“Few things seem less appealing, at first glance, than a piece of salt cod.
If there was one ingredient that looks better made out of cardboard, this is probably it. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were just walking by a few inches of cardboard, incongruously placed among trays of fresh anchovies and chorizo. Or maybe some old leather, crusted in white mould, sitting on a shelf at the back of a fishmonger’s stall …
But, as with ugly ducklings and books and their covers, it pays not to pass judgment too quickly.
In fact, salt cod is one of those food items (like tea and sugar) that can quite fairly claim to have shaped the world. Because the salting of fish from the North Atlantic, from Norway, Iceland and Alaska, meant sailors, explorers and armies could have easily storable protein, on which they could sail and march. The bounty from these territories, when salted rather than spoiled, became a valuable and extremely important commodity; particularly to Spain (bacalao), Portugal (bacalhau), the South of France (morue) and the Caribbean. If you’re interested in this (or are highly skeptical), I recommend getting hold of Mark Kurlansky’s book “Cod”. It’s a fascinating read.
Of course, now we’ve got fridges and freezers, there’s no real need to salt fish to preserve it. But the product is still out there and is a valid one with qualities that are quite different from those of fresh fish. You may have walked past it at Brindisa (it’s always there) and at some of the fishmongers in the market too. Next time you see it, pick some up. Salt cod doesn’t go off quickly so there’s plenty of time to decide what to do with it!
When you’re ready, it’s simply a case of leaving the fish to soak in water for 24 hours (changing the water 3-4 times) and cooking it as you might smoked fish – either poaching in water or milk, or cooking in a liquid based stew before flaking. It’s pretty hardy and has a dryish texture, but there’s also a distinctive flavour that works very well with a number of other ingredients.
Inspiration for salt cod cooking is best found, I think, with food writers and chefs like Elizabeth David, Fergus Henderson, Simon Hopkinson and Claudia Roden. You’ll see that salt cod goes well in potato bakes, in ragu-like sauces, and as a seasoning for tomato based soups and stews. Think onions and beans and olives, lardons, pork fat and chorizo. Basically, good, old fashioned, hearty and warming food.
I like it whipped up with potatoes, milk and oil into a ‘brandade’, which is a fairly classic condiment from the South of France. The salty flavour of the fish permeates through the light, emulsified base.
You could serve brandade as a communal dip at the start of a big meal, or as part of a set of canapés – use sourdough bread, radishes, celery, anything like that. My suggestion, though, is to make brandade a dish in its own right: it works perfectly in the brunch scenario, spooned onto some toast, topped with soft boiled eggs, with a few warm tomatoes on the side.”
(serves 4 for brunch)
- 240g salt cod
- 300g waxy potato
- 200g milk
- 80-100g light olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic (peeled)
- ½ a lemon
- Black pepper
Soak the salt cod for 24 hours. Change the water 3-4 times.
Peel and dice the potato. Place in a pan of cold water with the garlic. Bring to the boil and cook until soft and ready to mash. Drain, allow to steam for 3 minutes then mash.
Whilst the potato is cooking, place the cod in a small milk pan, cover with milk and bring to the boil. Take of the heat after one minute of boiling and allow the milk to cool down, gradually cooking the cod as it does so. After 10-15 minutes, remove the fish and flake apart. Remove any skin and bones. Keep the milk and set aside a few flakes of fish for garnish at the end.
Ensure the milk stays just above body temperature. Warm the oil in another pan / over a bain marie to a similar temperature.
Using a food processor (you could also do this by hand in a pestle and mortar), pulse the cod (save for the bits you’ve set aside) so that it’s puréed, then add the potato and pulse for a couple of seconds. Add milk and oil in alternate tablespoons and keep mixing / beating to incorporate and emulsify the liquids and solids. Keep going until the brandade has the texture of a loose hummus or uber thick double cream. Don’t pulse for too long otherwise it’ll be a bit gluey. Season with a good squeeze of lemon and black pepper. You shouldn’t need salt – but check and add if required.
Spoon liberally over well toasted and buttered sourdough. Top with soft boiled eggs (into boiling water for 6 minutes), a few flakes of salt cod and serve with some sharp tomatoes on the side.