Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Not your ordinary fish cake

OK, you've got me--I don't even really know what an ordinary fish cake would be. Fact is, you don't see too many people routinely whipping up fish cakes at home. I don't think. But they happen to be a delicious, inexpensive and easy dish that are all too easily overlooked by the home cook. Growing up, my mom routinely prepared salmon cakes using canned fish--unappetizing sounding, perhaps, but in fact they were delicious, quick to throw together, and because they relied on pantry staples, they could be made at almost any time.

I was thinking about those salmon cakes about a week ago when, as I usually do during my half hour bus ride home from work, I was pondering what to make for dinner. It was getting late, I was hungry, and I wanted to make something fast and easy. On the other hand, I was in the mood for something a bit out of the ordinary. And finally, I was feeling like I should eat some fish. At this point in my life, I like most kinds of fish ok, but as a child I found them all to be disgusting, nauseating specimens and I couldn't believe that they passed as food. I remember that when I was young and my parents worked a lot, they designated certain nights of the week for certain foods, for example Pizza Friday, presumably to make the job of the babysitters feeding my brother and me a bit easier. Pizza Friday (always accompanied by a red Hawaiian Punch, in my case, except for that one week in 1992 when clear Pepsi was all the rage), in all its glory, shone even more brightly each week in comparison to the dreaded Fish Thursday. Much as the name implies, Thursday nights were reserved for fish, most often some bland tasteless fillet coated in breadcrumbs and fried in oil, but my delicate palate couldn't handle even that, and nearly every week I would feign illness or even lock myself in the bathroom pretending to throw up, attempting to weasel my way out of having to consume the fetid flesh. To no avail, I might add.

These days, I'll happily eat nearly anything put in front of me, and fish is no exception. And yet it's certainly never found itself on my list of favored foods. In fact, I often simply forget about fish and have to remind myself to eat it since it's light and healthy, and a good swap for meat when I'm not feeling like going totally vegetarian. It doesn't help that fish is often one of the worst purchases you can make these days, what with rampant overfishing and all, and that it can also be pretty pricey.

I'll readily admit that, like most people, price is what I think about before I consider the provenance of the fish and whether it's endangered or not. So that very night when I entered the grocery store and found cleaned, filleted lieu noir for something like 6 euro a kilo, making the one large piece I bought about $1.75, I scooped it up. Later, I did look up the fish--called Atlantic pollock in English (at least before a 2001 marketing campaign attempted to rebrand it colin)--and according to the Monteray Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch List, wild, net-caught pollock is a sustainable choice. So let's hope my lieu noir was, in fact, fished in that manner.

But on to its preparation. As I mentioned, I wanted something a little out of the ordinary, and decided that an Asian flavor profile was the way to go. Actually, since I cook Asian food at least twice a week, it's no longer that out of the ordinary for me personally, but those flavors--soy, sesame, cilantro, lime--never fail to taste beguiling and, yes, exotic. After choosing the pollock for its low price and neutral flavor, I picked up some baby spinach leaves and a carrot to cook with the rice I planned to serve alongside the fish cakes and headed home--all the rest of the necessary ingredients were already there.

After making sure my fish fillet was free of any lingering bones or skin, I cut it into large pieces and dropped it into the bowl of a food processor, then pulsed carefully to achieve a ground, but not puréed, texture. I transferred the fish to a mixing bowl and added salt, pepper, toasted sesame oil, fish sauce, minced shallots, a drop of rice vinegar and a small mountain of chopped fresh cilantro. I stirred this mixture with my hands until it just came together, then formed it into small cakes, rolled them in breadcrumbs, and let them firm up in the refrigerator before frying them in a hot pan. The result? Just as satisfying, and nearly as easy, as my mother's salmon cakes, and somewhat lighter and brighter. Call them fish cakes 2.0.

Asian-Style Fish Cakes
Makes about 6 medium cakes, or 2 servings


- 1 lb. neutral white fish, such as pollock, cod, scrod or tilapia, cleaned and filleted
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1/2 c. fresh cilantro, chopped
- 2 tsp. sesame oil
- 1 tsp. rice wine vinegar
- Dash of fish sauce
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- About 1/2 c. plain dry breadcrumbs
- Vegetable oil


1. Check fish for any remaining bones or skin and remove. Cut the fish into several large pieces and place them in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse carefully to achieve a ground, but not puréed, texture. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the shallot, cilantro, sesame oil, rice vinegar, fish sauce, salt, and pepper. Mix gently just until everything comes together. Shape into 6 medium cakes, roll in breadcrumbs, and let rest in refrigerator for 30 minutes to an hour.
2. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat and add about 1/4 inch of oil. When oil is hot, add fish cakes and fry, turning as necessary to avoid burning, until completely cooked through, about 12 - 15 minutes. Drain briefly on paper towels and serve.


veggie central said...

Thanks for the kudos! Yes, I remember no one liked the fish dinners, but now you both like fish, so I guess it worked! I still love the salmon cakes and I'm sure the white fish cakes are delicious! There's something to be said for almost any food being coated in bread crumbs and fried!!!

Anonymous said...

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2. Steam the asparagus: in a large, wide pot or pan, heat about 2 inches of water over high heat. When it boils, salt it, drop in the asparagus, cover and drop to a lively simmer. Steam