I like fresh cod, but I LOVE salt cod, especially like this: Brandade de Morue with Olives, Peppers and Arugula. Brandade is what the French, who love adding cream and shallots to everything just to see if anyone’s heart explodes, is what happens when the children of Gaul get their mitts on some morue (salt cod). It has a rich satisfying flavor without being overwhelming, a great texture, and is terrific with uncomplicated red wines. Successful marriages have been based on less. It’s a standard in our house–we eat it by special request (birthdays), on Christmas Eve, and whenever somebody says, Gee, it’s been awhile since we’ve had brandade.
Once upon a time brandade was made by soaking and cooking salt cod, pounding it with shallots in a giant mortar, then gradually incorporating oil into the mixture, à la mayonaise or pesto. Potatoes were a later addition. Unlike pesto, which many purists still muscle out in a mortar and pestle, brandade today is made in food processors. You still have to soak salt cod overnight (or run it under cold water for 5 or 6 hours), but you’d do the same with good beans, right? With a food processor you can skip the heavy lifting–the pounding.
Buy the best salt cod you can find. We used the cod-in-a-box because we wanted to be sure the recipe would still be tasty with what might be the only salt cod available to readers. But a thick, center-cut filet from the wide end of the fish near the head is much better. With active ethnic communities of Italians, Brazilians, Azoreans and Portuguese in the Boston area, all of whom use salt cod, its easy for us to find vendors of baccala (Italian) or bacalao (Portuguese) who cut portions from intact salted sides of large fish. If you have access to this salt-cod gold, skip the cod-in-a-box. You can buy salt cod online–Goggle will give you lots of choices, especially if you try “baccala” as well as “salt cod.” Some of them look promising, but we haven’t tried any of them.
Many recipes call for soaking salt cod for 24 – 48 hours, changing the water multiple times. That’s never been our experience. When we wrote a recipe for brandade in our book, we called for 12 hours of soaking, with 3 changes of water. Part of the problem is the variability of the cod–some is saltier than others. Now, as a rule of thumb we soak it overnight with 1 or 2 changes of water and that’s been fine. You can always soak it longer if it’s still too salty, but if soaks too long then the flavor is gone forever. Salt makes things taste good. Leave some in the fish. The rehydrated cod should even taste a little too salty–after all, you’re going to be mixing it with other things. Jody explains below.
Some recipes turn the brandade into a smooth puree. Personally I prefer more texture than less, even a bit of chewiness. It’s up to you. Just keep an eye on what’s happening with the food processor. Similarly, with potatoes, less is more. You should still be able to taste the cod after you’ve added everything else. If your cod is mild, or you accidentally soak it too long, cut back on the potatoes.
There are lots of other ways of enjoying salt cod beside brandade–Venetian style, with polenta and tomatoes, is one that comes immediately to mind–and we may get to them down the road, but in our house, brandade is still king. Enjoy. Ken
Brandade de Morue with
Peppers, Olives and Arugula
- 1 pound salt cod
- 1 medium baking potato (6 ounces)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 shallots, minced
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice, as needed
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 2 red peppers, roasted and peeled and cut into ¼-inch julienne strips
- 1/3 cup Nicoise or other small black olives, pitted
- 4 cups arugula
- 1 loaf rustic bread, sliced ½-inch thick and toasted
- Soak the salt cod overnight in a large non-reactive bowl of cold water, changing the water 1 or 2 times. When finished, the cod should not be completely salt free or it will lose its distinctive flavor. Pinch off a shred and taste it. It should taste a bit saltier than fish that you’ve seasoned and cooked with salt. Drain and rinse. Remove any obvious bones or hard bits. Refrigerate until ready to use.
- Preheat the oven to 450°. Bake the potato until tender, about 50 to 60 minutes. While the potato is cooking, give the rehydrated cod a final rinse, put it into a medium pot and cover with cold salted water. Bring to just under a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the fish is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool in the liquid.
- Heat ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil in a small saucepan over moderate heat. Add the garlic and shallots and cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the cream and simmer 7 minutes to reduce slightly.
- Split the potato in half as soon as it comes out of the oven, scoop out the steaming flesh and rice it right away. If you don’t have a ricer, push the potato through a sieve with large holes. If you don’t rice the potato while it’s still warm it will turn into a gummy mess.
- Drain the cod and pat dry with paper towels. Remove the skin and bones with your fingers, then put the cod into a food processor and pulse a few times to break it into coarse pieces. Add the garlic-cream mixture in a steady stream with the machine running. Don’t over process. Transfer the cod and cream to a medium bowl, add the potato and stir until everything’s mixed well. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. The saltiness of soaked salt cod varies quite a bit, so you’ll have to taste the brandade and, if necessary, add more salt and lemon juice. Add additional lemon juice only ½ teaspoon at a time, mix thoroughly, and taste again. Stir in the parsley.
- If not using the brandade immediately, cover and refrigerate for up to a week.
- Preheat oven to 450° (if it’s not on already).
- Transfer the brandade to a gratin dish and bake until heated through a thin crust has formed, about 20 minutes.
- Toss the peppers, olives and arugula together with the remaining olive oil and a tablespoon or so of lemon juice.
- Serve a spoonful of brandade with a big slice of toasted bread and some salad.
What can I say? This is one of our favorite foods. Our kids have loved it from the get-go. For a long time Roxanne thought it was a kind of French chicken salad. We’d eat it for supper one night with roasted peppers and it would make its way into a sandwich in her lunch box the next day. After serving one Christmas Eve both Roxanne and Oliver expected it at subsequent yuletide dinners. Go figure.
Leftovers are a good thing because it’s so versatile. Serve it as a dip, use it to fill ravioli, stuff peppers or as a layer lasagna. Cold brandade makes a great sandwich, especially with a bit of spicy mayo. Add a little cream or olive oil and toss it with spaghetti. Serve it under poached eggs for breakfast with some tomatoes.
But not all salt cod is equal. The quality depends on the original quality of the fish and how it was treated. Some is very tough, even after it’s soaked (although less likely if you buy a thick piece from a whole side). That’s when you have to be on your culinary toes and be ready to make adjustments. Sometimes it needs more potatoes, sometimes more cream. Sometimes to balance the flavors you need to add more lemon juice. Taste and make the necessary tweaks.
BTW… I added a little more cream to this batch after the photo session was over. You can see in the photo it’s a little firm and needed it.
Go ahead; click on something to see it in its full-sized glory. Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.