I’m going to give to the Basque people in northern Spain the credit for salted codfish. Very early on, some of these intrepid fisher people were pulling fat-bellied cod from New England waters. And drying the sides of fish in the salt air so as to preserve them for the voyage back home. The histories of codfish and salt travel together. Cod has been used as a unit of currency, it has sustained economies and, even in my lifetime, countries have gone to war over it and fishing rights. England and Iceland spring to mind.
There are a lot of grades of salt cod in the marketplace. If you see it in a supermarket, then it is more than likely supermarket quality. Especially if it is in that little wooden box. Available year round. That is the salt cod off the industrial line of production. To get the a better grade of quality, you need to shop at a Portuguese or Italian market. The better markets will carry it only in season and that is the winter months. Right around now.
Some people are put off by the strong smell of salt cod. I like it and I did’nt grow up with it. I can understand how some people can be revolted. However, salt cod is not as pungent as stockfish, which is something else altogether. Make sure to engage and talk to your local fish monger. I like the idea of salt cod because, despite the rich history, it involves minimal processing using old techniques. The best salt-cod is what you make your self at home. I use sea salt, lemon zest, parsley, chile pepper flakes and thyme. Pack the fish in this mixture. Set it on a rack over a tray in your fridge for two days. Turn it once only. Keep it covered the whole time. After, wrap it well for freezing or use it fresh immediately and re-hydrate as you would. My general yardstick is twice a day for three days for store bought salt cod.
Everybody, it seems, has a recipe for salt cod. There are many. Salt cod is used in Spain, as well as the Basque country and Catalonia. It is popular in Portugal. You can find it in southern France. Italy too as well as the islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Majorca. Salt cod was introduced to Sicily by the Norsemen from Scandinavia. It is also found in Venetian cooking. Pick any recipe. Mine is the classic, Brandade.
The French have a name for salt cod. It is called “Morue”. “Brandade de Morue au Gratin” is a classic dish. This is what I did.
After soaking, I rinsed the fish (3/4’s pound) and started it in a gallon of cold water and brought it the boil. As it approaches boiling, the fish will release a white scum. This is good. You don’t want that. As soon as the fish reaches boiling, remove it from the flame and strain it. Keep it away from the scum if you can. Rinse out the pot. Put the fish back in the pot with a half gallon of cold water. I added some aromatics at this point…..a small bay leave, a few black peppercorns, parsley stems, a scallion end and a splash of white wine. Bring the pot to a boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes. Simmer means to let it boil softly, just hubble and bubble, softly.
Drain the fish and after, when it has cooled down, pick it apart. Remove any bones if there are any, skin too if you have it, any fatty parts you do not want or any cartilage. You can’t remove the smell. It is just there. Wash your hands to get all the sticky fish parts off. Transfer the nice, clean salt cod to a clean pot. I added a cup of milk, about 6 or 8 cloves of garlic sliced thinly. And proceeded to cook or poach the salt cod in this garlicky milky mixture. For 10 minutes.Be careful not to burn the milk. Really careful. And then, add some hot boiled potato. I went with a 50/50 blend of 12 ounces of cod and 12 ounces or so of potato and mashed everything with a fork. You could use a blender for a smoother, creamier texture but I preferred the rustic route with less wash-up. I mashed it all with a fork. I used Yukon gold potatos. I added also a half a cup of extra virgin olive plus to this potato dairy garlicky fish blend. And I seasoned everything with sea salt, black pepper. lemon zest, lemon juice and cayenne pepper.
Then this Brandade was transferred to an oiled, oven proof dish, topped off with home made parsley and scallion breadcrumbs. I baked this in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit, fifteen minutes or so.
The fishiness of the salt cod is muted by the addition of all these ingredients. You want to taste the garlickiness, the lemony parts, the heat from the cayenne and the olive oil and milk just cream everything out. The best way to eat Brandade is with some crostinis, grilled bread or crackers. These crackers are made with farro and sesame seed. Sesame always reminds me of spice markets
All the strictures of simple cooking…….simple ingredients, simple techniques.The Brandade and sesame wheat crackers screamed for something warm and spicy to accompany. Enter Tagine. This version included cauliflower, carrot, turnip, chick peas, raisins and spices like cinammon, cumin, ginger and coriander. Thank you for reading my cooking efforts.