Fish Cakes and Spaghetti

One year ago today, my father passed away peacefully at the age of 67.  I figured a good way to remember him would be to make his favorite dinner and recap the process along with a few anecdotes about him.

First, if you asked Dad what his favorite food was, he’d probably take some time to think about it, scribble some stuff down on the back of an envelope, and then come back with something completely random.  The last two times I asked, he responded with Cassoulet once and Coq au Vin once, two foods I never saw him consume in my life.  However, any time we were meal planning for a week and asking for suggestions, he would request fish cakes and spaghetti be added to the list.

Now, if Dad was reading this he would be grunting, groaning and protesting that fish cakes are not his favorite food.  He would also likely be wearing this hat and pointing to it a lot.

I was OK with the senior crew team members making these my sophomore year.   Until they gave one to my dad.  I swear that is one of the most genuine smiles we have a photo of

Despite those expected protests, you can’t argue with how much he enjoyed fish cakes and how often he requested them.  For those unfamiliar with fish cakes, they are a pasty combination of anonymous fish and rehydrated potato that Mrs. Paul cooks herself and places in the freezer section at your local grocer.

I was hoping to show a picture of the box but they didn’t even have them at Kings. Who knows where my mom consistently found a stockpile of them for our freezer. No biggie, we weren’t planning to use the premade version

Anyway, fish cakes served with a couple boxes of spaghetti and a jar of Ragu was a regular meal in the Ryan family’s informal biweekly meal rotation.  My goal, with my brother Tim’s help (of course), was to recreate the meal from scratch and hopefully improve upon it while keeping it authentic.

When I arrived at Tim’s house, his homemade marinara had been simmering for a few hours over low heat.

Tim used a Cooks Illustrated recipe for this sauce. Generally, he uses recipes a lot more than I do. Which is why his food usually tastes better than mine

I started a pot of water boiling and put a one pound fillet of cod, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, in the oven for ten minutes.

My goal was to slightly undercook the cod since it would cook again in fish cake form. Tim’s goal should be to clean his oven more often

While that cooks, lets do a top five list of the weirdest foods that Jack Ryan was responsible for making a staple of our childhood (and in some cases, adulthood):

#1) Liverwurst (big assist from Grandma Ryan who stocked her fridge with it too)
#2) Head Cheese (not a continued favorite but happy I was introduced to the genre)
#3) Scrapple (“pork polenta” as our wedding caterer called it, I still love this stuff)
#4) Olive Loaf (bologna studded with stuffed green olives, haven’t had this in 15 years)
#5) Canned Sardines (in oil or water, served in a specific manner mentioned later)

This list does a good job of clarifying an earlier comment; Dad loved food, but he really didn’t have the patience for cooking it.  I thank my mom for my love of cooking but Dad gets credit for my adventurous tastes and willingness to try new foods.  When I asked him why he liked all of those crazy items, he told me that when he lived on diners and delis in NYC, whenever he saw something he hadn’t tried, he ordered it.  So that’s where I get that trait from.  Back to the cooking.

Tim planned on making the pasta using the hand-cranked pasta maker that we got my mom for Christmas 20 years ago, likely from Woolworths in Bernardsville.  Needless to say, it is low quality and may have been used twice before Mommy Ryan realized the hell of cooking for five people when it takes 20 minutes to make one serving of pasta.  Tim started out by combining the flour and eggs in a food processor.

Tim was embarrassed to make the pasta dough in the processor but apparently had failed miserably with the volcano method. So, basically, this blog is as much about memorializing my father as it is about ruining Tim’s street cred

The processor churned out this very nice looking dough ball:

Not to be confused with the two dough balls cooking dinner. Too easy

While Tim made the pasta dough, I sauteed a large chopped yellow onion and boiled three peeled russet potatoes.

Cooked these until about this point. Wanted them to retain some texture for after they were mixed into the fish cakes

The pasta dough rested for about 40 minutes while the potatoes boiled simultaneously.  Sounds like a good window for more Jack Ryan stories.

When I was 22 and living at home after college, Dad and I had a night where we needed to fend for ourselves for dinner.  Dad went with his go-to, corned beef hash and eggs (or “dog food for people”, as he called it) while I made a sandwich or something.  I watched him walk into the kitchen, drop the can full of hash into a hot pan, crack an egg on top, and walk away.  For twenty minutes.  Being the know-it-all that I am, I told him there was no way it would cook like that and he’d end up with raw eggs and canned food.  Instead, he ended up with crispy hash and a fully cooked, steamed egg on top.  He was nice enough to not rub it in my face after it came out perfect.

