Salt Cod Potato Gratin makes a fantastic appetizer or lunch.
If you love a hot new trend, dried and salted cod, or bacalao, is one to check out. Bon Appetit magazine ranks salt cod as #3 on its “13 World Food Predictions for 2015” (behind gyros and nitro coffee). Better yet, the iconic one-pound wooden boxes of Canadian Cristobol Boned Salted Codfish are in supermarkets around town. No more waiting for a friend to return from New England with some in the luggage.
Salt cod is like the country ham of the North – it’s packed with concentrated, one-of-a-kind flavor from the drying and salting process. And like cured ham, salt cod has been a staple of many cultures for hundreds of years. In New England, thanks to the Portuguese fleets around New Bedford, MA, generations have been raised on inexpensive salt cod and boiled potatoes topped with a “yellow river” of melted butter.
Expect to see salt cod joining other humble ingredients like pork belly, chicken livers, and gizzards on restaurant menus. At home, however, your own salt cod potato gratin can rival Thomas Keller’s version at Bouchon. No kidding.
As an appetizer this hot, crusty casserole is delicious scooped up with crisp toasts and a lays a nice foundation for cocktails. As a main dish, all it needs is a fresh lemon vinaigrette to dress fresh spinach, arugula or watercress. And for a smashing brunch, scoops of this made-ahead gratin topped with a pair of runny fried or poached eggs will spare you and your friends that long Sunday wait in line.
The only “chore” to preparing the cod is a long water soak to rid the fish of most of the salt (not all the salt; you still want it to be salty in an appetizing way). It takes time, but not effort. Remove and unfold the cod from the box and place it in a large bowl of cold water. Every few hours (or whenever you happen to walk through the kitchen) dump the water and replace it. An overnight soak is plenty of time to rehydrate and desalinate the fish. Now the fish will be easy to flake with your fingers to blend gently with cooked potatoes.
Although we usually don’t find any, keep an eye out for stray bones and skin and discard them. Coarse breadcrumbs are a must for this gratin so no supermarket cylinders of fine crumbs.
Rinse the salt cod and soak in a large bowl of cold water for about 24 hours, changing the soaking water periodically when you think about it. Little thin slices of French baguette are the perfect carrier for this lovely gratin. Or, serve it as a main dish with a big green salad and crusty bread.
Combine the salt cod, milk, bay leaf, and thyme in a medium saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered until the cod is soft and flakes easily with a fork, about 15 minutes.
Remove the cod from the milk to cool slightly and flake it into bite-size pieces with a fork or your fingers.
Remove the bay leaf and thyme from the cod milk and keep warm over low heat.
Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in a large pot of boiling salted water until very tender. Timing will depend on the size of the potatoes.
Cook the onion in two tablespoons of the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic after a few minutes of cooking. Cook until the onions are golden brown.
When the potatoes are cooked, mash them with about 1 cup of the hot cod milk. Add the onion, garlic, butter mixture and blend well.
Add the cod and additional cod milk (about 1/2 cup), stirring until soft and fluffy.
Pile the mixture into a buttered 1 1/2 quart casserole.
Top with breadcrumbs and dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.
Bake at 400F for 20 to 30 minutes or until nicely browned and heated through.
Top with chopped parsley before serving.
Rinse the salt cod and soak in a large bowl of cold water for about 24 hours, changing the soaking water periodically when you think about it.
Little thin slices of French baguette are the perfect carrier for this lovely gratin. Or, serve it as a main dish with a big green salad and crusty bread.