Christmas Eve in Provence
Gros souper is the traditional Provencal family meal held before midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The seven meatless courses are meant to symbolize Mary’s labor pains. The dishes are all simply prepared and most are made ahead of time so the family can relax and enjoy the evening together. Marinated olives, dishes of white beans dressed in Provencal olive oil, Swiss chard gratin, fish broths with croutons, whole fish roasted with dried fennel, and various salt cod preparations typically show up on the table throughout the evening.
Brandade de Morue, salt cod whipped with garlic and the excellent, golden Provencal olive oil is one of my favorite Gros souper dishes. It has a creamy texture and is surprisingly gently flavored since the cod is long soaked to remove most of the salt. It’s often served gratin style, baked in the oven with a breadcrumb topping, then scattered with the tiny, sweet black olives that are famous in the region.
Brandade de Morue
(Serves 5 or 6 as an antipasto)
1 ½ pounds salt cod (try to find the thicker middle section, which has less bones to deal with)
1 fresh bay leaf
½ cup dry white wine
1 baking potato, cooked soft, peeled and roughly mashed
1 large garlic clove, minced
Extra virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few big gratings of nutmeg
5 or 6 thyme sprigs, leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
A few tablespoons of milk
¾ cup home-made, not too finely ground breadcrumbs
A handful of black olives
Toasted bread made from slices of baguette, brushed with a little olive oil
You’ll need to soak the salt cod in a big pot of cold water for about a day and a half, changing the water a bunch of times (and putting the pot in the refrigerator overnight). After this, taste a bit to see if a sufficient amount of salt has leeched out of it. If not, soak it a little longer. Now drain it.
In a large skillet, place the salt cod (cut into pieces if necessary). Add the bay leaf and pour on the white wine. Add enough cool water to just cover the cod. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to very low. Cover the skillet and gently simmer the cod until it just begins to flake. This should only take about 15 minutes, maybe even less if you’ve got thin cuts. If it cooks any longer, it might become dry. Take the cod from the skillet and when it’s cool enough to handle, pull off the bones and the skin.
Put the cod in a food processor and give it a couple of pulses. Add the potato, the garlic, about ¼ cup of your best olive oil, the lemon zest, thyme, nutmeg, and some black pepper. Give it a few more pulses. You want a texture that’s creamy but not completely smooth. Add about 2 tablespoons of milk and pulse again. You shouldn’t need any salt.
Scrape the brandade from the food processor and spoon it into a shallow baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs and drizzle the top with olive oil.
When you’re ready to serve it, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and heat it through, about 10 minutes. If the breadcrumbs don’t turn golden, run it under a broiler for a minute. Scatter on the olives and serve it with the toasts.
Dining With the Saints is written by Chef and Food Writer Erica DeMane. Visit her at her website : http://www.ericademane.com
Painting: “Nativity” by Robert Campin 1420-1425