A chunk of dried salt cod had been occupying valuable space on my tiny pantry shelf for months. It was given to me by my friend Craig, whose Azorean fisherman DNA does not allow him to pass up snatching bits of bacalhau whenever it crosses his path. I thanked him for it, popped it into my messenger bag and promptly forgot about it for a couple of days until I noticed an odor emanating from the bowels of my man purse which brought to mind the neglected terrarium of a hermit crab I briefly kept in the 5th grade. Crystalized salt flaked its way through the gaps in its waxed paper wrapping and settled on the bottom, which looked very much the way the shoulder of a person with an aggressive case of dandruff might after wearing a black wool turtleneck for several hours.
I gave the bag a good airing and myself a good talking to.
I knew precisely what I wanted to make with it: brandade de morue— a mixture of poached salt cod, garlic, olive oil, and potato all whipped together, baked, and served up hot or cold. I also knew precisely how I wanted to prepare it– authentically. I remembered reading something by MFK Fisher about her time living in Marseilles and how she was impressed by the efficiency of the local housewives who, rather than waste time constantly changing the salt cod’s soaking water, placed hunks of it in their toilet tanks so that every time someone spent a penny, their future dinner got a fresh change of water. I tried to find that passage again but couldn’t locate it. And then I thought to myself, “Well, she drank.”
That thought was followed swiftly by another one: “Well, so do I”. Had I just imagined the whole thing? I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from drunken, hallucinatory reading. It had to be true and, damn it, I was going to pull that salt cod of the shelf, drop it in the bottom of my toilet tank, grab a copy of The New Yorker, and get down to the business of preparing dinner.
My enthusiasm for using “the necessary” as a handy kitchen tool was dampened over a rather wet lunch with my friend Mei, a fellow food writer and memoiriste, who said, “That might be okay for you here in San Francisco, but other places put all kinds of chemicals and shit in the water to keep the pipes from freezing.” She had a good point. She also lives in Dublin, and wouldn’t be trying brandade “à la methode des femmes au foyer Marseillaises” any time soon. I can’t say that I blame her.
Disheartened, I went home and put the small brick of desiccated fish back in its dark, dry goods prison until further notice. That night, I made chicken salad for dinner using tools found in no other room but my kitchen. It was bland substitute my heart could not fully embrace– it still yearned for brandade prepared the lazy Marseilles housewife way.
Months passed, but still I couldn’t bring myself to make the dish. I hadn’t the stomach to plunge the cod into the toilet and hadn’t the cheek to do it the bourgeois injustice of being soaked in freshly-Britta-ed water. So the dried-out ingot of The Grand Banks languished between the honey jar and its permanent sticky ring and box of C&H sugar cubes I refuse to throw away in case I ever got around to drinking absinthe in the proper, Belle Époque fashion.
And then– finally— inspiration visited one morning as I used the smallest room. I could still use my toilet as a prep tool without resorting to using toilet water. If I soaked the cod in water from my kitchen, but set the container on top of the tank, it would serve as a reminder to change the water every time I needed to go. I could have my fish cake and eat it, too, without encouraging my readers to do anything that might cause them to become physically ill. Or that might cause their loved ones to suspect they are mentally ill because they started dropping fish down the back of the shitter and calling it dinner.
Brandade de Morue
While I maintain that the best and most convenient source for dried salt cod is from a half-Azorean ex-college roommate, my therapist has helped me to understand over the years that what is best for me might not be best for everyone else and that I must learn to make allowances for people whose lives may differ from mine.
For these people, I would suggest looking online for your salt cod. It’s
disturbingly refreshingly easy to find.
The following recipe is merely a guideline. Some people (like me) prefer it mixed with potato, others find this heretical. I found myself smearing a thin layer of goat cheese on my toasts before spooning on the brandade. I sometimes chop up cornichons and sprinkle them over the top. I say do whatever it is you want to do to your brandade. Don’t worry about what the folks of Marseilles might think– people who put their salt cod in the toilet are not typically the type of people who are going to care too deeply what you do with yours.
The recipe I use is largely based on one from SeriousEats. With a few changes.
