Salt cod is one of the staples of the entire Iberian Peninsula but also fondly appreciated in France and Italy. Brandade du Morue is salt cod blended with potatoes, cream, garlic and olive oil. It can be served by itself as an appetizer or tapa, accompanied by garlic croutons. Bacalao is the Spanish term, and doesn’t usually include potato as would brandade.
On a trip to San Francisco I visited Iluna Basque to sample their tapas and tasted these piquillo peppers stuffed with brandade and quickly figured I could make this appetizer at home myself. It's an exquisite pairing of ingredients. Piquillo peppers have a somewhat conical shape which makes them a bit easier to stuff and present, so look for that in your peppers. But you can order the authentic piquillos through a couple of websites (such as Zingerman’s) or you can just roast a few red peppers on your gas burners until they blacken, and then peel them and macerate them in olive oil. Remember that here the peppers are the star and the bacalao is the condiment.
Making the brandade is at least a two day process because once you have the salt cod you must soak it in cold water in the refrigerator for 48 hours, changing the water 4 to 6 times during that period.
pound* salt cod freshened in several changes of water (see above)
russet potatoes, peeled
cup milk or half and half
cup olive oil
piquillo peppers (or 4 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled and macerated overnight in olive oil)
1 tsp piment d’esplette (Spanish “paprika” from the French/Basque side of the border)
Soak the cod pieces in cold water allowing about 48 hours; changing the water at least four times. At least as often as you would change your codpiece.
Poach the desalinated cod in water until it breaks apart easily with a fork. Meanwhile quarter the potatoes and simmer in a separate pan of water until they are fork tender. To assist the smoothness you can put them through a ricer. That earns you a merit badge.
On a back burner scald the milk or half and half, but don’t boil it.Get your food processor ready. Peel the garlic and give it a quick chop and put it in the processor.
When the cod is tender and flakey remove it from the poaching liquid and break it into smaller pieces. Put that in the food processor along with the garlic. Give that a quick pulse on a low setting. Add the potatoes and repeat. Add the olive oil and piment and repeat. You want the brandade to be a bit chunky not Gerbered. Finally, through the tube carefully add the hot milk and pulse several times. CAUTION! Adding hot liquids to food processors or blenders can be explosive if you don’t keep the lid tightly closed. If necessary wrap a towel around your hand and hold the lid in place.
From here it’s easy. While the soaking process should have taken most of the residual saltiness from the cod you may still have to adjust the seasoning by adding salt or pepper.
Roasting peppers is pretty damn easy. Using tongs place them directly on gas burners over a high flame or outside on a wood fired grill (the preferred method). Drop them into individual paper sacks and close or into a large bowl and cover with cling wrap. Peel by hand, any lingering black bits are fine. It gives them character and makes you strong.
Now assemble your peppers. These should be at room temperature, not chilled. Into each spoon some of the brandade, just enough to fill them up but be careful not to break the peppers. Drizzle them with just a little olive oil and serve with crusty bread.
Note to cook: *This is a rough estimate in weight because the portion size of the cod you can buy will vary to an extent, because you can’t buy exactly one pound. Don’t sweat it. Often you can find salt cod boxed in uniform pieces, packed in Canada.
Another note: Mark Kurlansky, author of COD and SALT and A BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD advanced the theory, which I find credible, that Basque navigators actually discovered the New World. They just didn't tell anyone because they first discovered the motherlode of cod.
Left over Brandade? Refrigerate it and the next day you can make some delicious battered fritters from it. Fry them in olive oil.
Standup commis flâneur, and food historian. Pierino's background is in Italian and Spanish cooking but of late he's focused on frozen desserts. He is now finishing his cookbook, MALAVIDA! Can it get worse? Yes, it can. Visit the Malavida Brass Knuckle cooking page at Facebook and your posts are welcome there.