One of the perils of being obsessed with food is that you constantly carry around with you a mental list of various food-related tasks that you intend to effect at some point in the near future, items from which will pop up in your head in the most unexpected places. You're on the tube and see an advert for pregnancy tests - naturally it immediately causes you to remember that desire to obtain some goose eggs and cook with them. You smell that artificial baked aroma wafting from a nearby Subway and your mind is forcibly recalled to the huge bag of rhubarb in the kitchen that you keep meaning to create a bread recipe for. And - I know this is quite morbid, but I can't help it - you see the deer frolicking around Christ Church meadows and remember that recipe for venison kebabs that you keep meaning to try.
One item on this vast culinary to-do list of mine is to compile a 'Top 20' of my favourite kitchen-related tasks. It seems that whenever I write a blog post, I reference at least one of these: the satisfying sizzle of a steak on a griddle pan; how much I love separating eggs; the sheer unadulterated pleasure there is to be had from driving a ridged scone-cutter into a pillowy mound of moist, fruit-studded dough; the joy of knocking back the air from a risen ball of yeasty bread mixture. I will now add another to that list: I have a little bit of an obsession with any form of pancake.
I don't necessarily mean pancakes of the brunch or dessert variety, though I do have an undeniable adoration for them; Sunday morning is just not quite right without a vast, Pisa-style stack of thick pancakes brimming with chunks of juicy fruit and drizzled with succulent sticky syrup and a sprinkle of icing sugar. But 'pancake' can stretch to cover all sorts of delights: I recently made some carrot and coriander cakes that involved mixing grated carrot and onion, fresh coriander, beaten egg, grated cheese and some cream together to form small cakes. These little orange burgers were placed gently into a pan of shallow oil, until the edges had sizzled and crisped up like an onion bhaji, while the centre remained soft and unctuous, oozing cheese. A variation of these involves grated courgettes, spring onions, dill, mint, and feta cheese, and is another of my favourite recipes and a way of making a lot of people realise that courgettes are actually quite nice.
Fishcakes are, of course, another example, and they even have 'cake' in the title. I just love the action of shaping a stiff mixture into small, flat cakes with one's hands, flouring them, then placing them in the pan and listening to their exterior become golden and crispy. I suppose it's a textural thing: the contrast between the crunchy, caramelised outside and the soft centre. Last night I was really craving that taste sensation, and, having spent the last week in Italy eating nothing but carbohydrates, pork in all its various manifestations, and cheese, I needed something fresh-tasting and healthy to wake up my tastebuds and jolt my - usually acceptable and good at hiding the fact that I am an unashamed glutton - metabolism into action.
I told myself it would be easy. A week without carbohydrates to make up for the excess of Italy, and I would be in no danger of putting on about ten stone. A week without carbohydrates. No problem. I'd done very well the night before: dinner was grilled chicken salad with roasted vegetables, and not a crouton in sight. I should clarify here that I don't mean all carbohydrates - fruit and veg don't count. I basically mean bread, pasta, potatoes and rice. The kind of stuff that, eaten three times a day for a week, will make you feel positively elephantine. At least, in my case, because I normally reserve such foodstuffs for one meal a day only, or I get too sleepy to function.
I could have made Thai-style fishcakes: nothing but fish and aromatics. But I wanted the potato. I needed it to give the fishcakes that essential fluffiness in the middle, that comforting blanket to swaddle the flakes of fish and contrast the crunchy outside of the pan-seared cake. Perhaps I have been spoilt by the fishcakes at the restaurant I work for, which are incredible (a trio of smoked haddock, cod, and salmon cakes, gorgeously crunchy on the outside and still firm and flaky in the middle, served with a tomato salsa and the best chips I've ever eaten). I just didn't think dinner would be as good without potato in the fishcakes. They wouldn't be fishcakes as I know them and fishcakes as I was craving them.
Reader, I failed. I succumbed to the lure of the carbohydrate. But it was only a small amount of potato (two potatoes in the whole recipe, which serves four people), and I feel it gave the necessary bulk to the fishcakes. Besides, if I hadn't put it in, I would only have ended up making some potato wedges and thus eating even more potato than planned. And somehow potato doesn't seem as bad as bread; it does, after all, grow in the ground, therefore it at least pretends to be a vegetable and somehow good for you. Bread, in my eyes, has the nutritional value of a sponge. This is not to say that I don't adore it. But a week in Italy is enough to make most people enact a temporary bread amnesty.
