By Barbara Beltrami
Years ago up on the Cape, tucked way back from the side of the road, there used to be a little fish shack called Caleb’s. It was tiny, ramshackle and barely visible, but the natives and summer regulars all knew about it and crowded its half dozen or so stools and one picnic table set under a faded yellow umbrella.
At lunchtime it exuded the unmistakable summer aromas of oil, suntan lotion and frying. Caleb was the proprietor, cook, server, and quintessentially an iconic salty old New England cuss. The only things you could get there were fish cakes. And what fish cakes they were! Each day the special was written in crayon and posted on a piece of cardboard taped to the side of the shack next to the counter. It was most often cod, of course, but it could also be swordfish or tuna or clams or scallops or a blend of several varieties or anything over which Caleb could strike a bargain with the local fishermen.
The fish cakes were big, about the size of a large bakery cookie, plump and soft in the middle and crispy around the edges. They came on a Portuguese roll with a scoop of coleslaw, a dollop of tartar sauce and half a lemon.
Caleb is long gone. He seemed ancient way back then, and I know for sure that the fish shack is no longer there. It’s been replaced by a slick pizzeria with a garish sign and a huge parking lot. But the memory of his fish cakes lives on and while nothing will ever measure up to them, here are a few of my humble attempts.
YIELD: Makes 10 large or 20 small patties
2 pounds fresh cod fillets, skinned and boned
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 1/2 pounds Russet potatoes, pared and diced
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
2 large eggs, well beaten
2 tablespoons prepared Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup minced flat leaf parsley leaves
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup vegetable oil
Season the fish with salt and pepper; place on rack of steamer over boiling water; cook until fish flakes easily with a fork, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. In a large pot, cook potatoes and onions in boiling salted water until very tender, about 13 to 15 minutes. Drain and puree with ricer or food mill or mash by hand (do not use electric food processor). Add eggs, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and parsley; combine and beat vigorously; flake fish with a fork, and gently fold into mixture.
With a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, spread onto a baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well-chilled, about one hour. Remove from fridge and shape into patties; dredge with flour and shake off excess. Place half the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat; gently drop patties into hot oil (add remaining oil as needed) and cook until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot with tartar sauce, lemon and cole slaw.
Lobster and Scallop Cakes
YIELD: Makes about 6 medium patties
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 pound scallops
1/2 pound lobster meat
1 tablespoon minced flat leaf parsley leaves
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon leaves
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 garlic clove, minced
Zest of one lemon, finely grated
Freshly squeezed juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup good quality mayonnaise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons or more extra virgin olive oil or more as needed
Place butter, scallops, lobster, parsley, chives, tarragon, bread crumbs, garlic and lemon zest in bowl of electric food processor and pulse a few times to chop the seafood but still leave small chunks. Transfer to a medium mixing bowl and add the lemon juice, mayonnaise, salt and pepper and cayenne. Form into patties and place on platter or baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill for one hour or until well set. In a large skillet heat oil over medium heat; cook patties until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes each side. Carefully remove to paper towels and let sit, gently turning once, for two minutes each side. Serve immediately with lemon or sour cream and potato chips.