fish cakes watercress salad

For Lovers of Fish

By Alison Boyd-Savage

I love to eat a lot of fish year-round. In the warmer seasons I welcome the abundance of the local catch, eagerly awaiting each new arrival, from the first flounder of April to the striped bass that closes out the season in fall. For sure, our local winter oysters are the best, and there is still fluke and flounder to be found at the market, but the pickings are slimmer.

As I turn to the comfort foods I crave in the colder months, fish cakes in their many guises become a staple. Regretfully, I could only share one recipe with you, so I chose a humble pairing of North Atlantic cod with mashed potato. Cod is a meaty, wild-caught fish that can be poached, fried, sautéed or broiled with great results. It works particularly well in these fish cakes, which are so substantial you need nothing more than a simple salad to complete your meal. Be sure to have extras so that you can enjoy a hearty breakfast of leftover cod cakes with a lightly fried egg on top. 

Fish Cakes

Although cod is my first pick, you can substitute other firm white fish such as haddock and hake. I have added a variety of seasonings to punch up the flavors of what could otherwise be a bland dish. The bright green sauce featuring peppery watercress and parsley and scallions adds plenty of zest, but you could easily substitute a simple tartar sauce. Do not waste the flavorful poaching liquid. I refrigerated it and used it the next day to make a simple parsley bechamel sauce, served over salmon.

2 large Russet potatoes, skins on
1½ lbs. skinless fillet of cod
2 cups whole milk
1 bay leaf
½ tsp black peppercorns
¾ cup diced celery
½ cup minced shallot
1/3 cup finely sliced dark green scallion tops (from about 5 scallions)
1 large egg
2 Tbsp. Hellman’s mayonnaise
1½ tsp. Old Bay seasoning
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/3 cup Panko breadcrumbs 
1/3 cup minced fresh dill
1 cup all purpose flour
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and fresh black pepper

Scrub the potatoes and prick the skins with a fork, before placing in a 375 degree oven and baking until tender (about one hour). Set the potatoes aside to cool slightly. Halve the potatoes and scoop out the flesh while they are still warm. Mash coarsely with a fork, add a little salt and set aside.

Place the cod in a large heavy saucepan with a lid. Add the milk, bay leaf, peppercorns and a large pinch of salt and bring to a simmer. With the lid on, continue to cook gently for about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave the fish to cool in the juices. Drain the fish and flake with a fork.

Lightly beat the egg in a small bowl and stir in the mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, Old Bay and Worcestershire and soy sauces. Place 1 ½ cups of cooked potato, the Panko breadcrumbs, scallions, shallots and dill in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Fold in the cod before adding the egg and seasonings. Add salt and pepper to taste. To make sure I have enough seasoning, I usually fry up a tablespoon of the mixture, taste and adjust accordingly. The mixture should be moist but not too wet. Cover the bowl and chill in the fridge for at least one hour. 

Place the all-purpose flour on a large plate. Season with salt and pepper. Using your hands take tennis ball sized pieces of the mixture and dip in the flour mixture, flattening to make 1½ inch thick patties.

Heat the oil in a large skillet that will hold all the fish cakes. Add the patties, making sure they are not overcrowded, and cook on medium heat for about two minutes. Lower the heat and cook for a further three minutes until brown and crusty on the underside. Flip over and cook for a further 4 to 5 minutes until thoroughly heated through and browned on both sides. Serve with a generous dollop of the watercress puree, lemon wedges and salad or coleslaw. 

Watercress Sauce

2 cups of watercress with thick stalks removed
½ small bunch of parsley, coarsely chopped, leaves only
5 scallions, roughly chopped
4 Tbsp. canola oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. water
¼ tsp. salt

Put all the ingredients into a blender and whiz up until combined and creamy in texture. You will have a fresh bright green sauce that can be refrigerated for up to one hour before using. 

Poached Apricots with Mascarpone and Shortbread

Fresh apricots are one of my favorite summer fruits, but their season is all too fleeting. I love to bring a little sunshine to February by poaching dried apricots in a wine syrup with herbs and spices. If you are lucky enough to have a vanilla bean in your pantry, then happily add that and skip the cardamon. Fresh thyme or a bay leaf can be substituted for the rosemary. Be sure to choose plump and juicy dried apricots for this dish, as not all dried fruit is equal in quality. The crisp buttery shortbread I serve alongside is from a recipe I was given many years ago. I have made it so many times that I could bake it blindfolded. The cornstarch adds a unique and superior texture, but makes the dough just a little trickier to roll out. Using parchment paper during the process assists greatly. European butter such as President or Kerrygold is essential to get the correct buttery flavor and richness. A generous dollop of Mascarpone cheese rounds off the dish.

Poached Apricots

2 cups dried apricot halves
1½ cup white wine
1 cup water
½ cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar
1 lemon
2 cardamom pods
1 large sprig fresh rosemary

Wash and dry the lemon and remove 2 long strips of zest (yellow part only) with a peeler. Bash the cardamon pods with a heavy rolling pin to release the seeds. Place the wine, water and sugar in a heavy pan that will hold the apricots in a single layer. Bring to a low boil and add the lemon zest, rosemary, cardamom pods and seeds and lemon peel. Once the sugar is dissolved, add the apricots and simmer gently until tender, turning once. Remove to a large bowl and pour on the cooking syrup. Cool at room temperature.

Shortbread Cookies

1 cup plus 3 Tbsp. superfine sugar
¾ lb. unsalted butter at room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch

Sift the cornstarch and flour together in a bowl and set aside. Place the butter and sugar (reserving 2 tablespoons) in a mixing bowl and cream until light and fluffy using an electric beater. Stir in the flour and cornstarch mixture until thoroughly combined. Form the mixture into a ball, wrap in parchment paper and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Place the dough on a large sheet of parchment paper and roll out to 1/3-inch thickness. If the mixture is a little sticky, you can also place a sheet of parchment on top to help with the rolling. Cut dough into 1 x 3-inch rectangles or use a cookie cutter to make your favorite shape. I used a heart to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake until a very pale golden color. They will still be slightly soft when ready and will not brown much. Remove from the oven, sprinkle on the remaining sugar and allow to cool and firm up before transferring to a plate. Shortbread will keep for up to a week in an airtight container.  

To Assemble Dessert: Place 5 or 6 apricots on a small plate, spoon over some of the wine syrup, add a dollop of mascarpone cheese and finish with a shortbread cookie.

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