With the sheer volume of cookbooks released on a monthly basis, it is easy to forget about the great ones that are sitting in one’s collection. Yet on Saturday mornings when I am looking for a few dishes to make in the coming week, most of the time I grab a few new books, but with them, I almost always grab the same book -”The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” by Judy Rodgers. Zuni seems to have an endless trove of delicious dishes that feel new despite being published over a decade ago. It is like the pages refresh upon each open. The recipe that stood out on a recent trip through Zuni was salt cod.
Salt cod is one of those things if I see on a menu, there is a good chance that I will order it. It is delicious, no doubt, but the reason I seem to gravitate towards those dishes is because it seems as if you are serving salt cod, there is inspiration. It is not as if “salt cod” fits the menu mad-libs. It is not a pork product, not likely to be local, and not luxurious by any means. The reason it is on the menu is because the chef wants you to try this.
After reading the embarrassingly simple method for making salt cod, I had to take a crack at it. It is pretty readily available in Chicago, but mostly in the completely dried form. I have no problem soaking the bacala, but I was curious as what the difference would be between home-cured versus the dried version would be. Not to mention that Rodgers writes in the section devoted to House-cured salt cod, “…in the spirit of of ‘stop, think, there must be a harder way’” which resonates with me more than I care to admit.
The process is pretty much buy cod, salt cod, soak cod, cook cod, but to elaborate a little more, I picked a small part of a skinless filet to salt, rinsed it and dried it with paper towels. I applied the salt (about 3/4 ounce per pound of cod) then placed it on a cooling rack in a roasting pan and covered it with a loaf pan. I then wrapped the roasting pan in cling film to keep the cod from stinking up the fridge during the week it cured. I rinsed the drip pan mid-week and rewrapped. That is all. After a week, you have salt cod.
Now that you have salt cod, the question is what to do with it. I suggest before making any decision, slice a bit of the cod and taste it. This will give you a better understanding of what you are working with salt-wise. My version was slightly salty, but had a pleasant firmness. To be fair, the state of my unsoaked salt cod was not dissimilar from soaked commercial salt cod. By tasting unsoaked raw salt cod, I knew that soaking time before use would be short.
After a day soaking in water, the cod was ready. I spent most of that day watching “Mind of a Chef” episodes on my computer sitting in a deck chair in an empty room. One of the episodes featured David Chang making a favorite dish of Juan Mari Arzak, a salt cod omelet. It would seem that someone like Arzak would opt for something more distinctive than a simple omelet, but after trying this, I understood. The salt cod and caramelized onions along with the barely cooked eggs made for an amazing, and amazingly simple, dish.
And while the dish isn’t taken from Zuni, it would not be out of place the book. Just short of 550 pages of dishes defined by thoughtful and honest food, this simple, but decidedly complex dish fits the mold. That is the thing about Zuni, the book is so good that while you may reach for it by nature, a taste of something simple and delicious makes you wonder if it is in the book.