Let’s check back in on the fish cakes progress.  We boiled the potatoes a little longer than normal because we were looking for a texture that was a little more glue-like.

Butter, salt, pepper. Write that down.

I mashed the potatoes using salt, pepper, butter, and the liquid from the dish the cod cooked in.  Once they were smooth and creamy, I added the sauteed onions and cod and mashed the mixture up some more.

At this point, the smell in the bowl was extremely unfortunate. It smelled about as far from food as you can imagine, just a tough combination of ingredients

Once it was fully mixed, I put the bowl outside to cool and helped Tim with the pasta rolling.  The dough ball was split into five portions and then run through the roller multiple times, folding the dough back on itself after each time through.  I have no understanding of why this was necessary, and neither did Tim, but it’s supposedly how it’s done.  Once the dough was rolled into a long, flat uniform piece, we ran it through the cutter.

Taking fotos while cranking the pasta maker. This DB has skills

At which point the pasta was transferred to Tim’s homemade pasta-drying rack.

I know, I was concerned that the pasta would end up all stuck together too, but Tim was right that it all separated during cooking

While the pasta dries and the potato/fish mixture cools, let’s talk about Pop Ryan a bit more.  I think the following two items give a good understanding of the range of his favorite foods.

When I was 7 or 8, I was allowed to attend the Far Hills Race Meeting (or the Hunt) after a couple year break.  The reasons for the break are irrelevant (when I was 5, I “washed” my hands with a urinal cake thinking it was soap in the porta potties) but upon our return we spent our time at the Caspersen’s tailgate.  I don’t have many food memories from this time in my life, but Dad giving me a spoonful of caviar is forever seared in my memory.  He explained to me what it was in advance and I think he expected me to be grossed out.  But once he saw that I was intrigued by it, he told me how special and expensive it was and then gave me a lump of it.  I loved it then and still love it now.  Every time I have a chance to eat great caviar I am immediately reminded of the first time I had it and remember it fondly.

No relation to the current caviar story, just one of the best pranks you can play on your one and a half year-old. Pretty sure they don’t make cribs strong enough to handle a fake-sleeping adult these days, though

On the flip side of things, here are three sandwiches that my dad ate regularly and taught his kids to love as well:
Pickle and cheese: dill pickles, sliced thin and served on white bread with a couple slices of American cheese and a healthy slathering of mayo.  Had one of these a couple weeks ago.
Cream cheese and olives: sliced martini olives and cream cheese on white bread. Catching the pattern of condiments combined with kraft cheese?
Sardines and mayo: referenced this one earlier.  Drain a can of sardines, mash it with mayo, and serve it on a sandwich like tuna salad.  Sounds gross but don’t knock this one until you’ve tried it.

He taught me to love one of the most expensive foods on the planet and also sandwiches made from whatever was leftover in the fridge.  I know those sandwiches wouldn’t be enjoyable for most people, but for me they are the epitome of comfort food.

Once the fish, onion and potato mixture had cooled completely, I mixed in two eggs, parmesan cheese, lemon juice, fresh parsley, salt and pepper.

Started smelling a little better at this point, also started looking pretty appetizing

The bowl was formed into individual patties and rolled in breadcrumbs while oil heated in a pan on the stovetop.

Starting to look like the frozen briquettes that would come out of the Mrs Paul’s box

These went into the pan for a few minutes on each side.

I was completely unable to flip/remove these in between the phases of “lightly cooked” and “overcooked”. There were no “golden brown” final products

Here’s how they came out:

A little burned or not, they looked and smelled great

Before we eat, one last Jack Ryan story.  One of my favorites.

A few years after my parents bought the Long Beach Island house, a nearby diner was on its third or fourth owner.  My dad loved this diner and desperately wanted it to succeed because A) he loved diners and B) the diner was an old fashioned train car on blocks in an otherwise empty lot.  One Sunday morning, we stopped by and found a diner in disarray: few customers but no servers, an owner sprinting around with no apparent direction, and an empty griddle with no cook.  After fifteen minutes of waiting, Dad flagged down the owner.  I was expecting an annoyed request for menus, but what I got was something like this:

Dad: You guys don’t seem to have your act together, can we get some menus and order?
Owner: I don’t know what I can do for you. My staff quit and I have nobody to cook.
Dad: If you need a cook, get me an apron.

