By Henry Schliff
It was love at first bite when I tasted my first fish cake at a small breakfast restaurant on the island of Nantucket where I worked as a cook at the Harbor House Hotel in the mid 70’s. They were made from cod fish and mashed potatoes and were served with two fried eggs. To this day, fish cakes and eggs are still my favorite morning fare. Now however, I love them any time of day and over the years I have experimented with lots of recipes until I settled on one of the simplest of all. I have found that the key to a good fish cake starts with pristinely fresh fish (no other odor other that a faint salt-water aroma) and adherence to a simple and precise preparation technique. Fish cakes are good made with practically any fresh fish so it’s not necessary to buy the most expensive. In addition, leftover fish from another occasion works equally as well; so the fish that you buy at the market for dinner can also provide a morning after treat. Fish cakes are very popular with the islands’ residents and you can find tasty variations at some of our best restaurants. While visiting our beautiful island I encourage you to seek them out and visit Ocracoke Seafood where you will find the freshest of fish to start you on your own culinary adventure. Below is my latest version which I hope you will enjoy.
Olive oil and butter
1 lb. boneless fish filets (or 1 ½ cups previously cooked fish)
1 cup chopped onion
1½ tsp. Baltimore Seasoning (available at Ocracoke Seafood) or Old Bay seasoning
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
2 cups peeled and cubed potatoes, cooked until tender, and drained
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
Place a large heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat. Lightly season the fish filets with salt and pepper. After the skillet becomes hot (2-3 minutes) add enough olive oil to coat the surface and add the fish filets skin side down. Cook over moderately high heat until the skin blisters and the bottom quarter of the filets turn opaque. Turn the filets over, adding a little additional olive oil if necessary to keep them moist, and continue cooking until the rest of the flesh turns opaque and it flakes easily when prodded with the point of a small knife. Remove the filets to a plate and set aside. Add the chopped onion to the skillet, along with a little additional olive oil if necessary, and cook over low heat until they soften and become translucent (about 10 minutes). Stir in the Baltimore Seasoning, salt, and pepper. Remove the skin from the fish filets and add them to the skillet. Using a wooden spoon, break the fish into small pieces. Stir in the flour, lower the heat to medium, and continue stirring and cooking the mixture for a few minutes. Stir in the potatoes and stir everything together well. Place the mixture in a large bowl. Let the mixture cool slightly and then stir in the eggs. Using a potato masher, reduce the mixture to a coarse puree. Using your hands scoop out about one half cup of filling, form it into a round cake about one inch thick, and place it on a separate clean plate. Continue the process until all the filling is used. Clean the skillet and place it back over high heat. Add 1 Tbs. olive oil and place one Tbs. butter into the oil. When the butter melts and reduces to small bubbles tilt the skillet back and forth to evenly coat the bottom. One at a time, place one half of the cakes into the pan leaving room enough between them for turning. Cook over medium heat until the cakes become firm and lightly browned underneath (about 5 minutes). Turn the cakes over and repeat on the other side. Remove the cooked cakes to a serving dish. Continue the same process with the remaining cakes (makes 10-12 fish cakes).
Henry Schliff has been the chef of a French, Italian, and Mexican restaurant and most recently the owner of the Orange Blossom Bakery in Buxton. He is the author of two cookbooks.
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