Freezer Fare: Fish Cakes

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I have fond childhood memories of fishing with my father in the sizzling heat of a Virginia summer.  Long before we had heard of “catch and release”, every edible fish went onto a chain stringer to be towed about in ninety-plus degree water for hours.  Inevitably, most of the fish would expire long before we decided to call it a day.  Just before heading home, Dad would fill an old metal bucket with some lake water and drop the discolored, curled-up fish in the tepid water for the hour’s long drive home.

Considering my father’s mishandling of our harvested game fish, it’s a wonder that nobody died, or at least got sick.  Of course, someone may have suffered and I just didn’t hear about it.  Unlike Dad, most anglers today understand the importance of getting their fish gutted, bled and iced as soon as possible, preferably immediately after the catch.  Iced fish should be stored with the dorsal fin up so that melting ice doesn’t pool up in the cavity.  Melted water needs to be periodically drained to keep the fish on ice, not floating water.  Colder is always better tasting and safer.  If you’re not going to cook it within a few days, your fish should be properly packaged and frozen.

If your only means of keeping fish frozen is a combination refrigerator/freezer, note that the standard home unit has a defrost cycle that raises the temperature, often past zero degrees.  Frequent opening of the freezer door also increases the temperature a degree or more, depending on how many kids are in the house.  Temperatures above zero will decrease the shelf life of frozen fish.  Best place to store frozen fish is in a chest-type freezer that keeps foods frozen well below zero.  The colder the fish, the longer it will last.  Unlike a fine red wine, fish does not get better with age.  For best results, plan on eating your catch within three months after freezing.  Oh sure, I know you’ve enjoyed some great fish that spent the better part of a year in the freezer, but there’s also a good reason that you keep avoiding that three-year-old bag of trout.  Let’s face it.  It’s now catfish bait.

sc-troutwithattitudeAssuming that your thawed fish doesn’t smell…well…fishy and it hasn’t been freezer burned, thaw either in the refrigerator or under cold running water.  By the way, you can excise the freezer burnt sections and save the good parts for dinner.  Once thawed, it’s critically important that you remove the excess moisture that has absorbed into the fish during storage.  It seems strange that fish that seems fairly dry before freezing ends up wet after thawing, even if it has been properly vacuum-packed.  Gently press the fish with your hands and wring out the excess liquid.  Then wrap it in two-ply paper towels (one-ply towels aren’t sturdy enough) to wick out any additional moisture.  Keep re-wrapping the fish until the paper towels are dry.  Dry fish will more readily absorb the flavors you add to the dish.  Wet fish will release its “fish juices” and compete with the white wine, lemon, garlic, basil and butter you’ve been thinking about all day.

Building fish cakes is a tasty way to make use of your previously frozen fish, but it just won’t hold together when cooked unless the fish is dry from the start.  And while the recipe calls for uncooked, flaked fish fillets, the same recipe works great with cooked fish, even leftovers.  Reminiscent of crab cakes, there are many possible variations on the basic theme.  Once you’ve given the recipe a try or two, you’ll want to add your own signature twists to suit your own creative palate.

This recipe works great with any kind of fish or a combination of fish, but I prefer those varieties that are flaky rather than firm. Striped bass, panfish, catfish, halibut and lingcod fillets are exceptional when formed into cakes.  You can either break the fillets apart with your fingers or use the tines of a fork to rake through the fish.  Resist the urge to play with your food and turn the delicate cakes over too many times. Brown on one side and then carefully flip over and brown the other side. If you need to make a big batch of the fish cakes, lightly brown them on both sides and then keep warm on a sheet pan in a low heat oven.  They’re also great served in a fresh sourdough roll with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce.

Fish Cakes

Make sure that the fish is dry before starting the recipe or it won’t hold together. Makes 8 large cakes

1/2 cup onion, finely diced

1/4 cup red bell pepper, finely diced

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, minced

2 garlic cloves, minced

zest of 1 lemon, plus juice

3 cups fish fillets, flaked into pea-sized pieces

2 – 3 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup Japanese breadcrumbs (or any breadcrumbs)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning (or substitute Italian seasoning)

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 egg whites, beaten

oil for pan frying


1.  In a bowl, combine onion with next 5 ingredients and mix well.  In another bowl, toss fish with flour and breadcrumbs, adding a little flour and breadcrumbs at a time until fish is evenly coated.  This will allow the other ingredients to bind with the fish.  Combine both bowls and mix well.

2.  Add remaining ingredients except oil and combine, but do not over-mix.  The mixture should be the consistency of wet cookie dough and hold together when pressed into cakes.  Too wet?  Add more flour.  Too dry? Add a little more mayonnaise.  Divide mixture into 4 equal segments and form 2 cakes out of each segment, about 3/4-inches thick.  Press together firmly with your hands.  If you like crispier cakes, dust with flour before pan-frying.

3.  Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Lightly brown on both sides until just cooked, but not overcooked. Serve with your favorite tartar sauce, spicy mayonnaise or cocktail sauce.