Thursday, May 16, 2013
This is most definitely one to file under "Happy Accidents." A piece of whitefish rubbed with salt and birch syrup, intended to cure for a day and be served like gravlax, is instead forgotten in the back of the fridge for a week. Upon being unearthed it is found not to be spoiled or to have turned fishy, but instead is beautifully preserved, though much too salty to be eaten as is. But a clever salvage operation then turns it into something extraordinary: brandade rampante. Which is to say: a mousse of salt fish, potato, butter, milk, and instead of the garlic traditional in this Provencal dish, lovely fresh ramps, among the first of the season. (Rampante, by the way, is indeed a French word, but it has nothing to do with ramps, the wild leeks; actually it means creeping, groveling, or obsequious, so my made-up usage is purely fanciful.)
This was just damned exquisite, a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts dish which I may never to able to replicate exactly, but I will try, and try to give you the best how-to I can. This was a polish-the-plate meal--we practically scrubbed the finish off the gratin dishes with our toast trying to get the last rich, rampy molecule of flavor. And then the next day, when we were out running some errands, driving in the car and not talking, out out of the blue Mary comes out with, "Man, that brandade last night was good." And I looked over to see her gazing at some point in space, rapt in happy taste memory.
I've made brandade a couple of times before using store-bought salt cod, a product which is a staple in Provencal cooking--odd, considering that they've got this rather famous source of fresh seafood, i.e., the Mediterranean, right on their doorstep. It's well loved in Spain, too, particularly among the Basque. Salt cod is generally very salty and very dry, and requires at least a day's soaking, and several changes of water, to make it palatable. While I have enjoyed my previous iterations of brandade, I have found that the salt cod itself, even after soaking, poaching, and puréeing, still has a somewhat fibrous texture and a slight bitterness. Probably because my salted whitefish had the sugar and acidity of the birch syrup, and was not buried in salt, it retained a lot more moisture. There was no fishiness, no bitterness, and the texture was excellent. It could still be easily cut into thin slices, as seen here:
I'm kind of winging it here, because I don't remember exactly how much salt and syrup I used, but I did glance at my recipe for maple-cured lake trout gravlax in the book, and that calls for an 8 to 12 ounce fillet, 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, and 3 tablespoons of salt. I think I only had about 6 ounces of fish, the end of a big fillet, and I hit it with a generous tablespoon of birch syrup and a scant 2 tablespoons of salt. (I'll try to do a side-by-side taste test with my next piece of whitefish, one with maple, one with birch, and see if there's a difference; I realize birch syrup is not easy to come by.)
I did this on a piece of plastic wrap, snugged the fish up, set it flesh side down on a plate--and promptly forgot about it, for at least a week. When I rediscovered it, all the syrup had dried up and the fish was encased in a salty crust. I rinsed it off and dried it, tasted it and determined that it was still edible, then wrapped it loosely in parchment paper and put it back in the fridge--this is how I store my home-smoked bacon, too, and I believe the fish would have kept indefinitely in this state.
To make the brandade, I loosely followed Mireille Johnston's recipe from Cuisine of the Sun, my go-to book for southern French cooking. But my recipe was heavier on the potato, lighter on the fish. I subbed local sunflower oil (Smude) for olive oil, and of course, the ramps instead of garlic. Here's my recipe:
Love my kitchen chalkboard. That's just blackboard paint on a piece of plywood. Now I'll translate: I cut my fish into four pieces, and soaked it in water for a few hours, changing the water maybe three times. It was still fairly salty at the end of this brief soaking, but I didn't add any additional salt to the dish, and when it all came together it was nicely seasoned. After the fish soaked, I put it in a small saucepan of water and brought the water to a boil, turned it off, set it aside, and let it cool a bit. Then I skinned the fish--you could remove the skin before boiling and/or soaking if you like. It came off easily once the fish was cooked.
Previously I had quartered and boiled a small potato, a russet of about 5 ounces, I'd say. I chopped my four small ramps, sautéed the bulb part in about a tablespoon of butter until just nicely wilted but not browned, then added the greens and removed it from the heat.
Then the puréeing: this batch was small enough to do in my mini-chop, but you could use a regular food processor or a blender. In goes the fish, peeled potato, the juice of 1/4 of a small lemon, milk, and sunflower oil. In total I used 1/3 cup of whole milk and 2 tablespoons of oil--I added these a little at a time, so the whizzing didn't get too messy. Once everything was in, I blended it very well, into a smooth, mousse-like texture. Then I dumped it into a mixing bowl and added the sautéed ramps, 2 tablespoons more of soft butter, and a good grind of pepper. Yes, it's rich, but the portion is not huge, and it was the main course for us.
I divided the mixture into two small gratin dishes, and topped them generously with homemade fresh breadcrumbs that I had moistened with a bit more butter. Into a 425 oven for around 15 minutes, until the crumbs were toasty brown and the brandade was bubbling up around the edges. And, serve it forth.
Nice toasts of a homemade sesame batard, a delightful white wine from the Loire, a chenin blanc (this wine was new to us; got it at Zipp's on Franklin in Minneapolis, and I would definitely get it again). And a salad of Minnesota hydroponic frisée and Minnesota tomatoes--huh? Minnesota tomatoes in May? Yes, Living Waters hydroponic tomatoes that we got at Seward Co-op, really remarkably good--and they come on the vine, with that gorgeous aroma of midsummer garden to them. A surprise.
Brandade is not always served in a gratin like this. Once you've whizzed it up, it's fully edible, and in Provence it might be served in a bowl along with a plate of crudités for dipping, or stuffed in a tomato, as we might do tuna salad (if we were ladies who lunched, that is...). I hope I can recreate that wonderful salt whitefish on the next try, and if I do, this will go on the regular rotation. One more use for our splendid local "seafood," Lake Superior whitefish, from Halvorson Fisheries in Corny on the South Shore, of course.
Text and photos copyright 2013 by Brett Laidlaw