Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Baccalata: Glory to Cod in the Highest

For our little group’s most recent soiree gastronomique I proposed the theme of baccalà, or cod that has been transformed by the process of salting, storage, and desalting into something different and distinctly better than the rather bland, white protein favored for fish and chips (and rather little else). I also volunteered to procure the main ingredient for whomever wanted, and that turned out to be the event’s biggest challenge. It may be easy over there in Europe—just toodle on in to your local epicerie—but here in land of sliced bread it ain’t so easy. After a couple of chowhound inquiries, a few phone calls, and a mad rush-hour dash from San Diego to Harbor City I finally got some from a Spanish sausage company (where I couldn’t resist also buying some chorizo and pricey-but-worth-it Bellota ham).

For a Saturday night dinner party, I started soaking the fish in fresh, cold water on Tuesday evening, keeping things in the fridge and changing the water once every 24 hours or so. Tasting the water when you change is a good way of telling how much more you need to desalt—when the water is just mildly saline after the baccalà has been soaking in it for a day then the fish is about ready to use. I have overdone it with the desalting before, and the results are not so good. Friday morning I divided the fish three ways: Giusy needed quite a bit for her baccalà alla vicentina, Veronique needed less for a brandade, and I needed even less for either the quenelles or the salgadinhas, but since I was making two dishes I made sure to keep enough.

Here are the four baccalà dishes.

Quenelles: This is basically a classic fish dumpling usually made with pike. I substituted cod, of course, and ground about 300 grams of uncooked baccalà (desalted) into a pasty mass, then ran the paste through a food mill to remove any stringy matter. Added a pinch of white pepper and put this away for later.

The other part of these quenelles was a choux dough: 1 stick (½ cup) butter and 1 cup water, brought to a boil and to which I added 1 cup of flour. Stirring continuously the dough gets very solid and greasy and pulls nicely away from the side of the saucepan. Transferring that to a glass bowl, I then added three eggs, one at a time. This part is kinda fun. The mixture gets all slimy and lumpy after each egg is added but it soon turns smooth and the dough gets stickier with each egg. I let this cool to room temp until it was time to add the fish. [But see Karen's recipe on this blog if you want to make cream puffs.]

My take on quenelles is to mix the fish paste with the non-sweet pate choux in about a 40-60 mix (40% fish)—no need to be too precise. The fully mixed fishy choux dough then gets formed into the quenelle shape (do this with two tablespoons as you drop them into the simmering liquid--I used a court bouillon with chinese chives, parsley and oregano) and poached until they puff and float for a minute or so. I like to transfer the poached quenelles into a baking dish with a light tomato sauce on the bottom, and bake them for a bit longer—they get even puffier and lighter and develop a more interesting texture than only-poached quenelles.

So anyways, I thought the cod quenelles were pretty good, though I think they come out better with fresh fish. I also overbaked them a bit, hoping that they would puff out more. Oh well, they got eaten.

Salgadinhas de bacalhau e ervilhas: This is my take on a standard croquette made throughout Spain and Portugal--my brilliant innovation is the addition of peas, which was inspired by a conversation with my distant Brazilian cousin Pamela.

After prepping some of my aliquot of fish for quenelles, I poached the rest and flaked it (getting rid of the darker parts) and added a nice handful of frozen peas. Boiled some potatoes, ran them through a ricer, added a splash of heavy cream. I also had a sofrito with onions and garlic cooked down in some bacon fat, and I added that to the potatoes. When the potato/sofrito mixture was cool, I adjusted salt to taste and then added two eggs, the cod/pea mixture. The breading was good ol' Japanese panko crumbs.

You can form and bread these guys a couple of hours ahead of time, but make sure to fry them shortly before serving. I have the oil heating at around the time guests arrive and fry them (not too awkward in this group) while we drink. Put the quenelles in one oven while the other cooks warm their dishes in the other oven. More drinks (and I'm starting to sound like Trevor). It's terribly nice to hang with cooks. Anyways, the salgadinhas were good, though I do think that croquettes are generally neither horrifically bad nor insanely good. Being fried and crunchy and potato-ey, they were the preferred cod dish among the F1, who were all in my son's room playing Wii games while the rest of us blasphemed away (yes, lots of Cod jokes) in the kitchen.

Brandade de morue: Veronique (yes, a real French person) made this lovely dish, also based on baccalà and potatoes but working very nicely as a spread on crusty bread. Here's her recipe:

1 lb of baccalà, 1 lb of potatoes, sage, laurel leaves, thyme, warm milk, olive oil, garlic, black pepper

Poach the fish with the thyme, laurel and sage for about 10 min. Boil or steam the potatoes and cut them in pieces. Put in a blender with 2 cloves of garlic, and pepper. Blend well and add warm milk (about ¼ cups and olive oil until you get a smooth puree but not liquid; taste it as you go as you do not want the olive oil to dominate. You can also add a little bit of heavy cream if you want. Top with grated Swiss cheese and put in the oven to warm up and broil. Enjoy!

Baccalà alla vicentina con polenta: Giusy (yes, a real Italian person) made this, and it was excellent.

Cut the desalted baccalà into smallish pieces. Thinly slice up some onion (however much you want) and cook it down with some good olive oil until it's transparent. Add a couple of desalted anchovy fillets to the onion and keep it going on for about five more minutes, then turn off the fire and add some chopped parsley. Coat the baccalà with flour and spread them out in a glass baking dish. Spread out the sofrito over the fish pieces and pour in some whole milk, just enough to cover the fish. Top with grated parmigiano reggiano, salt and pepper (don't go crazy with the salt). Drizzle on a nice dose of olive oil, and cook this all in the oven (covered with foil presumably), at 250°F (125°C) for 3-4 hours. This dish is best if prepared a day in advance.

For the polenta, heat up a stick of butter (½ cup) with ¼ cup of olive oil in an amply-sized pot, and add three cloves of garlic (minced), salt, pepper and a healthy pinch of Italian seasoning (which here means a mix of dried basil, oregano, marjoram, and sage). After the garlic has cooked a bit add 2 cups of milk and 3 cups of chicken stock, and just when it come to a boil (i.e. before the milk curdles), add 2 cups of corn meal in a thin stream, stirring continuously and taking care not to get burned by the splashy bubbles of hot polenta. This will get pretty thick by the time the cornmeal is fully cooked, and that's the time to add ½ cup of grated parmigiano. Buon appetito. [translation by Jeff]

Giusy's take on polenta is quite different from mine—where I use salted water she uses an elaborate mixture of milk and chicken broth, butter and olive oil and dried herbs. This adds considerable flavor and makes a polenta that is lighter and better able to keep a nice texture for some time after being made and transported—an important consideration when you're taking polenta to someone else's house. She also insists that her dish is not a brasato, although I really like the thought that this is an example of how one can be perfectly secular while still braising Cod.

We also had the contribution of wine and a cheese platter from Claudia (yes, a real German person) and Mary (yes, a real Scottish person), who normally cooks, though their kitchen was under repair (another good reason for having a basement instead of building your house on a friggin' concrete slab!). Morgane, Veronique's daughter provided a chocolate torte. Giusy also brought a Pugliese dish of mashed fava beans and greens (should be puntarelle, a kind of chicory, but she could only find baby collards). I added a pavlova with zabaglione-tinged whipped cream.

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