Food writer and cooking instructor Christine Rudalevige is a mother of two who recently navigated a family move from agriculturally rich central Pennsylvania to coastal Maine. Eating locally now means more fish on the dinner table. In this biweekly column, Fish on Fridays, she explores family-friendly ways to enjoy sustainable seafood.
Today, Christine questions the conventional wisdom of using mashed potatoes as the linchpin of fish cakes.
Potatoless Fish Cakes
Fish cakes are a breeze to make, are infinitely alterable depending on who's seated at the table, and freeze (not to mention thaw and reheat) with ease. There is just one thing I can’t stomach about them: that whole leftover mashed potato thing.
Back as far as Mrs. Beeton -- the 19th century British domestic goddess who wrote the Book of Household Management -- frugal household managers have been turning leftover seafood and cold, cooked potatoes into fish cakes. More recently, Mark Bittman, in my 1998 copy of How to Cook Everything, mixes mashed potatoes and salt cod with a bit of curry. And, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a food writer with several books under his belt and a regular column in The Guardian, touts a mix of fish (salmon, flaky white, smoked, and anchovies) combined with floury potatoes as the perfect combination for the ideal fish cake.
In most recipes, there seems to be a general starch-to-fish ratio of 2:1. Other recipes may or may not coat the cakes in panko. Some stick to egg whites as the binder while others toss in the whole egg. All add a bit of fragrant greenery to the mix. Most shallow-fry the cakes. That said, some cut calories and bake them.
My problem with traditional fish cakes is not a general aversion to the seafood-and-potato pairing. Push come to shove, fish and chips are one of the few fast foods I’ll eat because I truly enjoy them.
Rather, it stems from a deep-seated belief that the rightful place of any creamy, whipped potato is at the right hand of something expertly roasted to a crispy brown hue and nestled beneath rich, warm gravy. And on those grounds, I tend to run with rice when I’m serving fish. The bottom line for any economical fish cake in my kitchen is the fact that I never have leftover fish and spare mashed potatoes available on the same day.
Also, if I’ve got to go through the trouble of finding a usable starch to stretch that day-old, cooked six-ounce portion of fish into a meal hefty enough to feed three ordinary eaters and a 14-year-old man-boy, I want it to be an interesting combination that doesn’t look all that much like leftovers.
I bet you wouldn't have guessed that I'd be running with parsnips! Their sweetness and abundance this time of year and uncanny resemblence to potatoes when grated (which factors into whether or not my kids will hazard a first bite) led me to use them in this dish, a quick solution to a weeknight meal. I'd love to know how it fares on your table.
Leftover Salmon and Parsnip Fish Cakes
This recipe is truly only a guideline. If you have leftover flaky white fish instead of salmon, substitute a mild honey for the maple syrup, so that it brings out the sweetness of the parsnips without overpowering the fish. If you’ve got hot-smoked salmon on hand, lay off the salt in the mix. If your fish was already cooked with lemon, skip adding more lemon to the cake mix. If you prefer rosti-like cakes, spread the batter thinner than I describe in the method and cook them in a bit more oil to get the right crispness.
Makes six (three-inch) cakes
2 medium parsnips, grated (about 8 ounces)
6 ounces cooked salmon, flaked
1 celery stalk, leaves included, chopped
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 whole egg plus a second yolk
Juice of half a lemon (optional if your leftover fish has already been cooked with lemon)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Like this post? See Christine's previous topic: One Fish, Two Fish, Should I Be Eating Bluefish?
Photo by Christine Rudalevige.
Christine Rudalevige is a food writer, culinary instructor at Stonewall Kitchen, and mother of two who always fits in three square meals a day -- which occasionally means making up for a skipped breakfast with an ample late-night refrigerator raid.