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Cod Is Great

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Dried codfish is a popular staple in Scandinavia, Northern Germany and the Mediterranean countries. Why, you may ask, would one want to eat a preserved fish when fresh is available? Well, basically because it tastes great, better by far than the fresh version.

Fresh cod is not a terribly tasty fish; its flesh is white and mild and tends to flake when cooked. It’s traditionally been a poor man’s fish. In the old days, it was about the only fish available for rural people far from either the Atlantic or Mediterranean coasts. Especially after the discovery of the New World, when the Newfoundland banks supplied most of Europe with an endless supply of cod, which was salted aboard ship and brought back to Europe.

Long considered unworthy by chefs and gourmands alike, it’s stewed, fried, mashed, roasted and served in salads by cooks from Portugal to Greece. Recently, Parisian chefs have given this homey staple a coup d’elegance , and it has become the reverse chic fish of choice.

It’s part of the trend of cooking in the comfortable style of one’s grandmere . I, myself, have put two versions of it on the menu of my own restaurant in Pasadena. I can happily report that both my curried salt cod fritters (called acras) and the classic mash of salt cod, olive oil, garlic and potatoes (called brandade ), for which I give the recipe here, are literally flying out the kitchen door.

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There are two varieties of this dried delicacy. Stockfish is cod that’s been gutted and stretched on a stick to dry (The Dutch word for stick is stok ). Cod that’s been salted and then dried is called baccala in Italy, bacalao in Spain, bacalhau in Portugual, bakalarios in Greece and morue in France.

Salt cod is so common and “old France” that to call a woman a morue is about the worst epithet you can use, because it implies that the poor dear is the most common of the common, that she is, in fact, completely dispensable.

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The fishmongers in Paris desalt whole fish, beginning on Wednesdays, for people to take home and cook on Fridays, still the traditional fish day in Catholic countries. And it’s the dish of choice for Vendredi Saint, or Good Friday, as ubiquitous as an American’s Thanksgiving turkey.

The traditional way of salting, then air-drying the cod to a stiff-cardboard appearance may not seem appetizing to the uninitiated. Its aroma is unmistakable too. But persevere: The flavor is incomparable. In Portuguese and Brazilian markets, the fish is found whole. Having to pick through bones and skin is probably a bit much for most people to deal with.

More common is filleted salt cod, whose nice thick fillets 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. (I’ve never found stockfish in any American market.)

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Salt cod must be soaked in water for at least 48 hours or up to three days before being used. Change the water three or four times. The resulting fish is creamy, with delicious fresh-tasting flavor--sweet, not even salty. It’s often paired with potatoes and tomatoes. The texture of this revived cod enables it to absorb oil. In France, it’s often pounded into a truly fabulous concoction called brandade .

SALT COD WITH ONIONS AND POTATOES 1 1/2 pounds salt cod, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces 2 medium onions 4 cloves garlic 1 pound large new potatoes 3 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup dry vermouth 1 teaspoon ground white pepper 1/4 cup sour cream 2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Two days before preparing brandade, place salt cod in bowl, cover with water and place in refrigerator. Change water 3 to 4 times. Drain salt cod and discard water.

Thinly slice onions and garlic. Peel potatoes and slice thinly.

Heat oil over medium heat in heavy skillet. Add onions, garlic and potatoes. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes.

Uncover skillet, add vermouth and salt cod. Sprinkle with white pepper. Cook another 5 to 7 minutes until salt cod is opaque white and flaky.

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Remove from heat and stir in sour cream. Transfer contents of skillet to serving platter. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

BRANDADE DE MORUE 1 1/2 pounds salt cod 1/2 pound potato 1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons finely minced garlic Toast

Two days before preparing brandade, place salt cod in bowl, cover with water and place in refrigerator. Change water 3 to 4 times. Drain salt cod and discard water.

Rinse potato. Bake at 375 degrees 45 minutes or until potato is tender. Remove potato from oven, cut in half, scoop pulp into mixing bowl and discard or eat skin.

While potato is baking, place cod in medium pot. Cover with fresh cold water. Place over medium heat, bring to boil, remove from heat and let stand 10 minutes. Drain fish and discard water. Remove and discard skin and bones.

Add cooked fish to mixing bowl. Mash with potato. Large wooden pestle works best. Potatoes and fish also can be placed in mixer fitted with paddle. Then mix until fluffy.

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Meanwhile, combine oil and garlic in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until oil begins to bubble around garlic, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Slowly pour garlic oil into bowl, mixing vigorously until incorporated. Mixture should be fluffy and shiny.

Mound mixture onto serving platter and surround with toast. Serve crisp green salad along side brandade. Makes 4 servings.

SALT COD BAKED WITH TOMATOES AND CHARD 1 1/2 pounds salt cod 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 pound green chard, center stem removed 2 large onions, thinly sliced 3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced 1 (1-pound) can whole peeled tomatoes, drained 1 bay leaf 1 sprig thyme 1 sprig rosemary 1 teaspoon ground white pepper 1/2 cup white wine

Two days before preparing brandade, place salt cod in bowl, cover with water and place in refrigerator. Change water 3 to 4 times. Drain salt cod and discard water.

Heat oil over medium heat in skillet, add chard and cook, turning, 2 minutes, until very tender. Transfer chard to 2-inch-deep oven-proof casserole or baking dish.

Distribute onions, garlic, tomatoes, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, white pepper and salt cod on bed of chard. Moisten with wine. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees 35 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

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