About this time a hundred years ago, a lady ancestor would have been anxiously examining the root cellar to see how the winter stores were holding out. Not for them the luxury of strawberries in February and the exotic fruit of the Australian kiwi.
The roots they were concerned with had nothing to do with the past; they had to do with dinner -- turnips and swedes, potatoes and carrots, parsnips, onions and salsify.
The bland staples of the root cellar were somewhat offset by the strong taste of smoked hams, pickled herring, salt pork and salt cod. There is even a theory that the Norsemen took to their boats and the discovery of other lands not out of a sense of adventure but because they couldn't stand one more helping of pickled herring.
For them, the first shoots of spring brought a delight that can't be duplicated by those of us who munch on watercress from January to December. But in the richness of our choices, we have lost some of the old dishes.
When, if ever, have you had salt cod? It has become an exotic dish and one which is mostly found in Italian or Spanish stores, flattened out and dried to a stick-like stiffness, poking out of a large barrel. (It is available at Litteri's, 517 Morse NE, and Pena's Spanish store, 1636 17th NW, among others.)
The fish is soaked overnight in several changes of water until it loses much of its saltiness, and then it can be turned into codfish balls, for which you will find a recipe in most standard cookbooks, or made into brandade and served up as an appetizer. The following instructions for this dried-cod mousse are from Mireille Johnston's The Cuisine of the Sun:
Let 1 1/2 pounds of dried cod soak overnight in the sink or a large basin of cold water, changing the water four or five times. Taste a bit of the cod to make sure it is desalted enough.
When the cod has been adequately soaked, place it on a board. Remove the skin, bones and all the loose pieces, with your hands and a small, sharp knife. Then place the cod flesh in a pan of cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Just as the water starts to simmer, remove from the fire and let it cool. Drain.
Peel 2 garlic cloves and crush with a garlic press into a blender. With your hands, flake the fish in small pieces into the blender. Add one boiled and quartered potato and pour in 1/2 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of olive oil. Turn to low speed for 1 minute. Stop and stir with a long-handled spoon. Blend for 2 more minutes at high speed. Put the blender on low and slowly but steadily pour in, alternately, an additional 1/2 cup each of milk and olive oil, stopping from time to time to stir. The blending should take about 8 minutes. When all the milk and olive oil are incorporated, blend at high speed for 2 minutes.
The paste will be fluffy and white and quite smooth. Spoon it into a pot. Add the juice of one lemon, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, freshly grated pepper and, if necessary, salt to taste. Cook over a low flame, stirring gently, for 5 minutes, or until just warm.
Place the brandade in a shallow dish, surround with croutons and decorate it with black olives. It has a distinctive taste, which people either love or hate, so it is probably a good idea to offer a blander alternative.