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TODAY

Saturday, December 16

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Airbags

My cooking motto is that recipes are meant to be suggestions, not formulas to be followed exactly. I'm fond of experimentation, throwing things together just to see what happens. I'm far more likely to stir a spoonful of peanut butter in a sauce to see how it effects taste and texture than I am to get out a measuring cup or spoon. The only time I measure is when I make rice.

But that changed a bit recently. While reading Saveur magazine, I came across a recipe that sounded so tantalizing and so delightful that I decided I would be willing to follow it. And since the main ingredient was one that I'd never worked with before I knew there wouldn't be much experimentation permitted. But the ease of the recipe, the simplicity of the ingredients and promise of the taste kept me from being put off by the prospect of following someone else's rules.

The recipe was called Ajo Arriero, which my resources say translates to "garlic carrier." The explanation in the magazine says that it means "mule-driver's garlic" because it was a dish common to mule drivers. It's essentially salt cod, potatoes and garlic that are turned into a thick paste.

I'd wanted to experiment with salt cod (a.k.a. bacala, bacalao or boqueron) for quite some time. It's another old-world ingredient. Cod is very common and available fresh or frozen year round. But in the 1500s, cod only arrived to the Mediterranean in dried form from off the coast of Newfoundland. And even after its processing and long trip, it was still an inexpensive fish and was therefore incorporated directly into the cuisines of Spain, Italy and France.

Today, dried cod is likely to be more expensive than frozen cod, but its taste is far superior. The salting and drying process removes the "fishy taste" that so many people dislike. So if you have a friend who says they don't like fish, they just might like this fish.

I will tell you that it's very stinky. It's so strong so you'll want to wrap it well in plastic and throw it in the freezer if you aren't soaking it immediately upon bringing it home. This isn't a fish that you can just bring home and throw in a pan, there is some work required before you can begin cooking it. But it isn't difficult, and your work will be rewarded with wonderful flavors and impressed friends.

Once you unwrap it from the plastic, rinse off the salt on the outside. Put it in a bowl that can be tightly sealed, cover it with water, and let it sit in your fridge for 12 hours at least but no more than 24 hours. Change the water once or twice to help remove most of the salt.

Once it's been rehydrated, peel off any skin remaining and feel for any bones. Even if it says that it's boneless and skinless, it's better to take the five minutes to verify that than it is to leave your dinner party for a trip to the emergency room. I've had fish bones removed from my throat, not fun!

Once you've completed the prep work you're ready to begin the recipe. I'm mostly copying the recipe from the June/July issue of Saveur but I'm providing a few substitution ideas and other notes I took while making the recipe.

Ajo Arriero
1/4 pound of boneless, skinless salt cod (I only found it in two-pound packages)
3 large Yukon Gold potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
4 cloves of garlic which have been peeled and cut in half (or you can use five or six garlic scapes that have been cut into two-inch segments)
3 egg yolks
1 cup of mild extra-virgin olive oil
Salt to taste

Bring four cups of water to a boil in a saucepan on high heat. Add the salt cod, cover with a lid and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook until the fish is tender and flakes when poked with a fork. This should take 35 to 40 minutes. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the fish from the water. Keep 1/2 cup of this cooking liquid and set these two aside separately.

At the same time the salt cod is cooking, wash then place the three potatoes in a steamer basket that is set over a pot of boiling water and cover with a lid. After about 45 minutes, they should pierce easily when they're poked with the tip of a knife. Set them on a towel or cutting board to cool. Once they're cool enough to touch you should be able to peel off the skin, and just the skin. Put that potato peeler away and use a knife to help grab the skin and peel it off. Once they're peeled, either mash them with a potato masher, or run them through a potato ricer. Spread this evenly over the bottom of a baking sheet and set it in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes to cool.

In your blender or food processor add the salt cod, reserved water, and garlic and puree until it is thick and smooth. This should take two to three minutes. The recipe says to transfer this mixture to a standing mixer with the paddle attachment. I put the plastic blade in my food processor and returned the salt cod mixture to the food processor bowl. If you're reducing the recipe, you can probably complete the rest of the steps in your blender. Add a few large chunks of potato at a time until everything is combined. If you have a very large bowl you could probably do this with a hand mixer as well, but it would likely take a little longer.

Once all of the potatoes are combined, you're going to want to begin dropping in egg yolks one at a time. Pulse a few times, or beat on a low speed until each yolk is incorporated. Now you're ready to slowly drizzle in the oil. Keep a thin continuous stream of oil going directly into your bowl. Stop every minute or two to scrape down the sides of the bowl. As you near the end of your cup of oil, you'll notice the texture of the mixture changing. Once it seems to take on the texture of a milkshake instead of mashed potatoes, you've created the correct consistency. Taste it to determine if you need more salt. I added about a teaspoon of salt to the mixture. You can also add a teaspoon or two of Hungarian paprika if you want to provide just a bit of spice to it.

Your mixture is now ready to transfer to a serving dish and serve either cold or at room temperature with slices of bread. This makes quite a lot of spread and is perfect as an appetizer for a large party. If you prefer you can cut this recipe in thirds which should give you plenty to serve four to six people as an appetizer.

I still have almost two pounds of salt cod in my freezer. And since I'm feeling nostalgic and loving seafood. Next week's column is going to be all about me trying to duplicate Andrew's Italian grandmother's Seven Seas pasta gravy that gets served every Christmas.

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