When is turkey not turkey? When it’s really salted cod! A curious old-fashioned New England dish, “Cape Cod Turkey” is the humorous name for salted codfish served on a bed of boiled potatoes and topped with a creamy white sauce, hard-boiled egg, and crumbled bacon or salt pork.
Or at least that’s one way to make it. The are others, of course. The salt cod is a constant, but the potatoes (boiled or mashed), cream sauce, and egg seem to be up for debate, as is whether the ingredients should be layered or mashed together. Some variations call for beets or turnips, and one commenter helpfully divided the versions into two Capes, saying “Cape Ann Turkey is beets, potato and salt cod all mashed together. Cape Cod Turkey is the cream sauce and eggs.” So maybe that’s it?
If I’ve learned anything here at Yankee, it’s that Cape Cod Turkey is like so many other old-fashioned recipes (I’m looking at you Clam Chowder and Baked Beans), meaning each family has their own take on it, and each one is (of course) correct.
Today’s recipe comes from the 1972 Yankee Magazine’s Favorite New England Recipes cookbook. About ten years later, we ran a whole story on salt cod titled “In Praise of Cape Cod Turkey,” where the writer reminisced on his salty, fishy childhood memories. Accompanying recipes included salted codfish balls, cakes, hash, and even pie.
Cape Cod Turkey, however, is the classic way with salted cod. Did it get its name because it was eaten around Thanksgiving? Because cod was so plentiful along the shore it was eaten as often as poultry was inland? Nobody knows for sure, but with a name that catchy, it’s stuck around.
So has salt cod, for the most part. It’s getting a bit harder to find the preserved fish days, but I found a 1 lb. box next to the refrigerated smoked salmon and jars of pickled eggs in the grocery store. Inside, two fragrant pieces of heavily salted fish sat waiting.
The instructions on the box said to rinse the fish thoroughly, then slowly heat in a pan of water (not letting it boil), repeating as many times as necessary until “fish is no longer too salty to taste.”
The recipe instructions, however, said to cover the fish with water, bring it to a boil, then drain and repeat a 2-3 times before a final “simmer until tender.” I must have boiled and drained the fish 5-6 times before the super salty taste went away, but I’m still not quite sure I did it right. The “fragrance,” I mentioned, which (it must be said) was slightly unpleasant to begin with, didn’t improve much by the end, but maybe it wasn’t supposed to…
Still, once everything was in the bowl, the final presentation was remarkably more appealing than I had anticipated. The colorful sliced hard-boiled eggs and crisp, crumbled bacon added a nice burst of color and texture to an otherwise bland-looking (albeit flavorful) dish. Suddenly, I could see why Cape Cod Turkey remains a nostalgic favorite for so many New Englanders.
Did you grow up eating Cape Cod Turkey? What was in your family’s recipe?
GET THE RECIPE:
Cape Cod Turkey
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.