Sunday, January 27, 2008

Salt Cod: When Everything Goes Wrong

The potatoes were the first harbingers of the impending doom.

I had invited adventurously-palated guests for my salt cod feast. I had soaked the cod for three days, changing the water twice a day. I had my ingredients organized, my recipes bookmarked, and my timings plotted out in my head. I was, in a word, ready.

I would open with "Robert Motherwell's Brandade de Morue" from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook. According the recipe intro, "After a few lessons from the late Cordon Bleu chef Dione Lucas, he (Motherwell), prepared this . . . for the likes of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in his Greenwich Village apartment."

As it turned out, I should have been less swept up in the romance of my neighborhood's 1950's abstract expressionist heyday, than put on my guard that what on the surface appeared to be an easy enough puree of salt cod and baked potato required more than one Cordon Bleu lesson to accomplish.

My guests were expected at 7:30, so for my timings to work out, the potatoes would have to be baked and ready to go as soon as I got home from work. Corey came to my rescue and put the potatoes in at 4:30. Unfortunately, I failed to make any mention of such a minor detail as cooking time, and of course I got out late, so by the time I got home the spuds had been in for over an hour an a half. Yeah. They weren't actually burned, so I blundered on, but the were decidedly on the gummy end of the starch spectrum.

Needless to say, the puree, intended to be "served warm with toast points as an appetizer or spooned into puff pastry shells for a first course" was barely shy of inedible. Happily, my southern roots came to the rescue: anything can be improved by being formed into patties and fried. Disaster more or less averted.

Not that it's any excuse, but even had the potatoes been fluffy-rific, the recipe still wouldn't have been a keeper. Maybe with a drastic increase in the cod to potato ratio, and the addition of spices. Any spices. Maybe.

Disaster was fully embraced with Mario Batali's "Polenta con Baccala". Now, seriously, who is not going to want to make Mario's "grandma's absolute favorite dish"? Salt cod in a spicy red sauce ladled over creamy polenta--it's got to be amazing, right?

No. Oh dear God no.

I've made my share of grits, but this was the first time I had actually prepared polenta. Boiling a dried, ground corn product in water till smooth seemed like a skill that would translate. Apparently not. The polenta never really gelled. It retained a graininess and never developed the creamy quality it should have had. Not gross, just kind of . . .pointless.

The cod sauce was actually gross. The most assertive problem was the TWO TABLESPOONS of whole fennel seeds the recipe called for. I'm not the world's biggest fennel seed booster, but I trusted Mario. And, perhaps, if the seeds had been ground the dish might still have been palatable. As it was, every bite was hijacked by a woody crunch followed by that overwhelming flavor. Oh Mario, why hast thou forsaken me?

Our guests kindly declined my offer to order pizza, and Corey rather dashingly stopped my flushing the rest of it down the toilet with the claim he would have it for lunch the next day (he didn't), but the purity of the disaster was undeniable.

I will continue to order baccala croquetta's at tapas bars, but at $10 a pound I don't think I'll be bringing it home again.

1 comment:

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