I still wanted the fishcakes to be light and fresh-tasting, so I reached for chilli. Whenever I've overindulged with a lot of heavy, rich food, I always wake up the next day craving chilli (obviously not immediately, as chilli for breakfast is just not something that registers on my Western culinary radar). When I suggested fishcakes for dinner, Jon immediately asked, "Will they have coriander in?" Thus, the addition of Thai flavours to the humble potato was born: lime, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, lime leaves, coriander. I call these Asian fusion fishcakes because they're not authentic Thai fishcakes, but they add an exciting Asian twist to your basic British potato-and-fish combo.
One of the many things I've learned from Masterchef is that one should never combine Asian flavours with potato. John Torode loathes it; every series a new contestant comes along thinking they can produce the definitive Asian-tuber combination, and every series they are forced to hideously and humiliatingly bow down before the mighty Torode and his fusion-food wisdom. Wasabi mash? Always fails. Every time. As does any dish that features potatoes and soy sauce within forking distance of each other. No, don't think you can get away with it because it's a sweet potato and therefore somehow more exotic. You can't. John will spot it and your Masterchef journey will be over.
So really, it was going against every Masterchef-infused cell in my body to couple Thai ingredients with potato, but I did it anyway. This is probably why I'll never be on Masterchef. That and the inevitable crushing humiliation and requirement that I should use revolting phrases such as "raise my game", "incredible journey", "pull it out of the bag" and "this competition means everything". I do, despite being twenty-two and therefore a good four years out of the teenage stage, still cry quite a lot (usually when hungry). But I don't think even my tear ducts could produce the amount of facial saltwater necessary to appear on Masterchef. I'm surprised they haven't started giving contestants a set of Masterchef-embroidered handkerchiefs as well as the trademark aprons.
Back to the fishcakes, while my Masterchef dream collapses in tatters before my (insufficiently weepy) eyes. I blitzed all the aromatics to a fine paste in a blender and mixed with a little fish sauce. I added the cooled mash and flaked cooked fish (I used Vietnamese river cobbler, which seemed rather appropriate in terms of region for Thai fishcakes, and which you can get in Tesco), then shaped the mixture into little cakes, dusted with flour, and chilled for half an hour to make them less likely to fall apart in the pan.
Oh, the sizzle. Such a perfect golden coating when I flipped the cakes over to cook the other side. They held their shape perfectly, browning nicely on each side and remaining soft and yielding in the middle. I served them with some broccoli and corn on the cob (again, not particularly orthodox, but we had some in the fridge to use up and I suddenly remembered that corn on the cob is amazing), and a big drizzle of sweet chilli sauce. I reckon they'd also be good with sticky rice (unless you too have just returned from eating your own body weight in pork and pizza) or some steamed Pak choi seasoned with chilli and soy sauce, or just as a starter with the sweet chilli.
Sorry, unrealistically-ambitious-attempt at-Atkins-diet. Sorry, John Torode. But these are just so damn tasty.
Thai-flavoured fishcakes (serves 3-4):
- 350g firm white fish (cod, haddock, coley, whiting, pollack, etc)
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Flour for dredging
- 2 large potatoes
- 4 lime leaves (fresh if possible; I used dried)
- 1 red chilli, deseeded
- 1 inch piece root ginger, peeled
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 stalks lemongrass, tough end removed and roughly sliced (or 2 tsp lemongrass paste from a jar)
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- Juice of half a lime
- Bunch of fresh coriander
- Lime wedges, to serve
Peel the potatoes if you like (I leave the skins on because I like the texture, and they're full of vitamins apparently), then cut into large pieces and boil until tender. Mash well and leave to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Place the fish in a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 10 minutes until cooked through. Flake into small pieces and add to the mashed potatoes.
Roughly chop the ginger, garlic and chilli and put in a blender with the lime leaves, lemongrass, fish sauce, lime juice and coriander. Blend to a rough paste. You can chop it all by hand if you don't have a blender. Add this mixture to the potatoes and fish, and mix well. Taste - you might want some more lime juice or fish sauce.
Shape the mixture into small cakes then place on a floured plate and chill in the fridge for half an hour.
When ready to cook, heat a shallow layer of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan until quite hot (you want the cakes to sizzle when they come into contact with it). Flour the cakes on both sides and add to the hot oil - you will probably need to do this in batches. Cook for about 3 minutes on each side; the outside should be golden brown and the inside warmed through.
Serve with sweet chilli sauce, and steamed or stir-fried greens, along with lime wedges.