A rib-sticker that ticks every box in the family-recipe department: it's versatile, it uses store-cupboard ingredients, it packs a hefty nutritional punch, it tastes like home and it's made in a jiffy. Well, almost a jiffy. Sure, you could probably fry a couple of frozen fish fingers faster than you can make these from scratch, but I promise that it's worth spending an extra 15 minutes in the kitchen to prepare these scrunchy little numbers.
I love home-made fish cakes, whether they're delicate little salmon cakes, or springy, zingy Thai cakes, or - best of all - comforting mommy-style ones made with leftover flaked white linefish and mashed potatoes, with plenty of fresh parsley and lemon juice.
But the trouble with the last variety of fish cake is that if you don't have leftover mash to start with, you have to faff around peeling and boiling potatoes, which is more effort than I'm prepared to make when I'm standing (with sore feet and a bad attitude) in front of the fridge, wondering what to make for supper.
My answer to this vexing issue is to use pureéd tinned butter beans.
Also, this is a versatile formula, because you can add virtually anything you like to this basic recipe: chopped capers or gherkins, grated onion, tinned or fresh sweetcorn kernels, freezer peas, fresh ginger, finely chopped green or red chillies, crumbled feta, grated Cheddar, or all manner of herbs and spices, such as chopped fresh parsley, chives, dill and mint, or warming powders such as cumin, coriander and turmeric. Similarly, you can serve these with any sort of flavoured sauce (and they do need some kind of sauce, although I bet that anyone under the age of eight will be satisfied with a squirt of violent-red ketchup): a herby mayonnaise or tartare sauce, or a bright lemon-ginger vinaigrette, or a hot-sour-salty Asian dipping sauce.
The very best fish cakes are floured, egged and dipped in breadcrumbs before they're shallow-fried in hot oil, to achieve a super-crunchy golden crust. But this is family food, and I urge you not to waste your time on breadcrumbing. Dust the fish cakes lightly with seasoned flour just before you fry them in a good lick of sizzling-hot oil, and I promise they'll turn out with a lovely crispy skin.
I usually add grated lemon zest to these fish cakes, but the last time I made them I had no fresh lemons to hand, so I used a stick of lemon grass, which I peeled and finely grated, using a microplane. And oh my goodness, the lemon grass packed a perfumed punch!
This mixture is easier to handle if you leave it in the fridge to firm up for a few hours. If you have time before you go to work, mix it up in the morning and leave it in the fridge, covered, all day. Roll into small flat cakes, or burger-sized patties, as you please.
Quick, Easy Fish Cakes with Tinned Tuna & Butter Beans
two 400-g tins of butter beans, or similar white beans
1 fat clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 large free-range egg
2 tsp (10 ml) Dijon mustard
4 T (60 ml) white cake flour
the finely grated zest of a lemon, or 3 tsp finely grated lemon grass
Two tins of solid-packed tuna, drained of liquid and flaked
½ cup (125 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley (or fresh herbs of your choice; see above)
salt and freshly milled black pepper
For dusting and cooking:
200 ml cake flour
salt and freshly milled pepper
sunflower or olive oil, for frying
a dressing, sauce or mayonnaise of your choice
Open one tin of butter beans. Drain the beans well in a colander and put them into the goblet of a food processor or liquidiser along with the crushed garlic, the egg, the mustard and the flour. Whizz at high speed until you have a fairly smooth purée. If the mixture is too thick for the blades to turn freely, add a few teaspoons of water. Now drain all the liquid from the second tin of beans and add them to goblet of the food processor. Press the 'pulse' button a few times to process everything to a rough, slightly chunky texture: there should be a few small lumps and bumps of beans. Tip this mixture into a large mixing bowl and add in the lemon zest, flaked tuna, parsley and any other ingredients you fancy (see above). Using a large spoon or your hands, mix well to form a firm, chunky paste. Season generously with salt and pepper.
At this point, you can cover the mixture and put it in the fridge for a few hours to firm up. Or, you can shape the cakes and cook them right away.
Put the dusting flour into a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Generously sprinkle a chopping board with some of this seasoned flour. Pinch off portions of the tuna-bean paste and form into neat patties between your palms. (If you want perfectly formed patties, tip all of the paste onto the floured board, pat out to a thickness of 3 cm, and cut out circles with a cookie-cutter or the bottom of a drinking glass, as if you are making scones). Coat each cake with seasoned flour and shake or blow gently to remove any excess.
Heat the oil to a depth of 1-2 mm in a large frying pan. When the oil just begins to shimmer, add the fish cakes (in batches of three to six, depending on their size) and fry, over a medium to brisk heat, for a minute or two on each side, or until crispy and golden. Flip the cakes over and fry for another two minutes. Drain well and keep hot in the oven while you cook the remaining cakes.
Serve piping hot with lemon wedges, your choice of sauce or dressing, and a crisp green salad.