Cod is a common and relatively inexpensive fish which, in its fresh state, is good mostly for preparing fish sticks (the crusty breading at least gives it texture). But a little-known (at least to American tables) method of preserving cod turns this lowly ocean denizen into an uncommonly delicious commodity. It's one of the important raw ingredients of Mediterranean cooking--called bacalao in Spain, bacala in Italy, bacalhau in Portugal, morue in France.
The traditional way of salting, then air-drying the cod to a stiff cardboard appearance may not seem appetizing to the uninitiated and its aroma is unmistakable, too. But the flavor is incomparable.
In the last few years, I've seen a new salt cod, nice thick fillets of fish that have been salted but only partly dried. They are packed in pretty wooden boxes and are often sold in the refrigerator case of supermarkets. What they lack in soul, they gain in convenience, since there are no bones to pick, no skin to peel off.
Salt cod must be soaked in water for two or three days before using. The resulting fish is creamy, with delicious fresh-tasting flavor--sweet, not even salty. The texture of this revived cod enables it to absorb oil, and in France it is often pounded into a truly fabulous concoction called Brandade.
There is some debate about what an authentic Brandade is. In Nimes, it is simply boiled salt cod pounded together with hot olive oil and milk. On the other side of the Rhone river, in Provence, they add garlic. Farther west, in Carcassonne, they add potatoes.
Because many Americans are unfamiliar with salt cod and may have trouble finding it, I have adapted an easy Brandade recipe to use other fish. The more "fishy" fish taste better in this recipe than the milder ones. Use cooked bluefish, carp, pompano, mackerel or salmon--it's a great way to use leftovers and, in fact, combines well with leftover mashed potatoes. Or use a smoked fish--salmon, trout, eel, sturgeon or finnan haddie.
It's impossible to give an exact olive oil measurement in this recipe because the amount you add will depend on the other ingredients that you use. Leftover mashed potatoes and cooked unsalted fish will require less olive oil than the pulp of a baked potato combined with salted or smoked fish. The important thing to know is that all the ingredients must be hot before mashing them together into Brandade.
Use Brandade for chiles rellenos or stuffed cabbage. Or roll it into little balls and fry into croquettes to have with drinks before dinner. Served on its own it is a salty beginning to a meal that gets the juices flowing. But I prefer it as the main event served with crusty bread and accompanied by a simple green salad, making a wonderfully satisfying meal. The first time I tried Brandade, it reminded me of mashing mashed potatoes and meat loaf together when I was a child, but I liked it much better.
BRANDADE DE MORUE
1 1/2 pounds salt cod, smoked fish or other raw or cooked fish
1 potato, about 1/2 pound
2 tablespoons finely minced garlic
1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil
If using salt cod, two or three days before preparing Brandade place fish in bowl, cover with water and refrigerate. Change water two or three times. The second day, drain salt cod. If using other fish, omit this step.
Wash potato and bake at 375 degrees 45 minutes or until potato is soft. Cut potato in half, scoop pulp into mixing bowl and discard (or eat) skin. If using cooked potato from refrigerator or freezer, place in small baking dish, cover and heat at 350 degrees until warmed.
Meanwhile, place cod or uncooked fish in medium pan, cover with fresh cold water and bring to boil over medium heat. Remove from heat and let stand 10 minutes. Drain fish. If using smoked fish, omit this step. Remove and discard any skin and bones. If using cooked fresh or smoked fish from refrigerator or freezer, place it in small oven-proof dish, cover and heat at 350 degrees until hot.
Add cooked fish to mixing bowl and mash along with potato. A large wooden pestle works best. Or combine potatoes and fish in mixer fitted with paddle and mix until fluffy.
Combine garlic and oil in small saucepan and cook over medium heat until oil begins to bubble around garlic, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Slowly pour garlic oil into fish and potato mixture, mixing vigorously until incorporated. Mixture should be fluffy and shiny. Mound mixture on serving platter and surround with toast. Makes 4 servings.
BROCCOLI AND TOASTED PINE NUT SALAD
1 pound broccoli
1 tablespoon salt
1/3 cup olive oil
6 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon or 1 teaspoon dried
Using small knife, cut broccoli into florets and set aside on plate. Fill 2-quart pan with water, add salt and bring to boil over high heat. Fill large mixing bowl with water and ice cubes.
Meanwhile, using knife or vegetable peeler, trim woody outer skin from broccoli stalks, exposing light green, tender core. Stalks should look somewhat like squared-off logs. Slice stalks into 1/8-inch slices, tip to stem. Stack a few slices and cut them lengthwise as finely as you can. You now have shapes like match sticks called "julienne."
Submerge broccoli florets in rapidly boiling salted water and cook 1 1/2 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and plunge into ice water to stop cooking process and to retain bright green color.
Repeat procedure with julienned stalks, cooking only 30 seconds. Remove from water and plunge into ice water. When completely chilled, remove all broccoli from ice bath and drain well on kitchen towels (wet broccoli will dilute dressing and ruin all your good work).
Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium heat. Add pine nuts and cook, tossing, until a light honey color. Sprinkle nuts and oil over broccoli.
Just before serving, add vinegar and tarragon and toss gently. Mound on plates and serve. Makes 4 servings.