When DPaul and I made our first (and in his case, only) trip to the UK back in 2003, I have to confess I had a certain degree of trepidation about the food. England’s reputation for grey food under grey skies is deeply entrenched, and the idea of meal after meal of boiled meats left me a little cold.
But once there, I discovered something altogether different. For one, we lucked into ten days of unbroken clear, sunny weather. For another, we ate like kings. "Beautiful weather and delicious food," I emailed friends and family back in the States, "Why have we been lied to all these years?"
And so when the inimitable Sam of Becks & Posh announced an event to illustrate that English food is no laughing matter, how could I resist joining in?
It’s no secret that England has undergone something of a culinary revolution over the past several years. It was wonderful to experience a nation’s renewed perspective on food, embracing, at long last, the myriad cultural influences of its colonial history (beyond just Indian food, which is of course legendary in England).
Now, while we were there, it did sometimes seem that everyone was in the throes of the exact same culinary battle. Fads were extremely evident — nearly every restaurant had duck spring rolls and some flavor of satay, for example. But the dishes I enjoyed most seemed to draw their greatest inspiration from homey roots. Hence I ate quite a few fishcakes.
This is my kind of food: Hearty and delicious, simple yet versatile. And anyway, what’s not to like about potato-y cakes encrusted in bread crumbs and fried? Even if you don’t like fish, this is not hard to swallow. And they’re pretty darn easy to make, too.
The recipe I used as my foundation comes from a charming British food show called, simply, The Best. In this program(me), three young chefs were given a topical challenge to cook, such as Tasty Fish Supper or Lamb Lunch, which they would send blindly through a hole to three eagerly awaiting tasters in the dining room on the other side. The tasters would deliver their judgment back to the chefs via SMS, which is, like, so Euro-chic.
Right. So I worked from Silvana Franco‘s recipe for fishcakes with mushy peas and chunky chips, only I figured that one iteration of potato was sufficient for this meal, so I ditched the chips. But beyond that, I had to make some alterations right out of the gate. First off, her recipe called for haddock, which is not quite as readily available here as in the UK; I figured any sturdy, flaky white fish would do, so I got a lovely fil(l)et (which you must pronounce in the British manner, with a hard "T" at the end) of Pacific cod at Sun Fat. And of course there were the mushy peas. These are a pedestrian canned ingredient in England, but not so commonly found on the shelves over here. Just as well — I really wanted the texture of whole peas to lend some contrast to the cakes just the same.
Silvana also calls for a dollop of mint jelly; though I like the combination of mint and peas, in the future I might eschew the stuff for just a handful of fresh mint, chopped, as I found the sweetness of the jelly distracting and too much in competition with the other flavors.
But overall quite good, and the options for adaptation are limitless. We had ours with a simple salad and a nice drizzle of homemade aioli, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But top that puppy with a poached egg, and you’ve got a brunch entrée extraordinaire. Or make them miniature with a eensy drop of romesco, and it’s pure party food. Pull the flavor profiles in whatever direction you like — a dash of curry, some minced garlic, or a pinch of herbes de Provence can paint the colors of a culture on this basic yet sophisticated canvas.
And that, my friends, is no joke.
Fishcakes with not-mushy peas
Adapted from The Best by Silvana Franco, Paul Merrett and Ben O’Donoghue
Two medium-large russet potatoes (approx. 1.5 lbs or more in all)
1 large (approx. 10-12 oz.) fil(l)et sturdy, white fish, such as haddock or cod
1 pint milk, any kind
10 oz. frozen peas
1 Tbsp mint jelly
2-3 Tbsp. white flour, seasoned
1 egg, beaten
1 c. breadcrumbs or panko
Peanut of vegetable oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Peel and cut the potatoes to about 3/4" dice. Cook in rapidly boiling water until soft, 10 minutes or so. Drain, and return to the pot to steam off. (I used the potato water to thaw my peas. Why waste perfectly good hot water?)
Meanwhile, place the fish in a large skillet and cover with milk. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and let rest until done, about 5 minutes. Drain off well, discarding milk, and flake the fish into the potatoes. Add the drained, thawed peas and mint jelly. Mash well using a potato masher (not a mixer — you don’t want to create glue.) Season with salt and pepper (and anything else you care to add) to taste; remember, everything is already cooked at this point, so you can actually taste. Form the mixture into 4-6 cakes, depending on the size you want.
Variations: Of course you can purée the peas if you do in fact want mushy peas. Also, I flaked the fish before mashing the mixture as I thought that was what DPaul would prefer. If you want bigger chunks of fish in your cakes, mash first and then flake the fish in and mix gently.
Dredge the cakes first in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs, being sure to cover all sides. Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a skillet over medium-high heat, until shimmering and wisps of smoke begin to appear. Fry the cakes until golden and crispy on all sides. You may need to stand them on end to get the edges well browned. Drain on a paper towel and serve warm.