Grain Free Fish Cakes

We recently had occasion to limit the grains, starches, sugars, and dairy in our family’s diet. It might be enough, or we could find ourselves in full GAPS territory before too long, but for now my big challenge is modifying some of our favorite recipes to accommodate these new evils healthful restrictions.

Some attempts are working out better than others.

Some are inedible disasters reminiscent of my first days in a kitchen.

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But these fish cakes turned out really well so I want to share. Originally I started with this Maryland Crab Cakes recipe from Cooks Illustrated, which I highly recommend without a single change. But lump crab is wicked expensive and bread crumbs and flour and even vegetable oil are out for us right now. Replacing the crab and a few other simple substitutions brought these back to our table as delicious fish cakes – we eat them almost every Friday for Lent!

You need a pound of flaky white fish. Thick fillets work best, like cod or haddock. I get giant bags of frozen, wild-caught cod loin fillets from a warehouse club. Although I prefer fresh fish to frozen for most recipes, the frozen fish are perfect for this as the texture of the cooked fish is not critical, and the fillets can go straight from freezer to poaching liquid when I’ve forgotten to thaw them.

I poach the fish until just cooked through, and then pile on flavor in the form of green onions, fresh cilantro, Old Bay seasoning, salt and pepper.

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*Note* that if you forgot that you just cut down all of your never-ending green onions for a recipe yesterday and therefore have none, you can feel free to substitute with a slightly less amount of minced red onion.

Then add in some binding: almond flour, mayonnaise, and egg. (We’re also avoiding preservatives, so I use homemade mayonnaise made with a combination of olive and grapeseed oils – no added sugar and no preservatives.)

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The fish should flake easily as you combine everything. Be gentle so you have some chunks of fish and not just a pile of mush. When it’s time to form the fish cakes, I use this little kitchen trick: a sliding liquid measuring cup.

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Slide the measure to about 1/4 or 1/3 cup then pack it full of fish mixture with a spatula. It should easily pop out in a perfectly packed and sized fish cake! Line them all up on a parchment lined cookie sheet or plate.

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*Note* that what you see in the pictures is a lot more than a single recipe. One recipe using a pound of fish will give you 4 (maybe 5) fish cakes, but I generally triple the recipe and have 12 or 13 fish cakes to feed the 7 people at our table.

Once all your fish cakes are formed (by hand is fine if you don’t have a push-up measuring cup), cover the cookie sheet loosely in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or up to one day. This is one of the reasons I love this recipe. I can get the fish cakes all prepped and in the fridge during nap time or whenever we have a lull in the day, and avoid any serious prep time around the dinner hour when my kids have a tendency to demand attention and have shorter fuses. I can also make a whole bunch and cook enough for dinner one night and leave the rest in the fridge for lunch the next day (my kids love these – they have no problem eating them two days in a row).

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Packing the cakes and the refrigeration time are important to help these hold together while cooking. When you’re ready, it only takes about 10 minutes to pan fry the fish cakes until hot.

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We usually have a crisp salad on the side and top the cakes with Chipotle Aioli (recipe below), but if you’re a tartar sauce kind of person, that’s ok too.

So here’s the actual recipe. If you’re an experienced primal/paleo/gluten free/dairy free/traditional/GAPS eater, and you notice that any of the ingredients are not legal on such programs, well, I just started this and I have no idea what I’m doing, so you’re probably right. Also, the next time I make these I am going to experiment with coconut flour as the binding, as I think it might even work better than the almond meal.

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Grain-Free Maryland Style Fish Cakes

1 pound white fish (cod, haddock, or similar)
4 medium scallions, green part only, minced (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro (or use dill, basil, parsley or other fresh herb of choice)
1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
2 tablespoons almond meal or almond flour
1/4 cup mayonnaise (olive oil or homemade preferred)
Salt
Ground black pepper
1 large egg
1/4 cup coconut flour, for dredging fish cakes
1/4 cup frying medium (coconut oil, ghee, or other high-heat oil)

Instructions:

  1. Poach fish in simmering water until just cooked through, 3 to 10 minutes depending on thickness of fillets. Use a slotted spoon to transfer fish to a bowl to cool, about 10 minutes. Drain off and discard any liquid that accumulates during cooling time.
  2. Add scallions, cilantro, Old Bay, almond meal, and mayonnaise to bowl with fish and gently combine with a rubber spatula.
  3. Season with salt and pepper to taste (remember there is already salt in the Old Bay), then gently add egg with rubber spatula.
  4. Form fish mixture into 4 or 5 equal sized cakes, about 3 inches across and 1 to 2 inches high. Carefully place fish cakes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day.
  5. Put 1/4 cup coconut flour in a plate or pie pan. Heat oil or ghee in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Carefully dredge each chilled fish cake in flour on both sides, patting gently to ensure a thin coat adheres, and pan fry until warmed through and outside is browned, 4 to 5 minutes per side. If the cakes are browning too quickly, reduce to medium heat. Serve plain or with Chipotle Aioli or tartar sauce and fresh chopped cilantro.

Chipotle Aioli

5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1 minced chipotle pepper (canned) with a little accompanying adobo sauce (or 1/2 pepper for a more mild sauce and up to 2 chipotles if you like things spicy)
1 egg yolk
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp of freshly squeezed lime juice

Instructions:

  1. Heat garlic and olive oil in a small sauce pan over medium heat until sizzling and very lightly golden, about five minutes. (You can skip this step if you want a sharper and spicier garlic taste, but I would reduce the garlic amount if you decide to keep it raw.) Strain garlic out of olive oil, reserve and cool about ten minutes.
  2. Place garlic, chipotle, egg yolk, a pinch of salt, and a grind or two of black pepper in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Blend well, stopping to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl if necessary.
  3. With processor running, add the reserved olive oil in a slow, steady stream and blend until the aioli thickens slightly. Season with lime juice and additional salt or pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use.

There are a lot of good online sources for grain-free, paleo, primal, and traditional recipes (if you have read any other post of this blog you can probably see that Elana’s Pantry is one of my favorites). However I have come to really enjoy the genius of Cooks Illustrated recipes in my kitchen, so there will likely be more attempts at adapting recipes in our future. If you are going to alter a recipe, your best chance of success is to start with one that you know is perfect to begin with, and I have found most Cooks Illustrated recipes to be just that.

I hope you and your family enjoy these – let me know if you make any other successful substitutions!

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3 thoughts on “Grain Free Fish Cakes

  1. Thank you for posting this recipe! I was searching for a primal version of fishcakes that didn’t involve panko bread crumbs, and found your site. I didn’t pack the cakes quite firmly enough (I’ve honestly never eaten fish cakes before, let alone made them, so I was treating them more like a burger patty that you want to be a bit loose to be tender) but they were really delicious, and I’ll definitely be making your recipe again.

    P.S. Love the “mission” of your blog; I definitely am leaving happier :)

    • Hi Leanne – I’m so glad you had success with the fish cakes! I’ve been meaning to post an update, as I recently found a crab cake recipe that uses a shrimp “mousse” (shrimp and cream whirled together in the food processor) as the binding in the mixture, so I incorporated that into my fish cakes and it is SO delicious! Plus it helps hold them together a bit better, and I love that it adds a little shrimp (which my kids will otherwise not eat). Thanks for your comment – it reminded me I want to update the recipe!

      • Oooh, that sounds really good! It would be great for us too, as my husband can’t eat egg so I had to use flax + water instead.

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