Dad stood up from the table, grabbed an apron, walked to the empty cooking area and started calling out orders off the tickets above griddle.  I sh*t you not.  I am struggling to write this right now because all I wish is that I could remember and explain this as perfectly as possible.  But I was just a mortified 11-year old; I didn’t know how much I would treasure this memory at the time.

For the next hour he cooked the orders of everybody in the diner, and took orders from new customers as well.  The moment I remember best was Dad banging on the griddle with his spatula, yelling to the owner, “Where are my hash browns?!?! Where are my hash browns?!?!”

When he felt like he had things well in hand, he took off the apron, returned to the table, and we left the diner to go elsewhere for breakfast.  I remember thinking how happy he looked; it had always been a “life without responsibility” dream of his to be a short order cook.  I wish I remembered it better.

Here’s the final homemade fish cake and spaghetti plating:

I never particularly liked this meal growing up, but I would make those fish cakes again in a second.  Also, sweet southwestern-chic plates, Tim

The flavor and texture of the marinara sauce was fantastic, and I am usually not a big meat-free marinara fan.  The fish cakes were pretty potato-heavy, but so are the frozen ones.  These had a lot of good flavor from the fish liquid, onions, and seasoning.  Overall, a very good meal and a nice low-key way to keep Dad in our thoughts.  I’m guessing we will cook it again.

One of the toughest parts of losing a parent is that you become more conscious of the things you learned from them after they are gone.  You think of them all the time over the course of a normal day as you recognize the little things you learned from them.  You wish you’d recognized all of those things earlier so you could share and thank them for it.  This blog has often reminded me of my dad and the unique tastes he passed along to me. At times, it has also made me sad because I know how much he would have enjoyed reading it, emailing it to his friends and family, and eating some of the meals cooked.  We all miss him a lot.

25 thoughts on “Fish Cakes and Spaghetti

  1. Thanks Pete. This was the best. I’ll be thinking about the Ryans today. Then again, I think about them every day.

    Jack Ryan Scrambles (as a short order cook)!

  2. Peter, what a beautiful memorial. Your Dad would be grinning ear to ear if he could read it. Love to you, Tim and John.

  3. Peter,
    I started reading this just as Serena was posting her comment. I’m in awe. You captured your dad perfectly. With Serena away this weekend I think I will have to try the sardines and mayo sandwich for dinner some night.



  4. this is such a great post! thanks for sharing it. jack and i shared a passion apparently for secretly wanting to be a diner cook. sometime, i will have to follow in his footsteps and seize a diner’s griddle.

    (i’m still trying to wrap my head around how a sardine and mayo sandwich is comfort food though.)

  5. What a great post… thank you so much for sharing such great stories.
    we’ll be thinking of you and your family today….
    Love, Jacq and Scot Tatelman

  6. Your blogs always make me laugh out loud, this one made me laugh and cry. Thinking about you and your brothers today, and Katie also. Glad I got to see your brothers over the weekend, hope to see you and Kristi soon. Lots of love to all of you….

  7. Peter, just started reading your blog after seeing Kristi’s mention of it on the family site. You write beautifully. LOVE what you’ve written about your dad, memories, and daily life–oh and the food sounds really good, too. Will have to try things out! Thanks for sharing. I expect a book to be published someday; we’ll all want autographed copies!

  8. Your post brought tears to my eyes. Having lost my parents, I know exactly what you are talking about. Everytime I do something my mom or dad taught me, I wish I could thank them for it. We wish we can go back and change so many things, listen more carefully, pay more attention, hold on to every word they say, take pictures…

    Ps: whats a DB?

  9. Could you post recipe for the Marinara Sauce?
    Your story is very touching, World would be a better place with more people like your family.

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  12. This is beyond incredible. I can’t even express all that I loved about it. But maybe the best part was your dad in the crib. Amazing. What a great tribute to a great man. xo

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  14. I was just searching for a starting point for a fish cake recipe like the frozen ones. What a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing this with your recipe. My dad would eat these with me when I was younger and then finally left the box to me as they became harder to find. He was a good guy.

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  16. Please tell me where I can find the fish cakes. I always loved them I have been looking for them everywhere for years.
    thank you.

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