I’m just going to blame it all on Champêtre in Pine Plains.
This unassuming Gallic boîte rekindled an infatuation with unapologetically classic yet unabashedly authentic French food. The passion was originally ignited for me in the 1990s at Chef Michel Jean’s cozy Champêtre in SoHo.
In 2006, he and his wife, Patricia, decamped to open Stissing House in Pine Plains until it was time in 2021 to get back to their Provençal roots — steak tartare, duck confit with lentils, perfect seafood — with Champêtre.
I fell into a Proustian reverie thinking about the possibilities; the last time I was there, it was the cassoulet (which prompted last month’s recipe). A lively conversation with Chef Michel got me thinking about the brandade he would offer for the holidays, and the recent cold snap forced me into action.
Traditional brandade de morue comes from the Languedoc-Roussillon province of France, specifically the town of Nîmes, where cod and the preserved version, salt cod or morue, were the primary seafoods.
Brandade is an emulsion of this reconstituted salt cod and olive oil, with the possible addition of potatoes, garlic and/or cream. It’s a luxurious treat for winter holidays — the most extravagant version in Nîmes is augmented with truffles.
Even at its most basic, brandade served as a warm spread on garlic toast with a simple green salad is comfort food along the lines of raclette or fondue.
I should address confusion between salt cod (morue in French, baccalà in Italian) and stockfish (stockfisch or poisson séché in French, stoccafisso in Italian). Salt cod is made from North Atlantic cod, which is flattened, packed in salt and dried. Stockfish is the product of much colder climates, particularly the northern Atlantic, and is as much fermented as dried, making it closer to cheese than salt cod. While useful in some recipes, it is no replacement for salt cod, particularly in brandade. In other words, don’t try this at home — or anywhere else.
To reconstitute salt cod, the heavy surface salt is rinsed off and the fish is soaked in fresh water for two or three days, with frequent changes. The flesh is simmered in water and spices (the addition of milk will mellow the fishiness) and can be used in soups, stews and casseroles much in the same way you would use fresh cod.
While the common professional wisdom is that salt cod from Scandinavia, the Netherlands or Spain is superior, I find Canadian versions to be “fresher.”
Brandade de Morue
Serves 8 to 10 as an appetizer
- 1-to-1½ pounds salt cod
- 1 cup whole milk
- 5 whole cloves garlic, plus 2 minced and reserved
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ pound whole russet potatoes, peeled, cut into large chunks
- 1¼ cups extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup milk, half-and-half or heavy cream (depending on your fat tolerance)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Zest and juice of ½ lemon
- 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
- Garlic crostini for serving (see recipe note)
1. Rinse the surface salt from the cod under cold running water. Soak the filets in cold water in the refrigerator for at least two hours, drain and repeat in fresh cold water. This process needs to be done at least 4 to 5 more times before finally draining and patting the cod pieces dry.
2. Place cod in a medium saucepan and cover with cold, unsalted water. Add the milk, 5 whole cloves garlic, the thyme and bay leaf to the pan. Over medium-high heat, bring to a solid simmer and cook for 15 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove cod from the simmering pan and reserve to a small bowl.
3. Add potatoes to the still simmering saucepan and cook until easily pierced with a fork, about 30 to 45 minutes. While the potatoes cook, flake salt cod by hand with a fork, discarding any bones and silvery membranes. When the potatoes are done, drain, discarding seasoning; in another bowl mash well using a food mill, ricer or potato masher until smooth. Reserve.
4. Transfer cod to a stand mixer fitted with the wire whisk or food processor; add the minced garlic and lemon zest and juice. With the mixer running at medium-high speed, drizzle in olive oil until incorporated. Drizzle in milk, half-and-half or cream until incorporated and fluffy. Add mashed potatoes and whip just long enough to incorporate. Adjust with salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste.
6. Serve brandade, garnished with minced parsley, at room temperature, or warm (as shown): Transfer to an oven-safe dish and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes until lightly browned on top. Serve with a lightly dressed, leafy green salad and warm baguette garlic crostini.
Note: To make garlic crostini, heat oven to 375 degrees. In a very small saucepan or butter warmer, heat ½ cup olive oil with 4 cloves of garlic, minced fine. When it starts to simmer, remove from the heat. Slice a good baguette at a 45-degree angle into long oval slices about ¼-inch thick. Lay them on a sheet pan and brush each with the garlic-infused olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper and bake until they are lightly browned (no more than 10 minutes). Can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container.
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