I know what you’re thinking. Why would anyone spend time salting fish just to turn around and reconstitute it? I know it sounds a little crazy but if you think of it in terms of pickles vs. cucumbers, you might understand the flavor added by the curing process. It takes a fairly mild, okay, bland fish and transforms it into something very tasty. Still a star in many countries around the Atlantic, salt cod hasn’t made a big splash in our neck of the woods which has probably saved it from being overfished. When caught in the U.S., Alaska Cod, True Cod or Grey Cod are good sustainable choices according to Seafood Watch unlike it’s disappearing cousin, Atlantic Cod.
Granted, the salting process in your home kitchen isn’t nearly as picturesque as the traditional method of salting and hanging fish on wooden scaffolding or spreading it on rocks to dry in the wind and sun on the cliffs of a beautiful coastal fishing village in Portugal, Italy or Southern France. There’s no harm in holding that picture in your mind while remembering that you’re carrying on one of the world’s oldest preservation methods, a practically forgotten skill that could come in handy some day, if say, you have a load of fish and no refrigeration. You never know….
How to Salt a Cod
Ingredients: 1 lb cod, bones and skin removed/ Kosher or Sea Salt
Directions: Lay the fish fillets on a clean kitchen towel and cover completely with salt, about 1/4 cup on one side/ Flip and cover the other side in the same way, rubbing salt on all sides of the fish/ Wrap the fish in the towel and lay it on a rack over a baking dish/ Refrigerate for 10 – 12 hours, then add more salt and flip it over to the other side for 10 – 12 additional hours/ The towel will become wet and there will be water in the baking dish/ The fish will start to feel more rigid and dry/ Remove the towel, add more salt and put the fish back on the rack, still in the fridge/ Continue to flip the fish a time or two each day, adding a teaspoon or so of salt each time/ At this point, I kind of forgot about it and just left it in the fridge air-drying for 4-5 days, flipping it whenever I remembered to/ The fish is cured when it’s firm and rigid/ You can wrap it in parchment paper and double-bag it, refrigerate it up to four months.
If all this feels like way too much trouble, you can buy imported salt cod in wooden boxes at Whole Foods. But if you’re trying to keep it local, I promise it’s a really easy process. My only regret is that I didn’t make more.
Thanks to Karen Solomon and her book, Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It for this recipe.
Now that you have some salt cod, you may be wondering what to do with it. The first step is to soak it all day and overnight in water, changing the water several times to remove most of the salt. Drain the water, rinse the fish and then poach it by completely covering it with water (or milk) in a saucepan and simmer gently over medium-low heat for 20-25 minutes. Drain and rinse well and flake into small pieces in a bowl, removing any bones or skin.
Salt Cod Fritters
Ingredients: 1/2 lb reconstituted, poached salt cod broken into small pieces/ 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks/ 1 onion, finely chopped/ 2 garlic cloves, finely minced/ 1 handful each of cilantro and chives, finely chopped/ 2 large eggs/ salt & pepper, to taste/ vegetable oil for frying.
Directions: Poach salt cod as described above/ Steam potatoes in steamer basket until very tender, 20-25 minutes/ Once potatoes are cooked, drain water and mash them well with a potato masher/ Add cod, onion, garlic, chives, cilantro, and eggs/ Beat well with wooden spoon until well combined and very firm/ Form into balls using a tablespoon, you should have about 12 fritters/ Fry in about 3 ” of very hot oil, turning several times to brown on all sides/ Lift onto a platter lined with paper towels to drain excess oil.
Serve with lemon wedges, salt (taste first) & pepper, mayonnaise, tartar sauce or aioli.
If deep-frying isn’t your thing, with practically the same ingredients you can make a luscious traditional puree called brandade of salt cod, potatoes, garlic and milk to serve on toast or crackers. I used the recipe from the ever inspiring Canal House Cookbook, Volume 2.
Canal House Salt Cod Brandade
Ingredients: 1/2 lb reconstituted, poached salt cod (see above)/ 2 small russet potatoes, peeled and diced/ 2 cloves garlic, crushed/ 1/2 cup whole milk, warmed/ Extra virgin olive oil/ Salt & pepper to taste.
Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees/ Put potatoes and garlic in steamer basket and steam until the potatoes are very soft, about 20 minutes/ Drain and set aside/ Put salt cod, potatoes, garlic, milk and splash of olive oil in food processor and process until fairly smooth/ Season to taste with salt & pepper/ Spoon puree into small baking dish/ Drizzle with olive oil and bake until golden on top, about 20 minutes.
Salt cod has been traditionally eaten during the Christian forty day fasting period called Lent, which begins this year on March 9. There are various degrees of abstinence practiced, one of which is giving up meat. I don’t follow this practice but trust me, eating either of these delicious dishes made from salt cod could hardly be considered a sacrifice.