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Salt Cod: A Delicious Vestige

by Jay Harlow

Call it baccalá, bacalao, bacalhau, morue, or by its plain English name, once you acquire a taste for salt cod, you may be hooked for life. Salt cod, like smoked salmon, ham, corned beef, and many other salt-cured foods, is one of those old-fashioned preserved foods whose popularity has outlasted the need for its particular form of preservation. And the reason is the same as it is for these other foods: in the process, it becomes a totally different food from the fresh item -- and it tastes good.

Well, at least it tastes good to some of us. Others are not so fond of it, to say the least. And even some who like the flavor are put off by the smell of dried salt cod. Quite frankly, it smells like a dried-up fish. But soak that plank of dried-up fish in water for a day or so, changing the water a few times, and it undergoes a magic transformation. The fish sheds its strong smell and saltiness and swells to nearly the size it was when it was fresh. After a brief poaching, it comes out firm, succulent and tasty, but as different from the taste of fresh cod as ham is from fresh leg of pork.

For centuries, curing with salt was one of the only methods of preserving fish for long-distance shipping. Since the time of the Vikings, salted and dried cod from the North Atlantic has been shipped around the world, with a large share going to the Mediterranean countries. Because it could last for months or even years without spoiling, salt cod became, and remains, a popular food in inland areas of Spain, Portugal, southern France, and Italy. Salt cod is available all year, especially at well-stocked Italian delis and other stores catering to southern Europeans. It's also available in many supermarkets, especially during Lent and to a lesser degree during the Christmas season. The Lenten connection is obvious; but where Roman Catholic traditions are strongest, meat is also forbidden on Christmas Eve, so seafood figures prominently in the meal served before the midnight Mass. The Provencal souper maigre for Christmas Eve typically includes a dish of snails or salt cod in an otherwise vegetarian meal. Even among those families who do not eschew meat for religious reasons, a fish dish is likely to precede the roast in a Christmas dinner.

After soaking to reconstitute it and rid it of salt, salt cod can be simply poached and served like other fish. But I prefer it in somewhat fancier form, especially in the French brandade de morue, a warm puree of the reconstituted fish with garlic, olive oil, and milk (see recipe). Italian cooks in the city of Vicenza combine more or less the same ingredients in a different way, baking the soaked fillets for hours to a puddinglike consistency.

Once upon a time salt cod was cheap, but not any more. Most of the world supply is caught in the north Atlantic ocean, mainly off New England, Canada, and Iceland. However, decades of overfishing have brought the Atlantic cod stocks near to collapse, and it may take many years for them to recover. Some processors have switched to the still relatively abundant Pacific cod, but prices for salt cod, which have risen three to fourfold over the last two decades, are likely to remain high. But keep an eye out for supermarket specials in the Christmas and Lenten season; also bear in mind that the fish nearly doubles in weight when reconstituted, so a small amount can go a long way.

Brandade de Morue (Salt Cod Puree)
Serves 6 to 8
Brandade is traditionally mixed by hand in the skillet, but an electric
mixer does the job much more easily. A food processor is less suitable, as it purees everything too far and too fast. Because it is so rich in olive oil, a little brandade goes a long way. Serve it warm, spooned over unsalted crackers, or to be really authentic, triangular croutons cooked in olive oil. Bound with a little potato, it also makes a fine ravioli stuffing.

1 pound salt cod filet
3/4 cup olive oil
2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 cup milk
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Rinse the fish and cut it into manageable pieces (it may be necessary to let it soak briefly before cutting). Place in a glass or other non-reactive dish and cover with cold water. Soak 24 to 36 hours in the refrigerator, changing the water several times a day.

Drain the fish and place in a skillet with cold water to cover. Bring slowly to a simmer and poach until the fish flakes. Drain and transfer to a cutting board. Remove and discard any skin and bones, pulling the fish apart into flakes and inspecting it carefully for small bones.

Warm half the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the fish and cook 5 minutes, stirring and mashing the fish with a wooden spoon, until it is reduced to small pieces. Transfer the contents of the skillet to a mixing bowl and beat on medium speed until the fish is broken up into fine shreds. Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in the skillet and bring the milk just to a boil in a small saucepan.

With the mixer running on low speed, alternately add hot oil and hot milk to the puree, allowing a few seconds for each addition to be fully absorbed. (Transfering the oil and milk to heatproof measuring cups with pouring spouts will make the job easier.) Continue adding oil and milk until the mixture reaches a creamy, spreadable consistency (not all the oil and milk may be needed). Season to taste with pepper and nutmeg; if the fish has been thoroughly desalted, some salt may also be needed. Serve warm, or refrigerate and reheat slowly in a double boiler to serve.

Jay Harlow is a Bay Area cookbook publisher and author of ten books including Once Upon a Bagel, The California Seafood cookbook & Beer Cuisine.

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