Creamed Puree of Salt Cod

Puree of salt cod or brandade is what the legendary Henri Soule—of New York’s once famous Le Pavilion—thought “the epitome of culinary perfection.” His love for it must have come from his mother who lived in a village near Bayonne and served it with “sliced potatoes, vinegar, oil, garlic, and chopped parsley” (from On the Town in New York [1973] by the Batterberrys).

A passing glance at the Larousse gastronomique’s classic garnishes for this dish shows it to be one of the glories of classic French regional cooking: served in a bowl layered with a ragout of crayfish tails and truffles; mixed with truffles tossed in hot butter (I would serve it with the truffled sandwiches); or served in a mound covered with roasted peppers and slices of tomato fried in extra virgin olive oil. Not bad.

But the simple regional recipes call for a lot of handwork in shredding the salt cod after it is poached—so much work, in fact, that it makes brandade a huge challenge for most home cooks. Unless you use the following procedure, that is.

One day in the early 1970s at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, I was eyeing the countertop mixer, then worth its weight in gold, and jealously guarded by the pastry chef. One of those lightbulbs in my head went off, and I figured out a way to make the otherwise tedious preparation of this dish a lot easier and a great deal more fun. Here is the secret.

This puree is basically a fish mayonnaise, so use the same mixing techniques.

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Ingredients

  • 1 pound salt cod fillet (not the whole fish), cut into 1-inch cubes
  • ¾ cup extra virgin light yellow olive oil
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon fresh garlic puree
  • Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Method

Soak the cod pieces in cold water twice, each time for 20 minutes. Then poach them in unsalted water for 30 minutes, or until just tender and falling apart.

Drain and save a cup of the liquid (save the rest for leek and potato soup).

Put the cod, while still hot, in the food mixer, and using the “whip” attachment, turn the mixer speed to medium-slow to flake the fish, scraping down the sides of the bowl every 5 minutes with a rubber spatula. Once or twice, take out the whip, mix the cod together, and continue flaking for a total of about 30 minutes, or until the salt cod is smooth.

In separate saucepans heat the olive oil and the cream until just too hot to touch. With the machine still on low speed, add a quarter of the hot oil, then the garlic puree, and then a quarter of the cream, continuing to alternate between the oil and hot cream. Halfway through the process of adding the oil and cream, turn the speed to medium. Then if the puree is separating slightly, turn the speed to high for a minute, adding only cream. Make sure the cream and oil stay hot.

The final consistency should be mayonnaise-like, so plan to add the last quarter of the cream as the last addition (so that you can omit the remaining oil, depending on the texture). Season, as it may need salt and certainly pepper. Keep warm but not hot in a double boiler or water bath, covered, until ready for use (up to an hour).

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