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In praise of cod



One of the essential survival skills that the Pilgrims learned from Native Americans was how to fish by hand for the cod that abounded in New England waters.

Cod was admirably suited for preserving by drying or salting. Preserved cod had been an important part of the European diet for hundreds of years. I learned at the Islesford Historical Museum on Little Cranberry Island that the U.S. government started subsidizing large-scale cod fishing in the 1790s to develop a lucrative fishery and continued until 1866.

Salt cod became an important New England export to Europe, especially to Roman Catholic countries. Lesser quality salt cod was traded to slave plantations in the Caribbean in exchange for sugar and molasses for home consumption and the manufacture of rum.

Judging by its popularity in period cookbooks, nearly everyone in 19th-century New England was eating boiled cod, sometimes with a sauce. Many families ate cod every week. Frugal women made fish pie, hash or fish cakes with their leftover boiled cod.

“Fresh halibut or cod will make excellent cakes,” pronounced the anonymous author of “The American Matron,” a cookbook published in Boston in 1851.

Like several other American cookbooks of the period, this book is better organized and more instructive than the random collections of recipes that characterized earlier publications. For example, instead of giving many different recipes for forcemeat (stuffing) suitable for different kinds of roasted meat, fish and fried condiments for soup, the author included a two-column table.

One column listed main ingredients for a forcemeat such as ham, lobster, or oysters, and the other column listed possible seasonings: anchovies, hard-boiled egg yolks, savory, marjoram, thyme, cayenne, onion, black pepper, cloves, soy [sauce], ketchup and curry.

I combined a recipe for fish cakes from this book with some of the author’s recommended seasonings. Any boneless, lean white fish will work for these fish cakes. The author stipulated pork fat for frying the cakes. You could certainly use fat rendered from salt pork or bacon. I chose vegetable oil as a more heart-healthy alternative.

You may not have leftover poached fish, so I’ll start with a recipe for that.

Poached Fish
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Poached Fish
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Ingredients
  • 2 qts. cold water
  • 2 tsps. sea salt
  • 1 peeled whole onion studded with 4 cloves
  • a few slices of lemon
  • a few sprigs of parsley (optional)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 pound skinless, boneless cod
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Instructions
  1. Put the water and seasonings in a medium-size pot and bring it to a boil.
  2. Add the fish and reduce to a simmer (you can cut the fish to fit the pot). Cook until the center is opaque and can be flaked with a fork. Fish should be poached for 10 minutes per inch of thickness, measured at the thickest part.
  3. Your fillet will probably be thinner than that and require less time to cook. Remove the fish from the poaching liquid with a slotted spoon as soon as it is done, or it will overcook. Refrigerate the fish until needed.
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1851 Fish Cakes
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1851 Fish Cakes
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Ingredients
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
  • 2 Tbsps. unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 tsp. dried marjoram
  • ½ cup cup mashed potato, unseasoned and cooled (about 1 medium potato)
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 lb. skinless, poached cod fillet (or other lean white fish)
  • fresh breadcrumbs (from about one slice of bread)
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
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Instructions
  1. Sauté the onion in the butter over medium low heat until the onion is translucent, about 6 minutes, and allow to cool a little.
  2. Mix the salt, spices and crumbled herbs together in a medium size bowl. Stir in the sautéed onion. Add the mashed potato and mix well. Stir in the eggs. Flake the fish with a fork and stir it into the potato mixture.
  3. Form into 6 patties, press bread crumbs onto all sides of each patty, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. The fish cakes must be cold before cooking in order to hold together. Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch frying pan and sauté the fish cakes on medium heat for about 4 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Serve hot with tartar sauce.
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Merry Post

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