Middle of nowhere is a long haul for a fish cake. But apparently that’s the best spot.
I learned so from my husband’s cousin’s wife, who confided she’s from St. Helena. I squinted: Where? Her lush accent didn’t sound like St. Helena, Calif. Nor St. Helena, S.C.
St. Helena Island, I learned, is a volcanic speck in the South Atlantic, a place so remote it served as Napoleon’s prison. Ships navigating the trade winds drop by, which explains the cuisine: ocean bounty, exotic spices and sturdy staples. The fish cake — a tuna-rich, potato-tender, chili-spiced wonder — is practiced there. Also something called “bread-n-dance,” which is a tomato-paste sandwich. That’s remote.
This tuna oasis sounds so appealing I’m determined to visit. My cousin smirked. Apparently I’m welcome any time I’ve got time. It takes five days on the mail boat from Cape Town. More from Brazil. Long crossing for a fish cake. So, until I make it there, I’ll make a few here.
St. Helena Fish Cakes
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 40 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
The cakes have some kick. Cut back on the chili if you like ’em milder.
1/2 lb. Russet potatoes, peeled, quartered
1/2 lb. fresh tuna
Mild oil, such as canola
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
1 slice bacon, diced
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme
1 fresh serrano chili, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. each: salt, black pepper, paprika, cayenne
1 egg, lightly beaten
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup mayonnaise
Boil: Settle potato chunks in a large pot of salted water. Bring to a boil; cook until tender (poke one with a skewer — it should be easy work), about 18 minutes. Drain. Press potatoes through a ricer into a large bowl. Or smash with a potato masher. Let cool.
Shred: Use a sharp heavy knife to finely chop fish (a little coarser, say, than ground beef). Use a fork to gently mix into cooled potato.
Fry: Pour 1 tablespoon oil into a large skillet. Heat over medium. Scrape in onion, garlic, bacon, parsley, thyme, chili and spices. Cook, stirring, until everything looks brown and tasty, about 8 minutes. Scrape onto a plate to cool. Wipe out skillet.
Shape: Scrape cooled onion mix onto the fish and potatoes. Pour in egg. Scatter on zest. Mix, gently. Shape 8 pucks, each about 3/4-inch thick and 2 1/2 inches in diameter.
Fry: Slick the skillet with oil. Heat over medium. Fry pucks until brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels.
Serve: Whisk mayo with 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Set 2 cakes on each of 4 plates; serve with a spoonful of lemon mayo.
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