I am constantly fascinated by the methods our ancestors discovered for preserving food - duck confit (cooked and stored in its own fat), for instance, is a minor miracle. Salt cod (baccala) is not quite as revered today as duck confit in gourmet circles (yet), but we owe a lot to salt cod. Without it, a lot of us probably wouldn't be here (for more about this, you might want to check out Cod by Mark Kurlansky).
Salt cod is precisely how it sounds; salted cod. The salt creates a cure that allows the cod to stay edible for long periods of time, similar to lox (cured salmon). Unlike lox, however, the cod must be de-salted for a period of hours to days before it can be prepared. Once desalted, the cod bears a striking resemblance to fresh cod, but has a richer and more savory, but not overly salty, favor.
Rich with garlic, cream and olive oil, tempered with lemon juice, topped with a 3 minute egg, if desired, salt cod brandade is an inexpensive appetizer that is perfect for cold winter nights. Salt cod is available at better supermarkets and specialty stores. Locally, I know you can purchase it at Curds & Whey in the North Market. Don't forget to plan ahead; you'll have to soak the cod 30 hours or so. If you are unsure if your cod is adequately de-salted, slice off a small piece and cook it in a saute pan, then taste.
Salt Cod Brandade - serves 6-8 as an appetizer
1 1/2 pound piece salt cod
2 large baking potatoes
3-6 cloves garlic, ground into paste or pushed through garlic mincer
1/2 - 3/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
1 cup heavy cream
juice of 2 lemons, separated
4-6 tbsp butter
Place the cod in a wide, shallow dish and cover with cold water. Place in refrigerator and soak for about 30 hours, changing the water every 8 hours.
Wrap the potatoes in foil and bake at 350 for 1 hour or until soft, remove and scoop the flesh into a large bowl, along with 3 cloves of garlic (up to 6, depending on your taste); mash well.
While the potatoes are baking, place the de-salted cod into a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium; simmer for 10 minutes, then remove a piece of cod and test to see if is cooked through and will flake. If it passes the test, turn the heat off and cover the pot; allow to soak for 10 more minutes. If it isn't quite ready, give it another 5 minutes. Remove the cod and place on paper towels to drain.
Place the cream in a small sauce pan and heat over medium heat, just to warm through.
Flake the cod into the bowl containing the potato and garlic and stir slightly to combine. Add about 1/4 cup olive oil and stir, then add 1/4 cup cream, and stir. Continue this process, alternating between oil and cream, until you reach a slightly stiff but spreadable Constancy. Stir in the juice of one lemon, then taste and add more garlic if necessary. Stir well and place the cod in a large, ovenproof container, or in individual ramekins, if desired.
Preheat the broiler. Place dots of butter over the cod and broil for about 10 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned. Remove and squeeze juice from the other lemon over the top. If desired, you can serve the cod with a soft-boiled egg, as I did in the picture; however, the brandade doesn't really need the extra richness.
Serve with toast points (my crostini were made from baguettes from Eleni Christina, in the Short North; I sliced them thinly and then tossed them with good extra virgin olive oil and kosher salt, then spread them on a baking sheet and put them under the broiler with the cod).