The frugality of New Englanders is evident in a number of tried‑and-true regional dishes. One of my favorite examples is fish and potato cakes: In days gone by, leftover cooked fish scraps didn’t go to waste. Instead, the fish (usually cod, either fresh or salted) was flaked and folded into potatoes that had been mashed with milk and butter; the mixture was seasoned with aromatics and herbs (and sometimes bound with an egg) before being shaped into cakes. The cakes were then coated in bread crumbs and pan-fried to develop crispy, golden exteriors that encased creamy interiors.
Today, the dish is a regional classic, generally made with fresh fish and served with lemon wedges and tartar sauce in roadside diners from Rhode Island all the way to the Maritimes.
Modern cod and potato cakes are still economical—a mere pound of fish can be stretched with potatoes to serve four people. That said, the cakes should still taste more like fish than potato. Exemplary versions are also moist and delicate on the inside but not so fragile that they fall apart easily during shaping, frying, or eating.
Unfortunately, none of the recipes I tested produced ideal cakes. The biggest issue I encountered was a mushy, wet interior caused by boiling the potatoes and mashing them with lots of milk and butter. There was simply too much moisture in the spuds, which led to sodden cakes. But the potatoes weren’t the only culprit: The fish mattered, too. Most recipes call for poaching the fillets in milk or water, which—as with the potatoes—tends to bring extra liquid along for the ride.
To figure out a way around this, I started from scratch. To make eight cakes, I began with 1 pound of cod and 1 pound of potatoes (floury russets are the potato of choice here since they have plenty of starch to help bind the cakes).
A dry cooking method for the potatoes was definitely in order, and since I wanted the cakes to come together quickly, I turned to the microwave. We have found that fully cooking russets in the microwave can make them gluey and unsuitable for eating whole as baked potatoes, but I hoped that wouldn’t matter when the potatoes were mashed and combined with fish. I zapped the spuds for about 10 minutes and then split them open to cool while I cooked the cod.
I knew that poaching the fish didn’t make sense: It would not only add surface moisture but also pull flavor out of the fillets and into the poaching liquid. I would ultimately be frying the cakes, so why not precook the fish in the same skillet? I sizzled some aromatics—minced garlic, fresh thyme, and minced scallions—in a couple of knobs of butter, cut the fish into large pieces to help it cook quickly, and slipped the pieces into the skillet. Keeping the fish pieces on the larger side meant that they would break into sizable flakes as they were combined with the potatoes. I let the cod cook gently for about 5 minutes, flipping it midway through.
By this point the potatoes were cool enough to handle, so I peeled them and passed them through a potato ricer. Next, I added the contents of the skillet—butter, aromatics, and fish—along with sliced scallion greens to the potatoes and gently stirred. As my spatula moved through the potatoes and fish, the cod separated into large flakes and a cohesive mixture formed.
Shaping, coating, and frying the cakes turned out to be a cinch. The cakes had to be fried in a single batch because any bread crumbs that sloughed off into the oil would burn during the second round. Using a ⅓-cup dry measuring cup, I shaped them into eight 1-inch-thick disks, which would fit snugly in a 12-inch skillet. I pressed the tops and bottoms (the parts that would touch the oil) in panko bread crumbs that I had crushed to a fine consistency to help them stick and then fried the cakes on both sides in ½ cup of hot oil.
The results were mixed: Gloriously crispy crusts formed on the cakes’ exteriors, but their interiors, though not at all gluey, were disappointing flavorwise. With my 1:1 potato-to-fish ratio, the russets had obscured the subtle cod. But when I halved the amount of potato to balance the flavors, there was no longer enough starch to hold the cakes together.
At 3 parts potato to 4 parts fish, the cakes were cohesive, if a bit fragile, but the cod flavor was ideal, so that’s where I landed.
Refrigerating the delicate cakes firmed them up, but it took a fair amount of time. To expedite the process, I put the cakes in the freezer, where they set in just 15 minutes. Unfortunately, as they warmed through in the skillet, the cakes softened, which made them difficult to flip without breaking apart. Some recipes solve this problem with flour or bread crumbs, but those starches—like an excess of potato—muted the fish flavor dramatically. Happily, because I had used dry precooking methods for the fish and potato, I found that all it took to bind my cakes was a single beaten egg. The egg had just enough protein to help the cakes firm up as they cooked. After their stint in the freezer, these cakes were easy to handle in the pan and developed crispy, golden exteriors. Their interiors boasted substantial flakes of fish and just the right amount of creamy, beautifully seasoned potato.
At last, I had found the right balance of flavor and New England thrift to create a cod and potato cake that anyone would enjoy.