- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Many of us have fish fillets in the freezer and cans of tuna and salmon in the cupboard. When we want to serve a supper of healthful fish but find these pantry items uninspiring, it’s good to remember our mothers’ standby, old-fashioned fish cakes.

These patties are a convenient and frugal way to include seafood in your meals, and they’re a boon to cooks in a hurry. They are easy to make and cook rapidly. After all, even in our grandmothers’ more relaxed time, people needed time-saving tricks.

The basic principle is simple. Mix ground or flaked fish — raw, cooked or canned — with seasonings, eggs and either bread crumbs or mashed potatoes. Then form the mixture into patties and saute them for a few minutes until they turn golden brown.

Instead of sauteing the mixture as cakes, my mother often bakes it as a fish loaf or casserole. Although the cooking time is longer, the advance preparation time is shorter because there’s no need to shape individual cakes. Baking the mixture also enables you to use less fat.

Old-time recipes call for very basic seasonings, often just salt, pepper and onion powder or garlic powder, but creative seasoning can update the fish cakes and make them more interesting. On Lebanese tables, the tangy touch of ground coriander enlivens the fish. Turkish cooks, such as Neset Eren, author of “The Art of Turkish Cooking,” flavor fish cakes with allspice, dill and scallions and spike them with pine nuts and currants.

I like the North African seasoning formula, too, which features cumin, paprika, garlic and Italian parsley. It definitely perks up the patties. In Paris, I encountered spicy fried fish cakes at an Israeli restaurant. Called falafel fish, it used seasonings usually found in bean fritters: cumin, turmeric and plenty of red and black pepper. The result was a far cry from the fish patties I grew up with in Washington.

Although we tend to regard fish cakes as a weekday supper, some cooks turn the humble entree into a festive appetizer. My friend Faye Waldman makes elegant fish cakes from fresh salmon poached in white wine. Jayne Cohen, author of “The Gefilte Variations,” makes salmon patties glamorous by enriching them with smoked salmon.

Many Mediterranean cooks enhance their sizzling fish fritters with a sprinkling of parsley and a fresh lemon wedge. Adding a sauce is another favorite way to dress up fish cakes for holiday dinners. Spoon the sauce over entree-size fish cakes or make small hors d’oeuvre cakes or balls and pass the sauce as a dip.

An Italian green sauce of pureed basil, parsley, capers and olive oil is one easy option. So is Moroccan-style cilantro pesto, which contains plenty of garlic and hot pepper. Or you might want to try a refreshing Lebanese variation made with mint leaves.

Another popular partner is walnut sauce. To make it, grind the nuts in a food processor with garlic, parsley and a little water, then add olive oil and lemon juice to taste — like a nutty pesto. Serve fish cakes hot or warm, or follow the custom in many homes and serve them at room temperature.

On Mediterranean shores, the best-loved accompaniment for fish cakes is a quick tomato sauce made from fresh or canned tomatoes or tomato paste, enlivened with garlic and parsley.

Falafel fish cakes

Grind fish fillets in a food processor or buy ground fish or fish burgers. Cook ground fish immediately.

1 pound halibut, sea bass or salmon fillets, free of skin and bones

1 large egg

1 medium onion, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, chopped

cup cilantro sprigs, optional

1 teaspoon ground cumin

teaspoon ground coriander

3/4 teaspoon salt

to teaspoon ground black pepper

Cayenne pepper

About 1 cup dry bread crumbs

About cup vegetable oil

Cilantro pesto, optional (recipe follows)

Grind fish in food processor until very fine. Add egg, onion, garlic, cilantro (if using), cumin, coriander, salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne. Process to thoroughly mix. Transfer to a large bowl. Stir in 2 tablespoons bread crumbs. If mixture is wet, stir in more bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon at a time. (Amount depends on moisture in fish.) Knead thoroughly to mix well.

Line a tray with paper towels. Pour remaining bread crumbs into a dish for coating fish.

To shape the fish cakes, moisten your hands, take about cup of mixture and flatten it into smooth patties. Roll it in bread crumbs or pat crumbs on, if necessary, so patty is evenly coated. Repeat process until all patties are made.

In a deep, heavy, large skillet, heat 4 to 6 tablespoons oil, or enough to form a thin layer in the pan.

Add a few fish cakes to pan; do not crowd. Fry over medium heat for 4 minutes per side or until browned and cooked through. Use 2 slotted spatulas to turn them carefully so oil doesn’t splatter.

Transfer to paper towels. If you like, keep fish cakes warm on a baking sheet in a 250-degree oven. If necessary, add more oil to pan and heat it before adding more cakes. Pat tops of cakes with paper towels before serving. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature with cilantro pesto, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

CILANTRO PESTO:

3 medium garlic cloves

2 tablespoons walnuts

1 cup cilantro sprigs

cup Italian parsley sprigs

⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt, pepper, cayenne

Finely chop garlic cloves in food processor. Add walnuts, cilantro and Italian parsley; process to chop. With blade turning, add extra-virgin olive oil and process until blended. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Makes ⅓ to cup.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES INTERNATIONAL

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