Friday, December 17, 2010

ingredient: SALT COD

There are plenty of great things that we keep around even though we no longer technically need them; garter belts; paddle boats; real live books. In the culinary world, we have salt cod, also known as bacalao in Spanish, morue in French, baccalà in Italian, bacalhau in Portuguese and saltfiskur in Icelandic. I mention the various words for salt cod because you’ve probably seen one of them on a menu somewhere. Menus tend to list this ingredient in its mother tongue because, admittedly, ordering salt cod doesn’t sound especially appealing. And I’m sure that restaurants with pictures on their menus would never sell a single ounce.

Salt cod was developed over five hundred years ago as a way to preserve fish. The process hasn’t changed much, except that back in the day the salting and drying was primarily done out of doors using the sun whereas now the fish is dried inside using electrical heating lamps. Salt cod was popular around the world, from Brazil to Norway to Greece, because it was cheap and because it stayed “fresh.” Its popularity was also tied to Christianity’s because Catholics aren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays or during Lent and fish was a popular alternative.

But despite both being fishy, salt cod has a one-up on Catholic priests; its popularity is still going strong. While people may not need to eat salt cod anymore (we have McDonald’s for that) it’s such an ingrained part of global cuisines that people continue to eat it all the time anyway. For example, in Provence the Gros Souper on Christmas Eve wouldn’t be the same without the brandade de morue and beer drinkers in Brazil need bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod fritters) to fuel their thirst.

The only thing holding back salt cod from being a staple of my own kitchen is that before cooking it needs to be reconstituted in water. Actual reconstitution times vary; I’ve read that the cod needs to be soaked from anywhere from eight hours to a week. During this time, the salt seeps out of the fish and the water creeps in. It’s a bit of a pain because you can’t just leave your fish in the fridge for a couple days, you need to change the water in the bath about every 12 hours. However, the end result is a piece of fish that magically resembles something close to the plump textured fillet it started out as. It’s astonishing to see. It’s like those magic capsules you put in the bath and they grow into animals!

Reconstituted salt cod might not sound all that great, but done correctly, the flavor is mild and not fishy. So go ahead and don a watch fob or listen to an actual radio (no Pandora) while cooking some up. You’ll be taking part in history.

Salt Cod and Tomato Stew
Brandade de Morue

I love souvenirs. I'll buy everything and anything from postcards to decorative plates to ugly ashtrays to t-shirts.* Once, in high school, a friend brought me a pair of maracas from Mexico. It was supposed to be a joke, but they’ve been sitting on my bookshelf ever since.

Of course what I love most of all are culinary souvenirs. And while the whole no carry-on liquids rule really put a dent in my international olive oil purchases, I still pick up everything from British chocolates (they taste so much better there!) to Chinese tea (the customs guard thought I was carrying drugs) to Spanish aioli (I’d suggest sticking to more travel friendly items like jam).

So when my friend Mike told me that he had picked up some salt cod at a supermarket in Brazil, I didn’t say, well that’s a weird purchase. I didn’t say, Really? You brought me salt cod? How about some Havaianas? I said, Awesome! When do we start cooking?

We started cooking last Saturday, though to his credit, Mike started working two days before that. As I mentioned, you can’t just go ahead and eat a piece of salt cod. It’s dry and stiff and well, salty. Because recipes really vary on soaking time, we chose 48 hours, hopefully erring on the safe side. So Mike put the cod in a big tupperware of water and then proceeded to change the water every 12 hours. Thanks Mike!

When we opened the Tupperware at my house, I think we were both a little skeptical. I’d say that if I hadn’t known what was in that container and I had been asked to guess, I’d haven chosen either fish or… pieces of soggy, frayed socks.

Never having cooked with salt cod before, we decided to make two recipes in the hopes that at least one would taste good. And because we're champions, we didn’t go the easy route by making salt cod croquettes, which I’ve eaten and are delicious, but seemed like cheating because they just taste fried. No, we chose a stew and a brandade.

The Salt Cod and Tomato Stew recipe came from the chef at Nice Matin via New York Magazine. The Brandade came from Jacques Pepin via the New York Times. While admittedly neither of these is particularly Brazilian, in fact we might call them particularly French, salt cod’s international status is such that you can find variations of these dishes all over the world.

The results? The stew was good, though lacking in my favorite part of stews, namely the broth. I might make it again. The brandade, however, was a resounding success. It had a lot going for it because it’s a dip, and I love things you can spread on bread. Also the supporting ingredients,namely potatoes, milk, garlic, and lemon, are all things I enjoy. Together they created a hot, garlicky, slightly creamy dip that I would happily eat any time. In fact it’s a bit of a bittersweet experience because, honestly, how many times am I going to go through the trouble of reconstituting some cod?

Brandade de Morue
a.k.a salt cod dip
(I'm sorry that English is so ugly)


1/2 pound salted codfish (reconstituted in a water bath for 48 hours, skinned and deboned)
1 large Idaho potato (about 1/2 pound)
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 large lemon
2/3 cups hot milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/3 cup virgin olive oil, plus oil for dish
1 baguettes cut into slices each about 1/2-inch thick


Put the potato in a small pot and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a rolling boil then reduce the heat and let the potato gently boil for 45 minutes or until tender. When its tender, take it out of the water, peel it, and cut it into small chunks.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Put the salt cod in a large pan with a quart of cold water. Bring the water to a boil and let the cod cook for 10 minutes. Remove the cod from the water, making sure it doesn't have any bones or skin left.

Put the cod and garlic in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the potato and the grated skin of the lemon. Add the hot milk. Pulse the mixture until smooth.

Grate the lemon and add the rind to the mix, along with the black pepper and the cayenne. While the machine is running, add the olive oil and keep pulsing until the mixture is smooth.

Put the mixture in a 4 cup baking dish. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the top is slightly crusty and golden and the mixture is hot.

Serve the dip on the slices of baguette (if you want them toasted, put the slices on a baking sheet and pop them in the 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes).

Salt Cod and Tomato Stew

1 pound dried salt cod (reconstituted in a water bath for 48 hours, skinned and deboned)
1/2 cup to 1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup 1/4-inch-diced onions
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1/2 jalapeño, minced and seeded (if the jalapeño is mild, leave the seeds in)
2 ounces grappa or dry white wine
2 cups tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
Bouquet garni: parsley stems, thyme, rosemary, fennel fronds, and a bay leaf, tied in cheesecloth
1 cup 1/2-inch-diced bell pepper
1/2 cup pitted Niçoise olives
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
Fruity extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper


In a large saute pan, heat 3 TBSP of olive oil. Saute the cod until it is lightly browned.

In a large pot, add 4 TBSP of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onions, garlic, and jalapeno and cook until the onions are getting translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the wine/grappa and let it cook until the liquid has evaporated. Add the tomatoes and let them cook until they begin to summer.

Add the cod, one cup of water, and the boquet garni. Cover the pot, and cook at a simmer for 45 minutes.

Add the peppers, olives and capers. Let the stew cook for another 15 minutes, then serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a dash of salt.


exhibit A

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