GROWING up in Provincetown, I early acquired a taste for salt cod in the form of a local specialty known as Skully Joe, or fisherman’s candy. Cap’n Kemp, the retired clipper ship skipper who lived next door, used to dry his own in the shed which bordered our back yard, and he’d give me a morsel which I’d suck on carefully, making it last for an hour or more. I didn’t encounter the French classic, brandade de morue, however, until years later in its natural habitat.
Last January I returned from Harstad, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, with some of the best salt cod I’ve ever laid my hands on. I promptly made it into brandade, following Lulu Peyraud’s recipe as set down by Richard Olney in Lulu’s Provençal Kitchen. From the beginning the texture and aroma were promising and it proved to be worth all the soaking, steeping and blending: the finished product was strong with that traditional salt cod flavor, robust but not aggressively coarse.
It’s a crime to get through all that wonderful stuff in a couple of days, so I followed my usual practice of partially freezing it in a large rectangular tray, then cutting it into segments which go into a plastic bag and are returned to the freezer, to be thawed one by one as needed. It’s strong stuff, and it’s precious, so I usually follow the effete Parisian practice of mixing it with mashed potato.
Yesterday I had a craving for another fix, so I went to the freezer and took a small square from my dwindling supply. How long would it last? As I prepared to eat it, a little can sitting on the counter gave me an inspiration. I scrubbed and cut up another 1/4 lb of potatoes and put them to simmer with some fennel seeds and a bay leaf. When the potatoes were soft enough to mash I put them in the food processor with a dash of milk, added a couple of pressed cloves of garlic, some pepper and sea salt, and—wait for it—the entire contents of a 4-oz can of sardines packed in olive oil.
I threw the switch and gave the mixture about 15 seconds to blend thoroughly. Nearby was a warm dish of the Real Thing. Trembling with anticipation (and when I tremble, the earth moves), I tasted one and then the other. Miracle of miracles! Aside from their color they were astonishingly similar. And the fausse brandade had taken no more than five minutes to make (plus potato boiling time) as opposed to the hours of looking for decent salt cod, the overnight soaking, the simmering of the court-bouillon, the gentle steeping, the careful removal of the bones, and the lengthy pounding in of the warm oil and milk. True, the sardine mixture had an aftertaste of sardines, but no matter; I’m quite fond of sardines.
It was a major breakthrough for culinary science. I felt like stout Cortez, silent upon a peak in Darien. I needn’t treck back to Harstad after all, or even ask Santa to pick up some on his way from the North Pole; this was actually better than some real brandade I’d made with strong, stringy salt cod bought in Britain. Mary’s already decided to include it in her next cookbook. I won’t give up making the real thing, but for ersatz brandade, this is good enough to tell the world about. Which is exactly what I’m doing.
©1998 John Whiting
As printed in John Thorne's Simple Cooking