Isn’t it strange how you can sometimes go your whole life without encountering a certain flavour or ingredient, and then all of a sudden, it’s everywhere?! That happened to me last year with salt cod. It was as though it was trying to find me. My first taste of it was while working in Rio de Janeiro last Easter, where we dined on delicious fried salt cod balls called bolinhos de bacalhau that are hands down the best bar snack I have ever tasted. Shortly after that I discovered brandade de morue, a beautiful French dip of salt cod, whipped into a state of ecstasy with copious amounts of olive oil. And the final clincher was on a trip to Malaga, where they served up their local specialty – Malaga Salad, combining delicate salt cod flakes with sweet oranges, olives and potatoes to create a salad that completely blew me away. By the end of last year, after a whirlwind romance, I had to admit that I had fallen head over heels with salt cod. But it hadn’t always been that way.
For years I’d seen salt cod in the markets of South London, dessicated and heavily salted and looking really not very appetising at all. I wondered who would ever buy such a weird looking thing when there was fresh fish on offer in every direction? But having tasted the possibilities of what salt cod could become, I decided that I had to try being that person. And it was a decision I wouldn’t regret….
Because as unappetising as salt cod appears at first, once you soak it overnight, it totally transforms. Its flesh becomes soft and supple, and it looks much more recognisably like a piece of fish. But crucially, it retains a depth of flavour that no fresh fish could ever offer. It’s like the fishy equivalent of Parma ham.
This weekend, with spring making its first tentative arrival I decided it was time to make my own version of the Malaga salad that swept me off my feet last summer. Apart from the overnight soaking of the fish, it comes together in no time at all. And boy does it make it feel like spring is really here. The saltiness of the fish and the olives, combined with the sweetness of the oranges and the acidity of sherry vinegar gets pretty much every tastebud going. Because it’s such a simple recipe it’s really worth sourcing the best ingredients you can find. And definitely seek out salt cod if you haven’t before. It may be uglier than it’s fresh cousin, but when it comes to flavour, it leaves all other fish in the shade!
- 400g dried salt cod
- 3 Valencia oranges
- 1 banana shallot
- 7 new potatoes
- 100g green olives
- Small bunch chives
- Sherry vinegar
- Good quality olive oil
- The day before you want to make the salad, submerge the salt cod in a bowl of fresh cold water and leave to soak for 24 hours - changing the water occasionally.
- Once the cod has soaked and the flesh is supple, place it into a large saucepan, cover with cold unsalted water and bring the pan to the boil. As soon the water boils, turn the heat off and leave the fillet to cook in the hot water for 10 minutes. Then remove and set to one side. Do not discard the cooking water!
- Place the new potatoes into the saucepan the fish has just cooked in and bring back to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked through. Then drain and set to one side.
- Now it's time to assemble the salad. Slice the new potatoes into thin rounds and arrange on the plate.
- Chop the top and bottom off the oranges, then slice the peel and pith off with a knife. Slice into these into very thin rounds, and layer over the potatoes.
- Halve the olives and finely slice the shallot and scatter both on top. Then with your hands, gently flake the salt cod and arrange over the top.
- Chop the chives finely as a garnish and scatter over the salad. Then drizzle with sherry vinegar and the best quality olive oil you have to hand. If you have time, leave the salad to marinade in its juices for half an hour or so, then serve.