Cure for seasonal blues: Skye Gyngell cooks with cod

It's over-fished and under threat – but sustainable stocks of cod are available, and, says Skye Gyngell, if you salt it, very little will go an awfully long way

Salt cod is a favourite of mine. Whenever I put it on the menu at the restaurant, it walks very quickly out the door. Perhaps this is because in Britain, at least, it is not often eaten at home. We tend to think of it as complicated, even a little scary. It's a hard, pungent, musty thing that resembles leather. What on earth are we meant to do with it?

I realise that over-fishing makes cod a potential minefield, but you can buy sustainable stock (the Marine Conservation Society recommends line-caught) and I believe the cultural value of salt cod makes its use here justifiable. Its importance in the traditions of the Basque country can't be underestimated. And it's very popular in Iceland, thanks to its sustainable fishing policies.

I have never found shop-bought salt cod satisfactory: it can be hard, sinewy and massively over-salted. As a result, I became intrigued by curing the fish myself. The idea that you can take a pure ingredient and, by respectfully manipulating it, turn it into something else, is incredibly gratifying. Through trial and error I have achieved a cure that is gentle and succulent. For a how-to guide, see below.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com

How to cure your cod

To home-cure cod, ask your fishmonger for a skinned cod fillet. Rinse it under cold running water and gently pat dry, using a clean cloth. Weigh the fish, then lay it on a stainless steel rack, which fits snugly inside a larger pan. Allowing 1 tbsp good-quality sea salt per 500g/1lb of fish, season the fillet evenly on both sides, salting the thicker central section more liberally to ensure there is a sufficient amount for curing. Loosely cover the pan with cling film to keep in the smell as much as possible. Leave to cure in the fridge for three days, pouring off any liquid and rinsing the bottom of the pan each day. Cod can be home-cured for a week, but this shorter curing gives a more delicately flavoured salt cod. Unlike salt cod that you buy, it doesn't need soaking before use, just light rinsing to remove any excess salt.

Salt-cod croquettes with aioli and rocket

Serves 6

For the salt cod

600g/21oz fillet salt cod
2 litres/31/2 pints milk
2 bay leaves
10 peppercorns
Rind of 1 lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 large potato, preferably Desiree, boiled and gently mashed
1/4 finely diced small red onion
1/2 small bunch parsley, finely chopped
Plain flour
2 eggs, beaten
Fresh breadcrumbs, preferably sourdough
Enough vegetable oil to halfway fill a pan

For the aioli

The yolks of 3 eggs
Juice of one lemon
250ml/8fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Start by preparing the cod. After curing, rinse off in cold running water to wash off the excess salt. Place in a large saucepan, covering with milk. Add the bay leaves, whole peppercorns and lemon rind. Gently bring almost to the boil and let it simmer until the cod is cooked through (roughly 20 minutes). Strain the fish out of the milk, place in a bowl and gently pound with a pestle, making sure there are no bones or any skin. Season with lemon zest, a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt if necessary.

Next, make the aioli. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl with a pinch of salt, add the lemon juice and whisk until smooth. Continue to whisk while adding the oil slowly, drop by drop to begin with. Once the mixture begins to thicken, add the remaining oil in a slow, steady stream. When all the oil has been added, add the crushed garlic, season and set aside.

To make the croquettes, combine the poached cod, potato, onion and parsley, seasoning with salt and pepper. Taste and adjust if necessary. Mould into small long shapes and coat first in flour, then the beaten egg and finally breadcrumbs. (To make these, tear up bread into small pieces and slowly add to a food blender while pulsing until finely ground.) Leave in the fridge until ready to fry.

When ready, carefully fill a heavy-based saucepan halfway with vegetable oil, and gently warm. (Alternatively use a deep fryer set to 180C.) Fry the croquettes in the oil until golden-brown. Drain well and serve with the aioli and a salad of young peppery rocket lightly dressed with salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil.

Salt-cod brandade with potatoes and endive salad

Serves 6

600g/21oz cooked salt cod
200g/7oz crème fraîche
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
24 small Roseval potatoes
Juice and zest of lemon
1 head of chicory
Parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil

Begin by preparing the salt cod, poaching as described in the croquettes recipe. While the cod is poaching, reduce the crème fraîche on a low heat, adding the garlic cloves. Cook the potatoes in well-salted boiling water until tender – this will take 15-20 minutes. Drain, and while still warm, sprinkle with lemon juice, season with lots of pepper and a little more salt if necessary, and add the olive oil. Slice in half lengthwise. Toss well to combine and allow to cool slightly before serving.

Once the cod is cooked, drain the fish out of the milk, place in a bowl and pound gently together with the garlic-and-crème fraîche reduction. Peel off and discard the outermost layer of the chicory bulbs, dress generously with lemon, parsley and a little salt and black pepper. Toss with the cooked potatoes. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature, with the cod on top.

Salt cod with Swiss chard on bruschetta

Serves 6

600g/21oz cooked and pounded cod brandade with crème fraîche (see previous recipe)
One bunch Swiss chard
6 slices of a good chewy, peasant style bread, preferably sourdough
1 garlic clove
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil

Prepare the cod brandade with crème fraîche as per the previous recipe. Chard should always be cooked in the same way, whatever the dish. Once cooked, it can be eaten on its own either warm or cold or tossed through stews and slow-cooked dishes right at the end. To prepare, place a large pot of well-salted water on to boil. Wash the chard well under running water. Shake off excess water, then separate the leaves from the stalks by running a knife down both sides of the spine. Now slice the stalks into one-inch pieces; once the water has boiled, add the stalks and cook for three to four minutes. The stalks should be tender. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Now add the leaves and cook for no longer than a minute. Drain and toss with the stalks. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

In the meantime, toast the bread on a griddle. Place a slice of toast on each warm plate, rub a garlic clove over the surface, season with sea salt and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Layer the brandade and Swiss chard on top.

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