Serves 4 people as a sociable appetizer or 1 shut-in who will leave it on the counter uncovered and eat it all over the course of two days.
• ½ pound of dried salt cod
• 1 medium-sized russet potato.
• Fresh thyme sprigs (3 is probably sufficient, but I like to use more)
• Bay leaf, if you’ve got them.
• 3 or 4 whole cloves of peeled garlic
• 2 cloves of minced garlic
• About 1/2 cup of olive oil
• About ¼ cup heavy cream
• A few squeezes of fresh lemon juice
•Salt and pepper to taste.
• Finely chopped parsley for garnish. Or cornichons or Rice Krispies or whatever.
- Rinse the salt cod to make it less salt and more cod. Place in a dish of cold, clean water, either on your toilet tank or in your toilet tank. Refresh water each time you heed Nature’s Call over the next 24 hours.
- Bake your potato (or why not bake more than one, really, since the oven’s already on) at 350°F for about an hour or until tender when stabbed by the tines of a fork or blade of a stiletto, whichever you have on hand. Cut potato in half while still warm, scooping to flesh from the skin, and fluffing with a fork to remove any major lumps. Set aside.
- Take the salt cod out of your bathroom and place in a medium-sized saucepan over the stove, covering the fish with yet more fresh, cold water. Add the whole garlic cloves, thyme, and bay leaf. Simmer for about 10 minutes, turn off the heat and let steep for another 20 minutes. Or, if you are like me: Realize that you’re supposed to be at your therapy appointment in like 15 minutes, panic, put on pants, jump in cab, talk about how digging up everything you thought you buried and ran away from 20 years ago for the purposes of writing a memoir has left you emotionally slimed and brain-dead for exactly 50 minutes, take the bus home but stop at the market for a fresh baguette and a bottle of rosé to have with your brandade which reminds you that you have left the cod sitting in its poaching water for nearly two hours but that’s fine because it’s only cod sitting in scented water and everything is going to be okay, which is how you feel because you just left your psychologist.
- Remove cod from poaching liquid, flake into the clean bowl of a stand mixer, ridding yourself of any bones and gross whitish stuff you may find lurking in or around the cod flesh. Add the poached whole garlic to the bowl, discarding everything else.
- Add fresh garlic, to make it extra French and, using the paddle attachment mix ingredients on medium high, as instructed by the good people at Serious Eats.
- Watch in horror/amazement as the cloves of garlic and about ¼ of your flaked cod pieces fly out of the bowl of your stand mixer. Quickly turn of mixer and curse.
- Be grateful that you had just scrubbed your kitchen floor on your hands and knees only yesterday, then pick up whatever bits of ejectus you can salvage and place back in bowl. Try again at a slightly slower speed with a tea towel draped over the bowl. Curse again.
- Place flaked cod and garlics in the bowl of a food processor with a good drizzle of olive oil. Pulse three staccato-like times. Now return your quarry to the stand mixer, where you will more than likely not have to deal with flying bits of fish again. Turn on medium speed, adding a bit more olive oil, and beat the crap out of it.
- Add cream, then beat even more crap out of it.
- Remove work bowl from the stand mixer and incorporate the potato by hand. Add as much lemon juice, pepper, and salt as you like. Surprisingly, this salt cod dish will probably need a lot of salt added back in, since most of it has been flushed away either literally or figuratively. You may eat it now, if you really must, but it is better when placed in a baking dish or ramekin and shoved into a hot oven for about 10 minutes until it puffs and starts to brown a little, then shoved under the broiler until it continues to brown even more.
- Sprinkle with parsley and serve with toasted baguette, cucumber slices, Chicken-in-a-Biskits, or just a spoon, for all I care. Or, do as I’ll admit to doing and leave it on the counter until fully cooled and have it that way (read: drink two glasses of rosé, get tired, go to bed, wake up in the morning, grab a fistful of cold brandade de morue that you forgot to put away the night before with your bare hand, shove it in your mouth, and question everything about your life. Except maybe your cooking abilities because that lazy French housewife fish thing you made yesterday was really fucking good).