Cod cakes are a traditional Newfoundland dish that many Newfies still eat weekly. The ingredients are not perishable, so this dish would see people through a long, ice-bound winter.
The summer savory is not absolutely required, but it does add a nice flavor, and savory is pretty much the “official” herb of Newfoundland. Wherever you go in Newfoundland, if a dish features an herb, it will be summer savory, and savory stuffing is the standard stuffing for fish and birds alike.
As for the salt pork fat, you can simply discard the crunchy little bits after you’ve rendered the fat, but in Newfoundland, they would most likely be saved to use as the “condiment” called scrunchions, which are usually served with cod tongues (though I find they are pleasant with the cod cakes, as well).
Because the fish has to be soaked, you need to start this dish the night before you plan to make the recipe. It’s a fair bit of work, but it’s worth the effort. And once you know how to work with salt cod, you will find a world of traditional recipes opening up to you, from the bacalao of Portugal to the brandade de morue of southern France.
Newfoundland Cod Cakes
2 lb. salt cod
8 medium red potatoes (about 3 to 3.5 lb.)
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 tsp dried summer savory
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 lb. salt pork fat
Put the salt cod in a deep bowl and cover it with cold water. Put the bowl in a cold room or the refrigerator. Soak the cod for at least 18 hours, changing the water a couple of times during that period.
Peel and quarter the potatoes. Boil them in lightly salted water until they are very tender. Drain the potatoes, put them in a large bowl, and mash them. Stir in the summer savory and chopped onion. You could also add some fresh-ground black pepper and a tablespoon of butter to the potatoes, if you like, but those are urban refinements, and not necessary to the success or authenticity of the dish. Set the mashed potatoes aside to cool.
After the fish has soaked, drain it, and remove the skin and the bones—and fins, of course, if the pieces you bought have them. (The bones may be small, so look carefully, but don’t panic, as you will have two other stages where you can catch strays.)
Cut the cod into pieces and put it in a non-reactive saucepan (so no aluminum; non-stick pans okay). Cover the fish with cold water, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the cod flakes easily.
Drain the fish, and separate into flakes. (If you let it cool a little, you can use your fingers, which offers another opportunity to search for bones.) Then mix the flaked cod into the mashed potatoes.
Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Put the flour in a pie pan or on another sheet of wax paper. Scoop up a good handful of the cod and potato mixture and form it into patties about three inches across and 3/4 inches thick. Dip each cod cake into the flour, coating it evenly on both sides. Shake off excess flour, and place the cod cake on the baking sheet. Continue until you have used up all the mixture. (This should produce about 12 to 14 cod cakes, depending on how large you make them.) Put the cakes in the refrigerator to cool. (Half an hour is needed, but you can leave them in there for several hours, if you want to make these ahead of time.)
Cut the salt pork fat into 1/4-inch dice. In a large frying pan, fry the salt pork over medium heat, turning it frequently, until it is crisp and has rendered all its fat. Remove the scrunchions from the pan, and save or discard, as you wish.
In the fat remaining in the pan, fry 3 or 4 cod cakes at a time over medium heat for about 5 minutes per side, until they are crusty and well browned. Turn the cakes only once. As they are done, transfer them to a platter and keep them warm until all the cakes are fried. Serve with reserved scrunchions, if you so desire. Serves 6–7 (two cod cakes per person).
© 2009 Cynthia Clampitt