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Cakes for when the chips are down

During a stolen week some years ago, a friend and I were on holiday in Donegal and we were taking it in turns doing the cooking.
I kicked off proceedings with lamb shanks done in red wine and tomatoes and then the following night, JC made a pasta dish. I can’t for the life of me remember what that pasta dish involved; as I say, it was some years ago and there may or may not have been drink taken. What I do recall though, is an argument which ensued when I offered to make garlic bread as an accompaniment to the pasta. This, I had assumed was a reasonable suggestion but JC wasn’t convinced and in fact, he said no.
Do you have garlic bread sometimes when you’re having pasta? I do and in fact, I find it an integral part of a meal, one which adds both texture and the requisite mopping ability.
However, when I tried to plead my garlic bread case with JC he said something which made think. ‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘Pasta is made from wheat and bread is made from wheat. If you have garlic bread with pasta it’s wheat on wheat. You wouldn’t have mash and chips.’
‘I would.’
‘No you wouldn’t.’
And that was the end of the discussion. My garlic bread idea was vetoed and since it was JC’s dish, I had to go along with it.
Don’t worry though. I was eventually able to scratch the garlic bread itch later that week when JC made salmon tartar. At least this time around my suggestion was deemed acceptable.
Where am I going with this? Well, I recalled JC’s mash and chips comment at the weekend when I was making fish cakes. I asked the little humans what they wanted with the fish cakes and I was told, “Chips.”
‘But there’s mash in the fish cakes,’ I said, paraphrasing my friend. ‘You wouldn’t have mash and chips at the same time.’
‘We would.’
‘No, you wouldn’t.’
Eventually we decided on tenderstem broccoli and peas as the additional elements (the fish cakes are pretty substantial) and for the greedy people, there would also be toasted sourdough slices, just in case.
Fish cakes can be sensational when they’re done with a bit of care and, more importantly, when they’re not just potato cakes with a hint of fish. Ideally, you’d want to use equal parts of fish and potato and I have even been known to use slightly more fish depending on the left-over mash at hand. And that’s another thing: It’s better waiting until you have left-over mash before attempting fish cakes, otherwise the handiness factor is lost. And handiness is where it’s at, for me.
I’m not sure either why I tend to pick up pre-made fish cakes periodically. I think the word ‘cake’ is to blame but it’s also my problem with optimism. As I’m always optimistic that fish cakes are going to be decent, but I buy them only to be disappointed; it’s as if someone made them with their feet. Not the home-made variety though.
I made these on Sunday and I discovered too that an idea accompaniment with these cakes is a home-made tartare sauce. I adapted an Angela Nilsen recipe for this tartare sauce but if you’re schtuck, just crack open a jar. It won’t be as good but it should be grand.
Most importantly, if you’ve ever made fish cakes before and they’ve fallen apart in the pan, the reason is probably because they weren’t cold enough. To avoid disintegration, they should chill out in the fridge for at least an hour before you introduce them to the heat.

INGREDIENTS FOR TARTARE SAUCE
3 heaped tbsps of good mayo
1 tbsp of capers, chopped
1 tsp of creamed horseradish
1 tsp of Dijon mustard
half an onion, finely chopped
1 tsp of chopped chives

INGREDIENTS FOR THE FISH CAKES
350g of white fish fillets, cod or haddock (or you could even use smoked). I used plain haddock
the same quantity of left-over mash
1 heaped tbsp of mayo
300ml of milk
the zest from a lemon, finely grated
heaped tbsp of chopped chives
150g of breadcrumbs, preferably from stale bread
1 egg, whisked
small handful of plain flour
vegetable oil for frying

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the plan
Start by mixing up the ingredients for the tartare sauce. Dump the necessaries in a bowl and then stir to combine. Simple. Check the seasoning and adjust. Mine only needed a touch of pepper.
Lay the cod in a pan and pour on the milk. Stick a lid on and bring to a simmer.
Let it bubble for two minutes and then remove the pan from the heat and let the residual heat finish cooking the fish through -about ten mins.
Heat the left-over mash in the microwave to soften it a bit then add the mayo and beat this through. Stir through the zest and chives and then check the seasoning. It should take a good few pinches of salt and pepper.
Remove the fish from the pan and then flake this into the mash mix. Stir through a few times, trying not to obliterate the fish too much and then set aside.
Lay out three plates, one with flour, the other with the beaten egg and the third with the breadcrumbs.
Flour your hands and, taking a large spoonful of the mash fish mix, shape into rounds. The flour will prevent yourself going bananas due to the sticky fish. NOTE: Don’t make the fish cakes too big at this stage because the bigger they are, the harder they will be to fry without breaking up.
When you’ve used up all the mashy fish mix, dredge each one through the egg and onto the breadcrumbs. It helps at this stage, if you use a fork to shape the cakes in the breadcrumbs, patting and pressing the crumbs in as you go.
Keep going until they’re all breaded – you’ll should get between six and eight cakes depending on size – and then stick them on a tray and retire to the fridge for at least an hour. After the hour, heat a few glugs of veggie or sunflower oil in a frying pan and turn to medium high. When the oil heats, fry up the fish cakes two or three at a time for about four minutes on each side, making sure they don’t go too brown and/or too crispy (I burnt one on Sunday and was muchly annoyed at this development). Ideally, they should go crisp and golden and they should smell divine.
Drain each one on kitchen roll when it comes off the heat and then serve up with a goodly dollop of the tartare sauce and whatever else you fancy. No chips though.
Delightful!

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