Friday, September 14, 2012
In 2010, on one of many trips to Provence, I spent a few days in Drôme, in the picturesque village of Le Poët-Laval.
Nestled amongst its steep, twisting cobbled paths in the center, there was a little cafe attached to an old bookstore full of musty old books and curious prints. Sitting at a table on a stone ledge jutting between two narrow paths, we each chose a salad from the four featured on the menu.
I had never heard of brandade de morue, but Catherine assured me that it is a typically Provencal dish and I would like it. So of course, like any dutiful tourist would do, I said yes.
Over a mountain of fresh greens and tomatoes, there were four pieces of baguette with a heaping mound of something white. Grilled, the top was slightly browned and filmy, but when I took a bite, the inside was surprisingly fluffy - I wondered if there were egg whites in the strange mousse-like paste. Though slightly fishy, I couldn't put a finger on what kind of fish it might be, nor could I guess what any of the ingredients were. Garlic and cream, for sure. Perhaps potatoes. But what made it so fluffy? And so delicious?
Brandade de morue, I found out, was a pretty common dish in those parts. Every supermarket carried ready-made brandade de morue, usually in gratin form. I tried it, liked it, but it wasn't the same. There were lumpy potatoes in it, it was a nice gratin, but nothing like the delightful fluffiness I remembered.
Recreating the dish in Russia where I lived at the time was a laughable endeavor. Not being able to find salt cod, the primary ingredient, I tried substituting it with frozen white fish (it is dubious if it was even cod) and while the resulting white mass was eminently edible, it wasn't what I sought.
In New York, at last, I found salt cod - sold as stiff slabs in wooden crates crammed with salt. It took me a while to tackle it though - but fortunately I got it perfect on my first attempt. There's nothing like recreating a taste you had years ago and searched for in vain since then. I was one tired but triumphant cook yesterday! And while I may not make this every day, considering the time and the amount of heavy cream and olive oil involved, I know I now have it in my repertoire and can indulge now and then.
Here's what I used: (I looked up many recipes on the internet and made up my own)
1 pound salt cod
1/4 small onion
5 garlic cloves
1 pound potatoes
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 extra virgin olive oil
(1/4 cup milk, optional)
1/4 dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 salt (add more to taste)
freshly ground pepper
First thing you have to know - salt cod takes from 24 to 72 hours to rehydrate and desalinate. It is so dry and salty, it can be kept for months at room temperature. Put it in a container and cover with plenty of water. Change the water four or five times over the course of a day or three. (Most recipes said either one or three days; I noticed no significant change in the smell or texture or look of the fish after a day, but I did keep it the full three days.) A friend of mine from Nice told me that old ladies in Provence used to prepare this dish by sticking the fish in their toilet tanks. You see, the water needs to be constantly changed, but one might forget, so... the toilet tank changes its water pretty often!
I don't know what's more disgusting, that there is food in the toilet tank or that the toilet will smell of fish.
Fast forward three days: put the fish in a pot, cover with water and put on the lowest heat you can. Do not let it boil. I think it took my pot 15 or 20 minutes to reach a sort of simmer, and I kept it there for 15 minutes more.
In the meanwhile, finely dice a quarter of a small onion and put it in a pan with cream, garlic cloves (sliced), a laurel leaf, freshly ground pepper, thyme and three whole cloves. Put it on low heat as well - do not let it boil - and simmer, covered, for about 10 minutes or until the onions and garlic are soft.
Boil your potatoes (I don't care if you cook them with the skin on or dice them or slice them - it doesn't matter) and roughly mash it up.
I think this is kind of pretty. Remove the three cloves (hope you have not lost them) and let cool a bit.
Drain your salt cod and remove some or most or all of the skin and bones, if you can find any. Roughly shred with a fork.
In a food processor, put the potatoes, cod and cream mixture. Pulse a few times and scrape down the sides. Pulse a few more seconds until everything is more or less incorporated.
Slowly, bit by bit, add the olive oil. If your brandade de morue looks too chunky and dry, add a bit of milk - I did.
Salt to taste. The resulting paste should be fluffy and while not a seamless puree, it should be pretty smooth.
You can have it just like that, as a dip to go with a crusty baguette, or bake it in the oven like a gratin. But I went the extra mile to recreate that original dish.
I put a heaping mound on slices of crusty bread and put it under the broiler for a minute or two. Now, a tip - I remember that the original dish I ate had brandade de morue on the bread so that the bread couldn't be seen from the top. Here's why - when you put it in under the broiler, the bread burns faster than the brandade de morue and you will end up with the smoke alarm going off and charbroiled baguette. Cover your bread from edge to edge with the brandade de morue, or, cover the edges of your bread with aluminum foil. And no matter what, don't turn your back on the oven, even if it is to wash a few dishes.
Delicious with a fresh green salad. Delicious with a glass of chilled white wine. Delicious at any time of the day or year.