Monday, July 23, 2012

Wild-Caught Pickerel Fish Cakes

Considering the weekend of cooking I have experienced, it's borderline absurd that this dish is the first item that I felt was worthy enough to break a writing fast of almost two weeks. And yet, it's these kinds of meals that really interest me. Let's take a step back and examine the last couple of days in my culinary terms anyway.

This past weekend I embarked on cooking some 'Southern' style food. This means fried things and barbecued things and lots of meat. Southern cooking, and by this I am referring almost specifically to Carolina cuisine, puzzles me somewhat. Around the world in places that are hot and humid, you tend to get cuisine that is spicy, cooked quickly, and tends to be lighter with lots of seafood and vegetables. Think Thai cuisine or Mediterranean cooking. Sure India has some pretty heavy, stick-to-your-ribs type curries, but again, most of them are vegetarian. Then you get the American south. Hot, humid and food that is so heavy and fattening that it defies logic in some way. Don't get me wrong - the food is absolutely delicious. I spent some time in North Carolina and the food there was a revelation. I was flabbergasted that this type of regional cuisine existed in North America given our propensity for homogeneous, grocery-store centred cooking. In North Carolina there is 'Eastern' cooking, "Lexington" cooking and there is even some of the famous 'low land' cooking that is largely associated with South Carolina. Either way, the food is spicy, salty, assertive and very comforting. Southern BBQ specifically is all about slow cooking, with some BBQ pits running for up to 18 hours. 

This past weekend, I wanted to try and capture some of the flavours I enjoyed those years ago when I was in North Carolina. Pulled pork was the obvious centre piece of the meal. However, no countertop slow-cooker for me. Proper barbecued pulled pork needs to be cooked slowly in a dry environment so that you can produce a beautiful bark on the outside and that the juices and fat stay within the meat. I won't go into great detail regarding this meal, but suffice to say, my six pound pork shoulder slowly cooked at 220F in my BBQ under indirect heat with a combination of charcoal and apple wood smoke. The rub was my own creation and the 'mop' (a sort of basting liquid used to create the 'bark' on the outside of the meat) was made with apple cider vinegar, apple juice and a bit of beer. After about seven to eight hours, the pork shoulder is allowed to cool somewhat and shredded, then placed on simple white buns with BBQ sauce. Along with this I also made some buttermilk fried chicken in my deep fryer. Again, fun to make, and the first piece goes down great, but after that, it gets a bit heavy. 

So, how does this all lead to fish cakes? Well, for this BBQ (in which I ended up feeding 22 adults and children, with the help of a few other cooks), I had a goodly amount of leftover baby potatoes (that were in a potato salad), a huge whack of leftover corn on the cob and at least eight leftover buns from the pulled pork. So how did I figure fish cakes? Well, the buns can be turned into bread crumbs, the potatoes can be mashed down and corn cut off the cob and added to the mix - that is the making of a fish cake. I just needed some fish. 

Almost exclusively, my fish cake recipes use cod. I love cod and it is a very traditional fish for this type of recipe. However, I want to go local, and on my Beech Tree draft menu I have indicated pickerel cakes as a local alternative. I have never tried it this way, but I had a hunch it would work. And did it ever. This dish revisits a childhood memory of my dad catching a fish, filleting it, dredging it in salted flour and simply frying in butter for breakfast. I wanted to capture this feeling in the fish cake, and I think I succeeded. I dare say that the pickerel is a much superior fish to the cod in this case. It's flesh is meaty, clean tasting and sweet. This fish is also caught within a few hours drive of my home so it is much fresher than anything coming from the ocean. Anyway, the kids loved these and although I may be tweaking this recipe a bit, my first attempt is pretty darn close to my vision.

Pickerel Fish cakes

One large pickerel fillet, pin bones and skin removed
A bunch of small waxy potatoes(about two-thirds the weight of the fish - you're looking for a 65-35 ratio of fish to potato)
About a cup of cooked corn, cut from the cob
2 tbs of chopped chives
2 tbs of flour
1 large egg
1 pinch of cayenne
1 cup of seasoned bread crumbs (homemade preferably)

First poach the pickerel in gently simmering, salted water along with a bay leaf for a bare six minutes. You want the fish just barely cooked and just able to be flaked. Then remove it from the water and get it into a bowl and into the freezer to flash cool it. For the potatoes, I started with spuds that were already cooked. That is, they were split and boiled with the skins on. I mashed them up, skins and all, and then spread them out on a board and chopped through them with a large knife a few times. This will break up the skins a bit so there is no large potato skin in there. The skins add flavour and nutrients, but they are scarcely noticeable in the finished product. Once the spuds are bashed up and cut through, get them into a mixing bowl and add your corn kernels, the chives, the flour, the egg, the cayenne and season aggressively with salt and pepper. Pull the fish out of the freezer and flake it up with a couple of forks, and then fold it into the potato mixture. Once the mix is well incorporated, get it into the fridge for about ten minutes to firm up. Pour your bread crumbs in a shallow dish or plate. Then start forming the potato-fish mixture into little cakes and dip the top and bottom of each cake into the bread crumbs. You're not looking for complete coverage, just a little bit on each side that will be in contact with the pan. Once you've got all your cakes made, fry them off in clarified butter (this gives a much better flavour than plain oil and is reminiscent of my childhood fried fish). Fry so that the top and bottom of each cake is nicely browned. Once they've all been browned, get them into a 375F oven for about ten minutes to finish cooking through. Serve with homemade tartar sauce and a green salad. 


  1. Am making these for the second time now. Absolutely delicious. Many thanks. Being a Marylander, where we specialize in crab cakes, I blend recipes a bit and put a good dollop of brown mustard in the mix as well (though dijon works too). Thanks again, this will get used for years to come.

  2. can u pls switch to a black font rather than a light grey one?

  3. can u pls switch to a black font rather than a light grey one?