before adding enough oil to cover the bottom (about 1/8-inch deep) and heat until the oil shimmers. Place fish cakes in the pan and fry them until crisp and golden-brown on both sides, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Add more oil as needed and adjust the heat as you go so the fish cakes don’t burn.
You can hold them in a 200-degree oven for 15 minutes or so or serve them right away. Place a spoonful of sauce on top of each cake and offer extra hot sauce alongside.
6 Tbsp. mayonnaise
2 tsp. chipotle hot sauce or sriracha
½ lemon, juiced
In a small bowl, stir all the ingredients together and taste. Add more hot sauce if you like.
¾ cup roasted red peppers
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
A good pinch each of salt, red pepper flakes, and sugar
1 lemon, juiced
Place all the ingredients in the food processor and blend for a few seconds until smooth. Traditionally fiery, this is a tamer version that you can adjust to taste.