I’m not exactly what you’d call a food historian, but it’s safe to say I have a healthy amount of knowledge about regional food specialties and traditions. And I’ve never been one to twist a classic or traditionally prepared dish into some unrecognizable facsimile of itself, unless I could make a great rendition of its original version first.
It’s all about respect, I think.
In my mind, you should appreciate what made a classic dish so popular before you go ahead and recklessly morph it into something else.
The famous baseball hall of famer Yogi Berra certainly wasn’t a chef, but perhaps he summed it up best when he said, “You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.” In other words, respect tradition, or at least, understand it.
In the United States, one region is particularly rooted in history, and it also has a deeply rooted love affair with fish and seafood. That region is New England. Home to some of the world’s best clams, oysters, mussels, crabs, scallops, and of course LOBSTER, it’s equally renowned for its fish, including salmon, swordfish, flounder, haddock, and my favorite, cod.
And so, because I love fish and shellfish so much, I’m somewhat a purist when it comes to making classic seafood dishes, especially if they originated from the richly historical area of New England. If you’ve enjoyed Nino’s Clam Chowder, you probably know where I’m coming from. It’s rich in clams and clam flavor, not too thick or pasty, and savory to the last spoonful. Likewise, my crab cakes are FULL of crab and have very little filler. They’re definitely classic.
Cod is my go-to fish, and I enjoy it in so many dishes, both classic and contemporary. You may have even seen a couple of my recipes on Nino’s YouTube Channel (and if not, the links are below).
This dish’s origins go back to at least the early 1800s, and it was popular not only along the North Eastern United States but also in Eastern Canada. The mixture of potatoes and cod (and in most cases onion) set this recipe apart from crab cakes in that potatoes are used for the binding agent rather than bread crumbs.
The recipe is something of a coastal peasant dish, with simple ingredients. The only real decision is whether to use salt cod or fresh cod. Salted cod is this dish’s true ingredient. Unfortunately, you can’t find it everywhere. We do carry it at Nino’s seafood department, and it is called Bacala, its Italian name. Salted cod gained popularity about the time this dish was created. It was during a time when large European clipper ships sailed to the coast of New England and Canada to fish for cod, which they salted to dry and preserve on its journey back. Likewise, New Englanders salted cod for export to the Caribbean and beyond.
To use salted cod, you only need to cut it in large pieces (3” to 4” each) and soak it in cold water for about 24 hours, changing the water every 8 hours or so. From there, it’s steamed and flaked in preparation for this dish. If you use fresh cod, simply steam and flake the same amount. No other pre-preparation is necessary. Another key ingredient is potatoes. You need to use what’s called a mealy type of potato, and that would be a russet (Idaho) or Yukon Gold. I personally prefer Yukon Gold.
Leave them in large pieces, boil them until tender, drain off ALL the water and coarsely mash them. The last important ingredient is onion. The more pungent onions (Spanish or cooking onions) are closer to what was available when this recipe was initially popular, but you may wish to use a milder onion (such as Vidalia or a sweet onion). You may also add a bit of green onion for color.
The remainder of the ingredients in this recipe are used for seasoning or frying and can be adjusted to your personal tastes.
New England Cod Cakes
(Makes about 20 – 2” cakes or about 8 servings)
1 Lb Salt Cod or Fresh Cod, cooked & flaked (see above comments regarding pre-preparation of the cod)1 Lb Mashed Potato, room temperature or warm, (see above comments regarding pre-preparation of the potatoes)1 Extra-Large Egg1 Egg Yolk½ Cup Diced Sweet Onion¼ Cup Chopped Green Onion1 TBSP Butter1 tsp Dry Mustard1 tsp Old Bay Seasoning1 tsp Worcestershire SaucePinch Cayenne PepperPinch Celery SeedsAs Needed Oil or Butter to Fry Cakes
Sauté onions in butter until tender. Do not brown. Allow to cool.
Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl, using a spatula in a gentle folding motion. Do not over mix, as doing so will break up the fish flakes.
Form cakes into patties approximately 2” in diameter and 1” thick.
Add approximately ¼” of oil (vegetable oil is preferred) in a non-stick skillet and heat to medium (about 350 F).
Pan-fry cakes on both sides until medium brown.
Serve cakes with tartar sauce & freshly squeezed lemon.
These cakes freeze quite well if wrapped tightly in plastic film and stored in an airtight container, so don’t worry if you make more than you can enjoy in one meal.