Newfoundland Cod Cakes
I’ve found that a great way to see Canada is to go to their AG and build a holiday around that. Thus far, I’ve been to Toronto, Ottawa, Québec City, Vancouver, and, in 2006, St. John’s, Newfoundland. I was traveling this time in the company of a fellow Mensan Terry, and we headed east about a week before the AG was scheduled to begin.
We flew into St. John’s, capital and largest city of Newfoundland, where we rented a car and headed out of town. We spent a couple of days exploring, delighting in rugged shorelines, quaint fishing villages, wildly rugged and glacier-scrubbed mountains, brilliant lakes, dark pine forests, tundra-like hinterlands, and historic sites, including the site of the first successful trans-Atlantic cable connecting North America to Europe. We then returned to St. John’s.
St. John’s, said by many to be the oldest city in North America, is charming, quaint and wonderfully quirky. The streets are lined with rows upon rows of small, brightly-colored houses known as jellybean houses. One taxi driver told us that traditionally, one painted one’s house the same color as one’s boat.
Fishing boats line the protected harbor. Cabot Tower, at the top of Signal Hill, looks like a castle overlooking the city. There is lots to do in town and the Johnson Geo Center alone is probably worth the trip if you have an interest in earth science. Also, their Titanic exhibit is excellent (Newfoundland gets lots of icebergs, so iceberg-related stories are always of interest there). We also enjoyed the Fluvarium, where you learn local history and get an underwater view of the river that cuts through town. There were several other museums we’d have liked to visit, but we ran out of time.
Just south of St. John’s, we caught a cruise out to the Witless Bay Ecoreserve. The islands here have some of the densest seabird populations in the world, with an estimated 2 million breeding pairs. We watched puffins, gannets, murres, kittiwakes and other wonderful seabirds nest on rocks, skim along the water, dive, fish and fly overhead in flocks of astonishing size. It was a real National Geographic day.
Newfoundland is also a terrific destination for those who enjoy eating “off the beaten path.” During my eight days there, I indulged in fried cod tongues with scrunchions (fried, diced salt pork), moose stew, caribou tenderloin, partridgeberries, bakeapple berries, Jiggs dinner (salt beef, cabbage, rutabaga, carrots, and potato boiled together and served with mustard pickles, pease pudding, roast beef, and gravy), tountons (Newfoundland’s answer to beignets, which is a fair, though not exact, comparison), fisherman’s brewis (a mixture of salt cod, salt pork, hard tack) and seal flipper pie (yep, real seal flippers). There are also more “normal” specialties, including myriad cod recipes (stuffed cod, cod au gratin, cod cakes and fish and chips being the most common) and the local lobsters (not large, but flavorful).
And then there is the Screech—the local O.P. rum, available everywhere, but most importantly featured in the “Screeching In” ceremony, which involves a variety of tasks and Newfie lingo, along with kissing a cod and downing a shot of Screech, which renders you an honorary Newfoundlander. Terry and I were Screeched in at O’Reilly’s in George St., a bar 18 that offers a wide range of specialties, along with great Irish and Newfoundland music on weekends. (A nice feature of the bars on George St. is that there is no smoking indoors.)
However, despite its quaint history, don’t think Newfoundland is all cod tongues and seal flipper pie. There are some really wonderful, imaginative restaurants, from the Cabot Club (named for John Cabot, who claimed Newfoundland for England in 1497) and Aqua (on Water St.). And the berries mentioned above are definitely worth trying— bakeapple (name is a corruption of a French phrase) is the same berry found in Scandinavia by the name of cloudberry. It’s rare and delicious. Partridgeberries are either similar to or the same as lingonberries, depending on who you talk to.
I must also note that, when speaking of the glories of Newfoundland, the people are high on the list. Newfies are among the nicest people in the world—cheerful, often chatty, polite, outgoing, always eager to be of help. I can hardly say enough about how much a part the Newfoundlanders themselves played in our enjoyment of our stay.
Cod cakes are a traditional dish that many Newfies still eat weekly. The ingredients are not perishable, so this dish could see you through a long 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, 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 seasoning called scrunchions, usually served with cod tongues, but I find them pleasant with 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 worth the effort. And once you know how to work with salt cod, you’ll find a world of traditional recipes opening to you, from the bacalao of Portugal to the brandade de morue of southern France. Enjoy.
Newfoundland Cod Cakes
2 lbs. salt cod
8 medium red potatoes (about 3 to 3½ lbs.)
¾ cup finely chopped onion
1 tsp dried summer savory
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ 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.
Peel and quarter the potatoes. Boil them in lightly-salted water until very tender. Drain them, put them in a large bowl and mash. Stir in the summer savory and chopped onion. You can 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 bones—fins, too, 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 place 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 is 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 ¾ 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 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 ¼-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 to a platter and keep warm until all are fried. Serve with reserved scrunchions, if you so desire.
Serves 6–7 (two cod cakes per person).