The Elegant French Entrée That's So Much Easier Than You'd Think
“Brandade” might sound difficult, but the classic French fish and potato concoction is a snap if prepared in advance, and it sure impresses guests.
Do you remember the first time you tried something at a restaurant and thought, “My goodness, how fancy!” (The next thought is often, “I could never make something like that on my own.”)
For me, that first dish was brandade. I was at a French restaurant in New York City, having just moved here in my early 20s. When I saw “salt cod spread” on the menu I assumed that because I liked salt and I liked cod, I’d like salt cod. I was right. It is simply salted, dried cod, and in the classic Provençal dish “salt cod de morue,” it is spun with cream, olive oil, and garlic—all the best foods. Spread on toasted bread, I reckon it’d conjure a seaside French villa vibe at a Kansas City dinner table.
Classic preparations of this dish also exist in Portuguese and Spanish cuisine, but the French incarnation is creamy and very slightly briny, aromatic of thyme and garlic. It hits those smoked salmon, cream cheese, and bagel notes you know and love. At the restaurant where I first tried it, the brandade came with a crackling, golden crust and two long slices of baguette crisped up with olive oil and laid on top like skinny life preservers. Slathering the baguette with the stuff and sipping some Chablis, I felt very elegant indeed.
Fifteen or so years later, I got a fierce craving for brandade, and that restaurants has long since closed. When I realized a nearby fishmonger had a half-off day and that I could snap up a few handsome whole smoked trout for a few bucks apiece, it was on. (Salt cod is yummy but a little high-maintenance, since it requires a day-long soak in water or milk before you can use it.)
My buddy Zeb Stevenson, chef of Watershed on Peachtree in Atlanta, has a trout brandade on his menu, and provided a basic recipe that I tested and tweaked slightly at home. You can serve it as an elegant appetizer with tiny toasted crostini, or you can slather it on fat slices of olive oil-shellacked crispy bread with lemon alongside and a “we don’t stand on ceremony” attitude—in which case I’d double the portion and also have plenty of appetizers, drinks, and maybe a luxe dessert. I like to have quick-pickled onions on the table for extra acid if people want it, crunchy Maldon for salt tooths, and cornichons (tiny pickles) or olives to complete the Francophile vibe.
Adapted from Zeb Stevenson of Watershed on Peachtree
Makes 2 cups. Serves 4 as an appetizer or 2 as a light entrée.
This is a creamy riff on brandade with the fishiness dialed down, but you could also amp up the fish and use less potato for more pronounced brininess. The chef notes that smoked halibut, mackerel or cod would also work.
For Garlic Oil:
- 1 ounce olive oil
- 1 small head garlic
- 8 oz best-quality smoked trout
- 1 medium russet potato (about 8 oz), peeled and sliced 1/8” thick
- 8 oz half-and-half
- Pinch cayenne
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- Pinch dry mustard or 1/8 tsp whole-grain mustard
- 1-2 tsp salt, to taste
- Couple cracks of fresh pepper
- Hearty fresh bread or crostini, to serve
- Lemon, to serve
1. Make garlic oil: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel away excessive outer garlic papers, leaving cloves attached to one another. Using a knife, expose ¼-inch tops of garlic cloves. Place in aluminum foil, exposed cloves up, and drizzle with oil. Cook for 40-50 minutes, until cloves are golden and very tender. Remove from oven, reserving cloves for another use. Set garlic oil aside.
2. Make brandade: Combine all ingredients except garlic oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pot. Cook over low-medium heat, covered, stirring frequently so potatoes don’t scorch or stick, about 10 minutes, until potatoes are just cooked through and tender when poked with a toothpick or fork. Do not overcook potatoes. Discard thyme. Adjust salt and pepper, to taste. Allow to cool slightly.
3. Using a blender or immersion blender, blend all ingredients to desired texture. (I like mine about mashed potato texture.) Slowly drizzle in 1 to 1 1/2 Tbsp garlic oil to emulsify, being careful not to overly liquefy mixture. Pour into 1-quart or 2-quart oven-safe casserole dish.
4.While mixture is still warm, place dish under broiler, leaving 1-2” from heat source. Watch carefully, moving mixture under broiler to broil evenly until brandade is speckled with golden and brown spots. Serve immediately with lemon, bread and reserved garlic cloves, if desired.