Fish cakes

09 April 2018

Fish cakes

I make fish cakes maybe once a year, and it’s a favourite treat when I do. Of course, it’s a lot quicker to pan-fry a nice piece of cod so it’s meltingly soft, just flaking apart. But there’s something about the mix of the flakes of mild white fish, mashed potato and the crispy crunch of the toasted breadcrumbs that makes for the perfect combination.

To nudge the flavour up, I follow Angela Nilsen’s suggestion of adding a little home-made tartare sauce to the mix. In fact, if you’ve never read Nilsen’s ‘Ultimate Recipe Book’, I highly recommend it for its rigorous deconstruction of a number of classic dishes to identify the techniques and approaches that make them work. Everything I learned about fish cakes (and risotto, and French Onion Soup, and Salad Niçoise) I learned from that book.

Of course, there’s only so much you can get from the written word. The key with making the best fish cakes is getting the balance right between the fish and the potato, and knowing it to be so doesn’t automatically equip you with the feel for what makes it so. It’s simple trial and error. Fish cakes are one of those things where you get the best result the lighter you make them, but the consequence of that lightness is that they fall apart more easily pre-cooking. You want to keep some nice big flakes of fish in there, so you really get the fish flavour and texture, and you want to keep the mashed potato dry. I do the same as I do for gnocchi and bake the potatoes for the mash. If you can’t be bothered with the extra time, you can just boil them but leave them uncovered for a few minutes at the end for the water to evaporate away.

Fish cakes

Recipe adapted from Angela Nilsen’s version in ‘The Ultimate Recipe Book’.

Serves: 4

1 large fillet sustainably-sourced cod (should be 400-450g)
350g floury potatoes (Maris Piper are good)
150ml milk
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
1 tablespoon fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 free range egg
Plain flour for dipping
80g breadcrumbs, ideally slightly stale
Oil for frying

Tartare sauce

125ml mayonnaise
1.5 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon creamed horseradish
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped


Prick the skins of the potatoes and bake for around an hour at 180ºC / 160ºC fan oven. 

While the potatoes are in the oven, mix all the sauce ingredients together and put to one side.

Gently poach the fish in the milk and as much again of water, gently simmering for a few minutes until cooked through. Remove from the liquid and set to one side.

When the potatoes are cooked, cut them in half and remove the cooked insides from the skins. Lightly mash the potato and add 2 tablespoons of the sauce, the lemon zest and the chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Flake the fish into big chunks and gently mix into the potato, taking care not to over mix and hence break the fish up into too small pieces. Allow to cool.

Get three plates. Beat the egg and put it onto one plate, put a couple of handfuls of flour on the second plate, and the breadcrumbs on the third.

Divide the mixture into four and, on the floured plate, form them into cake shapes and ensure they’re coated with the flour. Then dip them onto the egg, and brush them all over with it, and then put them onto the breadcrumbs and sprinkle the crumbs all over, gently patting them to encourage them to stick to the egg. Chill these for at least half an hour. You can freeze them at this stage for later cooking if you prefer.

Heat the oil in a suitably large frying pan. The cakes should sizzle immediately they’re added. Fry the cakes for five minutes on each side until they’re crisp and golden. Serve with the tartare sauce.

Food Waste Notes

You'll have capers left over, which you can keep in the jar, covered with their liquid, in the fridge. Capers that are kept refrigerated will remain at their best for as long as a year. That said, you should plan in advance when you're next going to use them, otherwise you know they'll probably sit there for the year and longer.

If you're not taking parsley from a living plant, but you've bought a pack of parsley leaves, then you'll have lots left over. If you're not planning to use the rest in the next day or two, you can freeze the parsley. Press them into ice cube trays and drizzle a little water over them to freeze. You won't be able to use them for salads because they will lose their fresh texture, but they will be fine for adding to cooked food.