The sacred cod: A taste of history


These can be made with salt cod. Just be sure to follow the rinsing instructions on the box and taste before salting.Ingredients

  • 1 pound of fresh cod, cut into several large chunks
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup diced bell peppers
  • 1/2 cup minced shallots
  • 1 whole lime, zested and squeezed
  • Chili garlic sauce to taste

Recipe

For the cod cakes:

  1. Place the cod in a saucepan, cover with water, and poach just until it flakes easily. Remove cod and reserve the poaching liquid.
  2. Place the potatoes in the pan with the broth and cook until softened. Drain and mash well.
  3. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a skillet. Sauté the shallots and peppers until soft. Mix cod, mashed potatoes, shallots, and peppers and gently form into cakes. Heat the remaining oil in the skillet and cook until the cakes are nicely browned on each side. Keep warm.

For the sauce:

In a small bowl, combine lime zest, lime juice, chili garlic sauce and mayonnaise until well blended. Serve with the warm cod cakes.

Makes 6-8 cakes.

October 2021

By Jean Kerr

Swinging on a mooring in Gosport Harbor amid the Isles of Shoals, I like to let my mind wander back in time. Five hundred years ago, the harbor would have been full of European fishermen from Spain, Portugal, Basque country and perhaps Scandinavia. These brave souls had crossed the Atlantic, not for gold or to escape religious persecution, but to fish for cod and make their fortunes. Their wishes would come true, and in time, many fortunes would be made. Mark Kurlansky, author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World,” quipped, “If ever there was a fish made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod… but it has among its predators – man, an openmouthed species greedier than cod.”

Native Americans had, of course, been fishing these waters for ages but also caught other fish and shellfish (mainly despised by the settlers) that were a good source of seasonal food. These were caught for sustenance and pleasure, not to gain riches as the European newcomers hoped.

The abundance of cod was a bit staggering to the European fishermen, as was the plentiful supply of herring and other baitfish. The Isles of Shoals, in fact, was named for the abundant schools or “shoals” of fish. Captain John Smith’s crew (of Pocahontas fame) noted that “The sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only by nets but with fishing baskets.” It would have been heavy lifting, though. These days, the average weight of wild-caught cod is between 18 and 22 pounds. In Smith’s Day, cod might have weighed in at 100 pounds or more.

Salting the codfish for preservation was what made this particular fishing trade possible. Fresh cod was gutted, split, salted and set to dry on racks known as “flakes.” in fact, there was such demand that control over the fishing grounds occasionally led to large-scale conflicts and, in at least one case, war.

If the codfish family were to have a reunion, there would be cousins galore. Haddock, pollock, whiting, cusk and hake are all part of the group. Though Americans seem to prefer cod and haddock to their cousins, all are versatile, delicious, and with few exceptions, cheaper. While cod is also the preferred fish for salting, try fried in fish cakes or chowder. Although a popular New England menu item, scrod is really only a culinary term for a young member of the cod family.

Sadly, all the abundance and wealth created by cod fishing nearly led to stocks vanishing in the 1900s. While the commercial cod catch is highly regulated these days to restore the fishery, it’s still an uphill battle. Even recreational anglers are limited to one fish which must be at least 21 inches long.

Salt cod is available in many U.S. fish markets and sometimes grocery stores (look for the little wooden boxes). It is still a staple of many Mediterranean diets. At a supermarket in Portugal, where I was the ship’s cook, I came across dozens of piles of large, flattened, salted cod, piled up for all the world like towels at Walmart. Shoppers would sort through them, take their bacalao or baccala to the counter and have it cut into the size and shape of their choosing.

The history of cod is so intertwined with New England’s history that it’s impossible to do more than skim the surface here. Let’s just say, the next time you bite into a piece of flakey, white, perfectly cooked codfish, you are getting a taste of history.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor magazine and a regular contributor to Cruising World.