Merci, Monsieur Parmentier!

For years, I always bought Salt Cod and Potato Gratin, or Brandade Parmentière, at my fishmonger’s (or even sometimes at Monoprix!). My reasoning was this: if they sell Salt Cod and Potato Gratin in stores, already made and ready to pop into the oven, it must be because it’s hard to make at home, right?

Non, non, et non! When I actually looked at the ingredients – salt cod, potatoes, garlic, olive oil, and cream – I thought, “Okay, Allison. You’ve made cassoulet from scratch, involving 3 days and a 9-hour cooking process in three parts. You got this!” (Note: I’ve only made that cassoulet once, and I emptied at least 2 tanks of butane at my friend’s country house making it in his old oven.) 

A versatile “vegetable”

Sure, salt cod is a little fussy, since it requires a 24-hour soak before using it, but the other main ingredient in Salt Cod and Potato Gratin is one that everyone can agree on: potatoes. It seems only natural to associate this brandade with such a ubiquitous and versatile “vegetable.”

Why the quotes around the word vegetable? The French refer to potatoes as a vegetable, but I’ve always considered them as a starch, much to the bewilderment of my French partner. He raises his eyebrows when I have to specify un légume vert, or green vegetable, when planning our meals. If I didn’t insist on the potato’s status as a starch, we’d pretty much always literally eat meat and pommes de terre (and maybe a few tomatoes).

A pungent spread

The original brandade de morue or salt cod brandade, had no potatoes at all. It came from Nîmes, and there, salt cod, or morue, was pounded with milk and olive oil using a mortar and pestle. This technique yielded a pungent spread, usually served with toast points.

So why is the Parisian version of brandade made with potatoes? We have Antoine-Augustin Parmentier to thank: using surprisingly modern marketing techniques, he introduced potatoes to France in the late 1700s.

Poor people’s bread

After first tasting potatoes in Germany (Prussia at the time), Parmentier found that non, the potatoes didn’t give him leprosy (ew!), contrary to what he’d heard. He returned to France and in 1785, he persuaded Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette that potatoes weren’t only desirable, but also rather fashionable!

During a banquet, Parmentier gave Louis XVI a potato flower to wear in his jacket button hole, and Marie-Antoinette wore one in her wig. To thank Parmentier for introducing the potato, or “poor people’s bread” to France, the king gifted Parmentier with a plot of land near Paris, where he could cultivate…. You guessed it: potatoes!

An authentic Parisian meal

After getting the royals on board with potatoes, Parmentier then had to convince his compatriots that potatoes were both delicious and nutritious. He surrounded his newly-planted plot of land with guards, so that passersby would think he was growing a highly valuable crop.

The stunning marketing technique worked: today, the average French person consumes a whopping 50 kg (110 pounds) of potatoes. So when you come back to Paris and order from a menu Brandade Parmentière, you’ll be served up this delicious Salt Cod and Potato Gratin with a big green salad.

But why wait? I hope you’ll follow the recipe below for an authentic Parisian meal you can make at home. And when you do visit Paris again, make sure to a) call me, and b) pay homage to Parmentier in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Guess how I found his tombstone?

Salt Cod and Potato Gratin (Brandade Parmentière)

There’s nothing terribly intimidating about making Salt Cod and Potato Gratin. You do need a stand mixer, and the recipe requires a 24-hour soaking step, so make sure to start the day before you want to eat it.

During the soaking step, you’ll be changing the water several times. My fishmonger told me that changing the water several times in the first hour of soaking is the most crucial part of the process since otherwise the fish is just soaking in salty water! Where would France be without such loyal and helpful fishmongers?

ingredients:

  • 1½ pounds (680 g) salt cod
  • ¾ pound (340 g) starchy potatoes (such as Russet), peeled and reserved in a bowl of water
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, peeled and degermed if necessary
  • 1 small spring of thyme, or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • ½ bay leaf
  • scant ½ cup (90 g) extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup (115 g) heavy cream (or half-and-half if you prefer)
  • several twists of the pepper mill
  • 2-3 tablespoons (30-45 g) butter for gratin dish and for top of preparation

special equipment: stand mixer with paddle attachment

how to make it:

  1. One day ahead, rinse the salt cod well, and then soak it in a large bowl of cold water in the refrigerator for 24 hours, making sure cod is completely submerged and changing the water several times. (See introduction to recipe above.)
  2. Cut the potatoes into about 8-10 equal-sized pieces and place them in a small casserole. Cover the potatoes with cold water and bring them to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until cooked, about 15-20 minutes. Drain and mash the potatoes using a hand masher, food mill, or potato ricer. (I like to mash them by hand directly in the casserole so that the purée dries out a little from the residual heat.) Reserve the purée.
  3. While the potatoes are cooking, drain the soaked cod and cut it into 15-20 smaller pieces. Place them in a medium saucepan and fill with cold water, covering the cod pieces by about 1 inch (2.5 cm). Add the garlic and bring to the boil over high heat, then add the thyme and bay leaf. You’ll need to skim a lot of foam off at this point. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, continuing to skim. Drain, saving the garlic but tossing the thyme and bay leaf. As soon as you can handle the cod pieces, break them apart, tossing any bones as you go.
  4. Place the cod flakes and garlic cloves into the bowl of your stand mixer. Begin mixing at low speed, and gradually increasing the speed, drizzle the olive oil over the cod until it is fully incorporated. Then slowly add in the cream (or half-and-half). Keep the mixer turning until you have a smooth mixture.
  5. Preheat oven to 350° F (180° C). Add the potato purée and pepper to the stand mixer and keep processing until they’re fully incorporated.
  6. Butter a medium-sized oven-proof gratin or other baking dish generously, and cut the rest of the butter into small cubes the size of a half-teaspoon. Turn the cod-potato purée into the gratin dish and distribute the butter cubes evenly over the top. Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the top of the gratin becomes crispy and golden-brown.
  7. Remove from oven and serve immediately with a gorgeous green salad. (We usually make our vinaigrette for the salad with plenty of lemon juice.) Serve lemon wedges on the table to pass around or place them directly on the plates. Bon app’!

serves 6