THE WASHINGTON POST – Some things our mothers teach us are concrete: How to drive a car, read a W-2 form or hem a pair of pants. Other life lessons sneak up on us.
My mother taught me to cook almost by osmosis. It was something that happened every day at our house, and I moved so gradually from watching to doing, I can’t remember the moment when I thought, “OK, now I can cook.”
Self-sufficiency was highly prized in our house. As the youngest of eight, I realise now that each person had to pull his or her own weight to keep the whole thing on track.
As we matured, we assumed more responsibility, and that’s how my mother’s Every Man For Himself Friday dinners were born. My mother had long before created a weekly menu and assigned a night to one of us girls. (Girls cooked, boys mowed the grass.) The menu would change from time to time, but having a plan made it easier for her to stay within her budget for our once-a-week grocery shopping trips that resulted in three overflowing carts.
When I was around 12, she added EMFH Fridays to the schedule. It worked so well that she wrote a little piece about it that was published in Women’s Day magazine in November 1976.
My mother died in August at 97. As I joined my siblings clearing things from our family home, I came across the magazine tucked inside a filing cabinet near a folder of old grocery lists. She wrote about how the DIY dinner idea was received: “At first the children and my husband were startled, and felt a little abandoned and raw at the prospect of getting it all together. Gradually, after some spilled soup, a few eggs tumbling off the counter, several tough pizzas, they all began to take hold and develop a pattern of operation.”
Why Fridays? Because after a week of teaching public school and, as she put it, “homemaking”, she was tired.
“Now it is not uncommon for my man to begin an evening with, ‘How do you feel about sharing a Spanish omelette?’” she wrote.
That may not seem like a big deal, but as a society, we were moving from the age of “women’s work” and “men’s work”, so it was a seismic shift in wife-husband relations. For perspective, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which went into effect in 1975 and prohibited discrimination in lending based on sex or marital status, meant my mother could finally get her own credit card.
That notation about cod jumped out at me, perhaps because I made so many of those fried fish cakes. We used cans of flaked cod, which I no longer see available in grocery stores. We made mashed potatoes from a box, then mixed the canned fish with the potatoes, a whisked egg, dried parsley and salt and pepper. We fried the cod cakes in a cast-iron skillet in vegetable oil until brown and crispy on the outside. We would open a few cans of green beans, and dinner was on the table fast and cheap.
COD FISH CAKES
Active time: 45 minutes | Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
This recipe calls for cod, but these thrifty cakes can be made with any white-fleshed fish, such as scrod or sole. Serve them with a lightly dressed mixed salad or green beans. The recipe is a great way to use up leftover mashed potatoes or fish. If you want to use boxed mashed potato flakes, like we did back in the day, you’ll need about three cups.
Make Ahead: The cakes can be formed, placed in an airtight container and refrigerated up to one day in advance.
Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to two days.
Two large russet potatoes (about one pound total), peeled and cut into one-inch pieces
Two tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt, divided
One bay leaf
One lemon, quartered, plus more for serving, if needed
One pound cod fillets
Two large eggs, lightly whisked
One tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves, plus more for garnish
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning (optional)
1/4 cup neutral oil, such as canola oil, plus more as needed
In a medium pot over high heat, cover the potatoes with enough water to submerge them by one inch. Bring to a boil and then cover, reduce the heat to medium-high and cook until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain the potatoes and transfer to a large bowl, then add the butter and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Using a potato masher or fork, mash them until smooth.
While the potatoes are boiling, fill a high-sided skillet or saucepan with about two inches of water and set over high heat. Add the peppercorns, bay leaf, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and squeeze a quarter of the lemon into the pot and then drop the quarter into the pot. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to medium.
If necessary, cut the fish into small pieces so they fit into the skillet. Transfer the fish to the skillet and simmer until cooked through and white in the centre, about five minutes. (If the fish is thicker than one inch, it may need to poach longer.) Using a slotted spoon or spatula, carefully transfer the fish to a plate to cool and then, using a fork, flake the fish, leaving some large pieces.
Line a large, rimmed baking sheet or platter with parchment paper. Add the flaked fish, eggs, parsley, pepper, the remaining salt and Cajun seasoning, if using, to the mashed potatoes. Gently stir the mixture just until combined; it will be very soft. Form the mixture into eight cakes, about three inches across and one inch thick, and place them on the prepared sheet pan. Cover lightly with a clean towel and refrigerate for about 30 minutes to chill and firm.
When the cakes are chilled, prepare a towel-lined platter and set it next to the stove. In a large skillet over high heat, heat two to three tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Add the fish cakes, but do not crowd them. (If cakes are too soft to lift from the sheet pan with your hands, use a thin metal spatula to gently transport them into the skillet.) Fry the cakes, undisturbed, until crisped and browned, about four minutes per side. If the cakes lose a bit of their shape when flipped, gently nudge them back together with your spatula. Transfer to the prepared plate and repeat with the remaining cakes, adding more oil as needed.
Sprinkle with more parsley, if desired, and serve with lemon wedges on the side for squeezing.