Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Brandade de morue

Salt cod and potatoes... it doesn't sound like much, unless you've tried it the Provencal way. 

I had always wondered what to do with those petrified pieces of fish I would see in Italian delis around Easter, as I love Chinese salted fish, but this was nothing like the xianyu that is used throughout the Chinese seaboard. 

And before I go any further, I have to let you know that salt cod is not in the least salty; in fact, it tastes very fresh, and I like it much better even than regular old cod, which can be a bit insipid unless it is dolled up with something like a Yunnan-style crunchy fried bean sauce. (More on that last recipe later.)

So, it was with great joy that I read in the brandade recipes by two of my favorite food writers - Patricia Wells and Simon Hopkinson - that the Provencal take on salt cod was one of their most beloved dishes. In fact, Mr. Hopkinson says in Roast Chicken and Other Stories that it is one of his top ten favorite dishes of all time.  

Then, when I read in Ms. Wells's Bistro Cooking that this was a specialty of Nimes, I knew that the time had finally come to try my hand at brandade de morue, the southern French concoction of reconstituted salt cod, mashed potatoes, olive oil, milk, and garlic, because that is the home town of two of our best friends from Taiwan, Lynn and Bill

Canadian cod, Catalan name, & French recipe
I made both recipes and enjoyed them the traditional way, smeared on crispy slabs of French bread and chased with some good red wine. But it got me thinking about how to adjust this recipe so that I could become even more thrilled.  

I think that it was the fact that the dish wasn't hot that made me yearn for something that approached "molten" on the heat scale, and I also wanted more variety in each mouthful, which would require some variations in texture and flavor. And while I was at it, I reduced the liquid a bit so that it ended up looking like a nice mound of mashed potatoes.

 After monkeying around with the recipes, I came up with  my own version, one that I now have to admit is really quite tasty and satisfying. Instead of the lukewarm though delicious fluff that appears to be the traditional way of serving it, I put it in a shallow pan and broiled it until the top was crispy and the fish was nice and hot. Also, I folded chopped parsley and a good handful of pitted olives into the fish, which provided nice contrasts in color and flavor.  This really needs the bite of olives to set off the comforting unctuousness of the rich mixture, and the green parsley conspires with the purple and pale green olives to spark up the visuals on this subdued dish.

Served with bread lightly fried in olive oil, a tossed green salad, a couple of steamed artichokes with garlic butter, and some red wine, this is a terrific Eastertime feast. Not much Lenten restraint here, but I'm sure I'll be forgiven.

Brandade de morue 
Toasted salt cod puree
Serves 6 to 8 as an entree for lunch or light supper

1 pound salt cod
¾ cup best quality olive oil
¾ cup whole milk or half-and-half
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
12 ounces Yukon gold potato(es)
Juice of 1 lemon (Meyer improved best) 
Lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch of parsley, trimmed and finely chopped
Handful of pitted black and/or green olives 
Sea salt to taste
12 to 16 thin slices of baguette or other firm, white bread
Olive oil for frying
Plumped up and ready to go
1. Start this recipe one or two days before you plan to serve it. Rinse off the cod and soak it in cold tap water for at least 24 hours, changing the water when you think of it and storing it covered in the refrigerator when you go to bed. After the first day, taste a little nibble of the fish to make sure it is no longer salty. The fish will be plump at this point, and you can store it one more day if you drain it and again refrigerate it in a covered container. Before you proceed with the recipe, remove any bones and skin. (Needle nose pliers are useful for this.)

2. About 30 minutes before you want to serve this (or earlier, as the finished dish can be refrigerated for a day or two prior to the final broiling), warm up the olive oil in the microwave or on the stove until it is about body temperature. Warm the milk and garlic together the same way, too.

Browned and bubbling
3. Peel the potato(es) and cut into 1-inch cubes. Boil the potato cubes in salted water until tender, drain thoroughly, and keep them warm in a toaster oven set on the lowest setting, which will dry them out a bit, too.  

4. Place the fish in a 1-quart saucepan, cover with cool tapwater, and bring it to a boil; lots of foam will rise to the surface. As soon as the water boils, remove the pan from the heat, cover it, and let the pan sit for 5 minutes. 

5. Drain the fish, rinse off any scum, and place the fish in a food processor. Pulse the fish until lightly chopped, and then pulse in the olive oil and milk mixtures to form what Simon Hopkinson calls "a thick, sloppy paste" - couldn't have said it better - adding more oil if it looks anything less than gloppy. Mash the potatoes with a fork or masher and then carefully pulse them into the fish; the potatoes want to turn into glue if given half a chance, so pulse them in rather than turn the machine on. Lightly pulse in the lemon juice, black pepper, parsley, and finally the olives so that they stay pretty much whole. Taste and add more salt, if needed. 

6. Spray or butter a shallow 10-inch round baking pan that can be used with a broiler. Spread the fish mixture evenly in the pan, but don't smooth down the top of the fish, since you want the tips to brown. Drizzle olive oil over the top and broil until the fish is golden brown and bubbling.

7. While the fish is broiling, fry the bread slices in olive oil until they too are golden and crispy. Serve them alongside the fish. To eat, just slather the brandade on the toasted bread and fly your way to Provencal heaven. Fry up more bread if your diners are ravenous.

Who needs the Easter Bunny when you've got salted cod?

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