WHEN Isak Dinesen wanted to depict the abject misery of a Jutland fishing community in her short story “Babette’s Feast,” she described the villagers, clad all in black, eating a mean plate of salt cod.
In hip restaurants all over the country, that scene is being played out again. But there is nothing miserable about these black-clad throngs and there is certainly nothing mean about the plates they’re digging into. Brandade is back.
At Union Restaurant and Bar, James Grey sometimes uses it as a bed for char, accented by fresh pea sauce. At Joachim Splichal’s Pinot Bistro, it may accompany sauteed whitefish. At the Grill at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington hotel, Craig Strong uses it to garnish a summer terrine of eggplant and tomato.
Suzanne Goin has really got a taste for salt cod: At Lucques she makes a tart of it and at her new AOC wine bar one of the best dishes is a luscious, exalted gratin of salt cod and potatoes bound with bechamel.
This isn’t just a Southern California thing either. One of the highlights at San Francisco’s hot little Delfina is Craig Stoll’s luxurious puree of salt cod and potato made silky by the addition of whipping cream.
And -- the Bay Area being the Bay Area -- both the Chez Panisse Cafe and Zuni Cafe cookbooks salt their own cod (“In the spirit of ‘stop, think, there must be a harder way,’ ” teases Zuni’s Judy Rodgers).
Once again, it’s a case of cafes/trattorias/bistros rediscovering the homey charms of food that had long been ignored as unfashionable. Like potpies, pot roasts and short ribs, there’s no keeping salt cod in the shadows.
Most often it shows up in the form of brandade, a rough puree from the Provencal tradition that is just about everything you would want in an appetizer: salty, garlicky and brazen.
For a long time, the only occasions when it made an appearance on menus was during nostalgic celebrations such as Bastille Day or at an Italian Christmas feast.
So far out of favor was salt cod that nouvelle cuisine chefs used it as a bit of ironic whimsy. In 1985, there were three dishes described as brandade in Los Angeles Times restaurant reviews. One was a mousse of sole; the other two were of turbot -- the culinary equivalent of someone referring to his brand new Bentley as “Old Bessie.”
A modern makeover
There is no hint of luxury in salt cod, at least not in its natural state. Originally, cod was favored for preserving by salting because it is almost pure protein. Its lack of fat made it ideal for long keeping -- there was nothing to go rancid. Indeed, the iconic salt cod side is described as both light as balsa wood and hard as linoleum.
Today, salt cod preserved that way is difficult to find except at ethnic markets during the holidays. Blake Wheeler of ace wholesaler American Fish and Seafood Co. says he only sells a couple a year, usually to be hung from the rafters as deli counter decorations.
More common is the little wooden box of semi-fresh salt cod that is found at seafood counters and, increasingly, in the refrigerator cases of supermarkets. Still, you might have to ask for it; salt cod is readily available to groceries, but because demand is low it often needs to be special-ordered.
This new type of salt cod is a convenience food in that it needs to be soaked for only 24 to 36 hours. Old-fashioned salt cod, frequently called stockfish to differentiate it, needs to be soaked for three to four days and some old recipes call for beating it with a hammer first to begin the softening process.
Directions like that, not to mention the distinctly inedible appearance of the old-fashioned dried fish, were enough to scare modern cooks away. But that’s a shame because this new form of salt cod couldn’t be easier to prepare.
Soak the fish in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Change the water a couple of times a day. You can judge when the fish is ready to use by tearing off a little piece and tasting it. The flavor should be somewhat salty but not overpowering. The longer you soak it, the milder the saltiness will be. After about four days, the fish will hold, refrigerated with daily changes of water, for at least several days more.
The most common preparation for salt cod is the rough puree known in France as brandade de morue (morue being the French word for salt cod). The almost exact same dish is a favorite in the Italian Veneto where it is called baccala mantecato. It is known by similar names throughout the Mediterranean from Portugal to Greece, even in places where fresh fish is common.
(Menu linguists might tease out an incipient return to French fare after years of Italian domination -- in today’s restaurants the preparation is almost always called brandade.)
In the beginning, brandade
This is the best place to start your salt cod exploration. It is simple to make and it is astonishingly flavorful -- mildly salty with the rich flavor of fish, olive oil and garlic.
Traditionally, it should be made in a mortar and if you have one handy, I recommend it as a starting point. Brandade also can be made in the food processor -- practically in the blink of an eye -- but the puree is slightly coarser and less emulsified. At least at first, you ought to find out what the real stuff tastes like. Once it becomes an everyday habit, the food processor will be fine.
To begin, cut the salt cod into two-inch-square pieces and poach it until it flakes. This will take longer than you might expect, 25 to 30 minutes. Different cooks recommend all different kinds of twists on this poaching. Some say you should cook it in milk. Some add garlic to the water. Some even call for a full-scale court bouillon. In trying as many variations as I could find, it seemed to me the only really effective addition is a bay leaf, which adds a nice bottom note to the fishy flavor.
Once the fish is cooked, drain it and pound it to a paste with some garlic.
This is easy to do; the flesh falls apart quickly. When it is reduced to rough threads, add a tablespoon of hot olive oil and stir it well with the pestle. Beat in three or four tablespoons of warm milk, added in a thin thread, and then do the same with a similar amount of warm olive oil. The puree should be creamy though somewhat stringy. All that’s left is to correct the seasoning, adding lemon juice and more salt if necessary.
Serve the puree with long toasted bread spears you’ve made by cutting a baguette on an extreme diagonal. Bake the slices in a 400-degree oven until they begin to turn golden and then immediately rub one side with a cut clove of garlic (with brandade, you can’t have too much garlic).
Brandade spread on these toasts is one of the great appetizers, particularly when served with sparkling wine or a chilled rose.
The only drawback is that it should be made at the last moment, kind of like a salt cod guacamole. Once it has cooled, it isn’t nearly as flavorful. But there’s a way around that, as I learned making the brandade from Stoll’s recipe.
He beats together equal weights of salt cod and potato (a common addition, especially given that salt cod is no longer a cheap ingredient), and then enriches the mixture with whipping cream instead of the more traditional milk. He packs the mixture into ramekins to be reheated at the last minute, the way you would a gratin.
Rustic to elegant
This won’t work with traditional, potato-less brandade, as the fish-oil emulsion will break during reheating. But it does work with all sorts of other salt cod dishes. And it does free you from the last-minute pounding and pureeing.
Prepared as gratins, these salt-cod casseroles go in very different directions but with similarly delicious results. One, layered with pale, slightly vegetal chard stems, is almost elegant -- for salt cod, anyway. At the opposite extreme is the potato and tomato combination topped with garlicky bread crumbs, about as in-your-face as food gets.
Just think about the smile any of these would put on a dour Jutlander’s face.
Russ Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.