It seems the right time of year for this sentimental series, but here in the UK I am at a loss for the island’s most distinctive proteins. I know that I am not going to find seal meat, just forget it. Faux-moose stew made with beef is really just beef stew; ditto caribou. I have eaten farm-raised rabbit before, and it bears not a lick of resemblance to the wild version at home. In a restaurant in Italy last year, a waiter brought me rabbit and I tried to send it back because I thought he had mistakenly brought me chicken. But even though my fishmonger has no fresh cod tongue today, any immigrant grocer catering to ex-pats from the West Indies, northern Spain or coastal India will carry salted cod fillet on his shelf. The salting of North-Atlantic cod was a major occupation for generations of Newfoundlanders, up until electricity and thereby refrigeration became commonplace on land and at sea, and many traditional dishes use salted cod, often with ingredients like potatoes and pork fat.
This is the kind of simple recipe one employs to make away with leftovers. I love mashed-potato-bound cakes fried in hot oil because they achieve a browned-crispiness on their faces while retaining the creaminess of mashed potato inside. For these cod cakes I used last night’s mashed potatoes straight out of the refrigerator without even warming them up, and although I had to be gentle, the cakes held together admirably. When I mash potatoes, I use a medium- or high-starch variety, mashing them while still hot, first with butter and then with whole milk, which does make them smoother and stickier. Suprisingly, these salt-cod cakes are not particularly salty after soaking the fillets overnight. The most delicate issue when dealing with salt cod is the odour: it stinks, particularly during the initial boiling (once cooked and bound with potato the smell all but disappears). In summertime, open the window. In winter, simmer a splash of vanilla essence in a small saucepan of water. A Belarusian visitor who stopped by recently to look at my babka and reminisce about his childhood got me thinking about scruncheons, the crisped skin of a pork belly (you may know them as cracklins or scratchings) and salt-cod. I have some pink-veined pig skin here right now (having removed it from the riblets that I am presently salt-curing in the hopes of a Jiggs’ Dinner on Christmas Day), so I made my salt-cod cakes with rendered pork fat and garnished them with crispy scruncheons. (Disclaimer: scruncheons are very bad for you and you shouldn’t be eating them).
I think your choice of beverage depends upon your accompaniments here. If you go creamy, like a (gluten-free) parsely bechamel, then an un-oaked chardonnay would be nice, but with lemon squeezes a Loire muscadet would be better. Or go Basque with a manzanilla sherry and a mayonnaise-based sauce. Of course, if the salt-cod cakes are for breakfast, you’ll already be having a cup of sweet tea made milky with a tin of Carnation, won’t you?
Newfoundland Salt-cod Cakes
40 minutes after an overnight soak, including 20 minutes boiling; serves 4.
1 lb salted cod fillets
4 cups left-over mashed potato (medium- to high-starch variety, like Yukon Gold, Maris Piper, or Russet)
2 Tbsp pork fat rendered from scruncheons (or sunflower oil or corn oil)
1. Cover the salt cod in an excess of fresh water and let it soak overnight on the counter.
2. Remove the cod and immerse it in fresh water in a saucepan. Boil for twenty minutes.
3. Drain the cod, skin it, and remove any bones. Flake your fish.
4. Mix the cod with the potato. No need for salt. Shape into twelve balls and then flatten into cakes about 3/4″ thick.
5. In a heavy frying pan (cast-iron is excellent) over medium heat gently fry your handful of scrucheons until crisp, then remove them. Alternatively, heat your vegetable oil to near smoking.
6. Over medium heat fry the cakes, in batches if necessary, to crisp them on the outside and heat them through. Perhaps six minutes on the first side, then flipped gingerly for four minutes on the second, depending on your pan and heat source. Serve hot.