Christopher Hirst explores two exceptional starters bestowed by the ever-generous cod
Forty years ago, taramasalata was a near-obligatory dinner party starter, usually accompanied by its vegetarian brother hummus. Following this peak, the lurid pink dip, its day-go hue imparted more by e-number dyes than tarama (cod roe), steadily fell from favour. Its ubiquity and harsh chemical flavour pushed it from the dinner table. A good job too, though great tubs of the stuff are still sold at minimal cost in Turkish supermarkets. A more genuine version is sold by Waitrose at £1.35 for 170 grams. Greyish and grainy, it utilises cod’s roe rather than God-knows-what artificial horrors. If you’re going to buy proper taramasalata, which seems to be enjoying a welcome revival, then this is the one to go for, though it’s easy enough to make your own if you can locate the affordable luxury of smoked cod roe (available online from Pinney’s of Orford at £11.50 for 400 grams plus p&p).
In her ground-breaking book Fish Cookery, Jane Grigson extolled the ‘cool, granular texture’ of the taramasalata she ate in the Fifties at a restaurant where the head waiter revealed it was made by hand. ‘Downstairs in the kitchen,’ he elucidated. ‘Here.’ Though Grigson concedes that the dip ‘wouldn’t be as popular with us as it is [she was waiting in 1973], if electric beaters and liquidisers hadn’t come to save work in so many kitchens.’ She admits that her efforts never quite matched the handmade version from the restaurant’s basement, ‘but it’s still delicious and worth making.’ Absolutely. Proper taramasalata is well worth reviving.
First, whip up an egg yolk with the juice of a lemon. Peel the skin from 400 grams of cod roe (easily done) then roughly chop the roe. Gradually add the chopped roe to the food processor with 350ml olive oil, plus 1 tbsp chopped onion. Incorporate the ingredients little by little as if making mayonnaise, suggests Grigson. This will prevent the dip splitting. Add a few drops of water if the result is too thick plus more lemon juice if your taste inclines that way (mine does). Serve with bread sticks, pitta bread or sliced baguette. Black olives are the customary accompaniment.
The generous cod provides another distinguished fish dip. Brandade de morue is a subtle white purée based on salt cod. A class act, it is found in tinned form in most French supermarkets. In his fine book A Long and Messy Business (Unbound, £15.45), restaurateur Rowley Leigh suggests serving it an hour or two before Christmas lunch. ‘It makes an excellent snack… and is perhaps best served in conjunction with some smoked salmon on brown bread and a classy dry champagne.’ If you are in France, look out for a brand called Grand Chef 1879 from the Raymond company of Nimes. It has a somewhat higher proportion of salt cod (50 per cent) than their standard brandade (38 per cent). If your Gallic wanderings happen to take you to Nimes, you can buy freshly made uncanned brandade from Raymond’s fragrant shop at 28 avenue Franklin Rooseveldt. Highly recommended, it will survive the journey home if you buy it on your last day in France.
Alternatively, you can make your own, which will result in brandade with a salt cod content running to 70 per cent or more. (There can, however, be problems with excessive salinity as I explain below.) Rowley Leigh’s book contains a recipe which transforms fresh cod fillet into salt cod by overnight salting. If this sounds somewhat inauthentic, you might consider the view of London-based Portuguese restaurateur Nuno Mendes. In his book Lisboeta, Mendes declares, ‘Portuguese people are completely infatuated with bacalhau (salt cod)…I have a big confession to make: I prefer fresh cod.’ The problem with bacalhau for Mendes is ‘I find the texture too fibrous… I prefer to lightly cure my fish.’ There is an additional advantage in that, unlike salt cod, fresh cod is relatively easy to find in Britain.
Rowley Leigh makes his salt cod by sprinkling 250g rock salt in a dish, adding two smashed garlic cloves and a few sprigs of thyme, then placing on top a 500g fillet of fresh cod. (These quantities are sufficient to ‘serve 12-15’ so you may want to halve them.) Another 250g rock salt goes on top of the fish. The dish is covered in clingfilm and left in the fridge overnight. In the morning, Leigh directs his reader to ‘rinse the cod, garlic and thyme under the cold tap and leave the fish under running water for 30 minutes or let it steep in several changes of water.’ Having made the dish several times, I’d strongly recommend the running water technique – and let the water run for as much as an hour, turning the fish over occasionally during this period. When I merely steeped the fish, it resulted in impossibly salty brandade, even though I changed the water several times. The salting is necessary, however, not merely to flavour the fish but to draw out its water content. You need a stiff fillet in order to facilitate its transformation into a purée.
The washed fish, garlic and thyme is gently simmered with 300g finely diced potato (a mash type) in 750g milk. After five minutes, the cod should be cooked. Gently lift out and continue cooking the potato until it is soft. Remove the garlic and thyme and throw away. Combine the cod and potato in a food processor using the ‘pulse’ button so the resulting purée does not become too smooth. According to Leigh, ’It should retain a bit of texture.’ Scrape the mixture into a clean bowl. It will be very stiff and ‘will need to be let down a little with some of the cooking milk (if it’s not too salty).’ The purée is then enriched by beating in 50ml of olive oil. Fry thin slices of baguette in olive oil. Spoon the brandade on top on of the croutons and garnish with a stoned black olive. ‘Serve forthwith,’ directs Leigh.