Simply food

FISHY BUSINESS

Traditional mashed potato and haddock fish cake, a winner every time

Delicious crispy fishcake

Yorkshire fishcakes differ from those in the rest of the world: they consist of a sandwich of fish between two slices of potato, battered and deep fried. From Portugal to Barbados to Newfoundland, fishcakes come in a dazzling and delicious variety.

Most countries have their own variety of fishcake, ranging from lightly battered deep-fried small balls of finely minced fish you find in almost every Asian cuisine, satsuma-age in Japan, to the salted cod batter balls I’ve enjoyed in Barbados, or the pastéis de bacalhau I’ve discovered in my journey into Portuguese food. Bacalhau is the word for the salted cod which became part of the national diets of both Portugal (and later Newfoundland) after the discovery of the Grand Banks in the 15th-century. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, I’ve been treated to their version of fishcakes: salted cod mixed with mashed potatoes. Summer savory is the favoured spice, along with lightly sautéed onions, giving it much more of a thyme-like flavour. The cakes are then formed into rounds and fried in bacon fat.

Curiously, the Brits have never really cared for fish, nor eaten it in great quantity.  Andrew Watts, writing in The Spectator, reveals that as far back as the Picts, living on an island surrounded by fish, they weren’t all that keen on the creatures. New analysis of skeletons from a Pictish burial ground in Scotland shows they ate beef and pork, but no fish. Near the writer’s Cornish home, the local butcher sells loads of steaks to commercial fishermen off for a week at sea. ‘Do you never eat the fish you catch,’ he asked one. ‘Only if the meat runs out,’ the fisherman replied, looking horrified. In Europe, nobody seems to mind the head and tail being left on when brought to the table, but the Brits have to disguise their fish: in fish and chips, heavily battered, as fish fingers, or indeed in fishcakes.

‘Batter, tater, fish, tater, batter’ is the way to make a Sheffield fishcake. It’s a fish sandwich, bits and bobs of left-over fish between two slices of potato, drenched in batter and deep fried. Sheffield is only a dozen miles from our South Yorkshire retreat, but truthfully, I’ve never come across this regional delicacy. It’s told that a local chippie decided this was the best way to use up the left-overs from trimming the fish used in fish and chips. In Yorkshire they say: ‘Owt for nowt,’ or ‘something for nothing.’ A good way to maximise profits. In Mrs. Beeton’s 19th century Book of Household Management, her recipe for fishcakes calls for ‘leftover fish’ and ‘cold potatoes.’

FISH 2

Deep fried fishcakes served with parsley sauce, buttered carrots and peas

All over Yorkshire the fishcake is usually considered a working man’s snack, but at the lovely George Hotel in Hathersage in the spectacular Peak District across the border in Derbyshire, but only 10 miles west of Sheffield, they posh it up. On my last visit my beloved tried the Yorkshire fishcakes and declared them sublime. Let’s hope they’re still on the menu when they reopen after lockdown. This variation is traditionally served in many fish and chip shops in South Yorkshire. Yorkshire chef Brian Turner’s version is worth a look.

In other parts of England they call it a fritter, patty or rissole. In Ireland a rissole is a deep-fried sausage of mashed potatoes covered with breadcrumbs. In the south of England, a rissole is a way to make cheap cuts of beef go further, with mashed potatoes as a filler. In France they are called a croquette. In Portugal, rissoles are known as rissol (plural rissóis) and are a very popular snack, although there they are a crescent shaped pastry filled with shrimp, more the shape of a Cornish pasty. In Barbados, fishcakes are made from salted codfish mixed into a batter, deep fried in oil, often served at breakfast or as an appetiser with a rose marie sauce. At the Friday fish fry in Oistins, I’ve pigged out on a platter of Barbados style fishcakes.

Deep research into all these many varieties has left me yearning for the simple fishcake of my childhood. There are so many recipes to choose from, but I’m unable to come near something that tantalises my tastebuds, so the following recipe is entirely my own. Since I’ve cooked this dish in Canada, I’ve used summer savoury in salute to the Newfoundland version.

Fishcakes with parsley sauce

Shopping list

  • 400 g haddock (or cod) filets
  • 400 g white potatoes (or equal amounts of each)
  • 1 cup / 225 ml whole milk
  • 1 cup / 225 ml cream
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • ½ tsp dried summer savoury
  • 1/2 cup / 90 g fine flour
  • ½ cup / 90 g breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups canola (rapeseed) oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sauce

  • 2 TBSP / 45 g unsalted butter
  • 2 TBSP fine flour
  • ¼ cup parsley leaves, chopped finely
  • 1 cup reserved milk mixture used to poach fish

Preparation and cooking

Savoury fish cakes dipped in egg and breadcrumbs await the deep fryer

Breaded fishcakes ready for the deep fryer

  1. Peel the potatoes and cut them into large pieces, lower them into a deep pan of well salted boiling water and let them cook for 15 to 20 mins.
  2. Put the fish into a pan, pour in the milk and cream, add the bay leaf and peppercorns. Bring the liquid to the boil, lower the heat and leave to simmer for 10 minutes, or until the fish is lightly cooked. You should be able to pull the flakes apart with relative ease. Lift the fish out of the liquid, discard the bay leaf and peppercorns and reserve the liquid for the sauce. Set the fish aside to cool.
  3. Mash the potato until floury. TIP: Under no circumstances use a food processor which will turn the potatoes into a gluey mess. Add the savoury and mix in. Add the fish and mix gently into the fish. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
  4. Divide the mixture into 8 balls, roll them in flour on a board, then gently squash them down until they make thick wheels, about 1 1/2 to 2 ins across. Repair the outer rims if they crack by wheeling them across the floury board. Place on a plate, cover with kitchen wrap and refrigerate for an hour.
  5. In one bowl put the breadcrumbs, in another break two eggs and beat them.
  6. Sauce: Melt butter in a saucepan, add an equal amount of flour and stir together cooking lightly over a moderate heat for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring almost constantly to make a roux. Pour in the reserved milk from cooking the fish, a little at a time, and whisk until the sauce thickens without any lumps. Add the finely chopped parsley and set aside for the flavours to assimilate.
  7. Pour the oil into a small deep fryer (or a pan with a frying basket) and heat up. TIP: Hot oil is dangerous. Never leave this pan unattended.
  8. Remove the fishcakes from the fridge and roll them, one at time, into the beaten egg and then the breadcrumbs. Place the cakes on a plate, until all are done. Then deep fry a couple at a time (or however many will fit in your basket without touching) until they are golden brown.
  9. Keep in a warm oven if necessary, or serve at once with parsley sauce and a side of your choice, such as carrots and peas.
Tasty deep-fried fish cakes tantalize the taste buds

Featured image: Deep fried fishcakes ready for serving

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This is Nigel’s 277th blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well, if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories. Here is the link to Market to Table: The Cookbookan eBook bargain at $11.50. The link to Gentleman’s Portion: The Cookbook is now live, even better priced at $9.99 or £9.99.

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