Fish Cakes, Fish Balls, Fish Hash
Fish cakes, fish balls and fish hash are a mixture of codfish (fresh or salted) and mashed potatoes with an egg(s). Shape is the only difference. Cakes are small flat cakes. Balls are small round balls. Hash is one large flat cake. Balls are deep fried. Cakes can be deep fried or pan fried. Hash is pan fried, on one side only and folded like an omelet. Hash omits the egg. Rendered salt pork was used for pan frying.
The American Frugal Housewife published in Boston in 1833 has the earliest recipe for fish and mashed potatoes. “There is no way of preparing salt fish for breakfast, so nice as to roll it up in little balls, after it is mixed with mashed potatoes ; dip it into an egg, and fry it brown.” Fish balls were synonymous with New England Sunday breakfast. However, not all cooks served it at Sunday breakfast.
The Codfish Balls recipe listed in The New England Yankee Cook Book, An Anthology of Incomparable Recipes From The Six New England States (1939) came from an old timer. “This recipe was used by the great-grandmother of Mrs. P. A. Rich of Framingham Center, Mass. She [great-grandmother] lived in Salem [Mass] and served codfish cakes every Tuesday and Friday at noon.”
New Englanders were not the only ones to like their codfish and potatoes. Their neighbors to the north did also. “An early visitor commenting on the hospitality he had received in the cabins scattered along the way from Halifax to Pictou [Nova Scotia], came to believe that nothing but fish was ever eaten in this country. For breakfast he was served fish and potatoes; for dinner, in another home, he was given potatoes and fish; and stopping at dusk he found once again fish and potatoes set before him for the evening meal.” (Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens)
The Nova Scotia Codfish Balls added onion. In a Maine cookbook onion was added. In the Boston area onion was not used. This suggests the northern areas had a preference for adding onion to the fish and potatoes mixture.
Recipes for codfish balls are listed in most New England cook books. They were associated with cheap homemade meals and with high class restaurants. Sarah J. Hale famous for getting President Lincoln to enact a nationwide Thanksgiving, and editor of Godey’s magazine, was author of The Good Housekeeper (1841). She placed the codfish balls recipe under Chapter X – Cheap Dishes. Aunt Mary’s New England Cook Book – Useful and Economical Cooking Receipts (Boston, 1881) listed different ways to use salted fish, that included fish hash and fish balls. Mrs. Lincoln and Fannie Farmer of the famed Boston Cooking School, and Miss Parloa who were well known cooks and cook book authors from New England during the late 1800’s (1880, 1884 & 1896) all had recipes for fish balls. These cooks worked in the wealthy homes and hotels, and / or trained women to in the art of cooking to go on to work in wealthy homes, hotels, and restaurants. They were the leading cooks of their time. Eleanor Early a travel writer from the mid 1900’s also wrote the New England Cookbook (1954). In it she had the following: “Ritz Fish Balls – The best fish balls in the world are served at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, and made from old-fashion salt cod.”
Bostonians prided themselves on making a good fish ball. A Boston lady contributed a recipe for fish balls to My Favorite Recipes. My Favorite Recipes was a cookbook compiled of recipes from women all over America in 1886 by the Royal Baking Powder Co. It reads, “Whoever has not eaten fish balls after this receipt, has not had them to perfection. – Mrs. W. L. Blake, 21 Allen Street, Boston, Mass.”
(1) Ratio: The ratio of fish to potatoes varied. Some recipes called for equal parts fish and potatoes. Many recipes called for one part fish to two parts potatoes. A New England woman (friend) who makes fish cakes on request for her son’s birthday and other special occasions says the 1 to 2 ratio produces a nice fish taste without being overpowering. That is 1 part fish (1 cup) to 2 parts potatoes (2 cups). You can also measure by weighting the ingredients: 1 pound fish and 2 pounds potatoes.
(2) De-Salt: Rinse the salt residue off the fish. Second, put the fish in two cold water baths (each 3 or more hours) to desalt the salt codfish. The Joy of Cooking recommends placing the fish under running water for 6 hours or soaking up to 48 hours, with several water changes. Many old recipes recommended soaking overnight so the extended soak is similar to the old way.
(3) Cooking: Cook the fish and potatoes in separate pots.
There are competing theories about cooking salt fish. Some recipes said to boil (fish and potatoes together). Other recipes said to bring to a boil (fish, only) and then let stand or simmer without boiling for half hour to an hour. One claims boiling does not toughen the fish, while the other claims the opposite that boiling does toughened the fish. The Joy of Cooking which tests its recipes, recommends to bring the water to the boiling point and then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.
(4) Flake / Shred: After cooking, allow the fish to cool slightly enough to handle but still be hot/warm. (Cold fish is difficult to flake.) Use your fingers to pull it apart. The finer the flakes the better it mixes. Break individual flakes up into narrow strips. Do not use a knife to cut it as the fish remains in chunks and does not mix well.
(5) Flavor: in the old fashion method salt was the flavoring agent. Try adding finely chopped onion, finely chopped fresh parsley, and black pepper.
(6) Texture: an egg was added to hold the mixture together. If mixture is to dry add a little cream. “Have them [balls / cakes] soft enough to mold, yet firm enough to keep in shape.” (1905 The New England Cook Book)
(7) To Cook Fresh or Leave Overnight: The freshly prepared mixture can now be cooked. The author found the freshly cooked fish cake salty, lacking fish flavor and the fish tough. After allowing the mixture to cool, a portion of it was saved and refrigerated 48 hours. It was placed in a glass (or ceramic) bowl and covered tightly. Then put in the refrigerator (24 to 48 hours). Author found it made the fish tender, lost the harsh salty taste, and allowed a mild fish flavor to come through. A few recipes recommended this method. Most recipes recommend mixing and cooking immediately. Ultimately, it is personal taste which dictates which method you use.
(8) Pan-fry: recommend using canola oil or olive oil as the heat is low. Old recipes called for rendered salt pork.
(9) Deep Frying: “If the fat is smoking in the centre, and the balls are made very smooth, they will not soak fat ; but if the fat is not hot enough [375 degrees], they certainly will.” The quote is from Miss Parloa’s New Cook Book (1880). When deep frying, the fish balls should be warm before being placed in the hot fat so as not to cool down the fat. They need to be kept separated in the fat. The recipes recommend frying about 5 small balls at a time. Lard was the usual fat used for deep frying.
(10) Serve with Boston Baked Beans (click for recipe)
1884 Boston Cooking School
Secrets of New England Cooking
New England Cookbook by Eleanor Early
1. Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until tender; drain.
There is no law against patting the Ritz recipe into cakes and pan-frying them in butter, salt pork or bacon fat.
Gloucester Codfish Puffs
1. Drain codfish and combine with potatoes [Fresh, codfish cooked in salted water can be substituted]
White Sauce Instructions
Yankee Magazine’s Favorite New England Recipes
Modern Version of Codfish Cakes
1. De-salt codfish (see tip #2 above)