A cake can be many things: a sweet indulgence, a celebratory totem, or a vehicle for leftover fish.
At some point, the universe anointed the crab to represent the fish-cake genre, and this has always bothered me. I've got nothing against crab cakes, but what about all the other sea-dwelling creatures who would give anything, anything to cozy up to some mashed potatoes and hit a skillet of hot, shimmering oil?
The first time I ate a fish cake bound with mashed potato was in Kilifi, a coastal town in Kenya. The year was 1996, and Colin and I were traveling with four friends during the summer between our two Peace Corps years in Eritrea. Our group's nurse, Debra, was married to a Kenyan, and through a stroke of good luck and good timing, she offered us up her house for a week. We flew from Asmara to Nairobi via Addis Ababa, took a bus to Mombassa, and finally made our way to the house, arriving late in the evening. We all immediately took long, hot showers and marveled at how much dirt had accumulated during our first year of service.
The next few days were a whirlwind of exploring, swimming, watching our friend climb a coconut tree, playing chess, reading books, and trying not to get attacked by monkeys. (We thought they were cute, but a few locals assured us they were vicious pests.) We also said jambo a lot. Although we were getting proficient in Tigrinya, the language we'd been studying in Eritrea, our Swahili was pretty much limited to that single word.
Debra had encouraged us to pay a bit extra to have her sometime cook, Kahindi, prepare some of our meals. As volunteers, we'd been used to cooking the simplest of foods on a kerosene stove the size of a coffee can. That someone else might cook for us on this trip was the height of luxury. I felt like an oil baroness.
One day, the doorbell rang. We watched as Kahindi handed a fisherman some bills in exchange for a few large fish caught just outside our door.
Soon, Kahindi set to work. He cooked the fish, chopped some herbs, and boiled and mashed a whole mess of potatoes.
I wish I could remember every detail about his process. Sadly, I can't.
I do, however, remember this: six twentysomething friends enjoying hot, crisp, fish-and-potato cakes, feeling clean, relaxed, and carefree on a late summer evening, tucked in a borrowed house, happy and pampered on the warm Kenyan coast.
Recipe for Halibut Potato Cakes
Last Sunday, I found myself in the enviable position of having some leftover grilled halibut in the fridge. It was Mother's Day, and my family had treated me so well -- there'd been breakfast in bed with waffles, fruit, and bacon (so much bacon!), and a long stroll through Hakone Gardens, one of my favorite spots in Silicon Valley. That night, I wanted to cook something special, so I boiled up some potatoes and got to work.
Makes 4 servings (about 13 fish cakes)
1 large Russet potato (about 3/4 pound), peeled and cut in 1" chunks
4 slices crisp, crumbled, cooked bacon
2 cups cold, flaked leftover cooked fish (such as halibut or cod), any bones removed
1/2 cup whole wheat or regular panko
A few tablespoons chopped fresh dill, divided
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons drained capers, rough-chopped
Fresh lemon juice, to taste, plus lemon wedges, for serving
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed, for the skillet
Arugula or salad greens, if desired
Boil the potato chunks until very tender. Mash. Cool.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg. Fold in the cooled mashed potato, bacon, fish, panko, and dill to taste. Season with pepper and mix well with a fork.
Using a standard-size ice cream scoop, dole out scoops of the fish-potato mixture onto a lined baking sheet. (Each portion should weigh roughly 2-1/2 ounces, but this isn't terribly important.) Once you've portioned them all out, use your hands to form them into neat patties, about 2-1/2 inches in diameter. Cover and refrigerate at least 90 minutes, or up to several hours, until cold and firm.
To make the sauce, whisk the mayonnaise, capers, 1 to 2 tablespoons minced dill, and lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper.
To cook the cakes, place a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Cook the halibut-potato cakes until crisp and completely cooked through, about 4 or 5 minutes per side, working in batches and adding additional oil if necessary.
Serve over arugula or salad greens, if desired, and pass lemon wedges alongside.