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Bagna Cauda

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    Posted: 30 January 2010 at 17:17

Bagna Cauda is a wonderful, garlicky dip that is eaten hot and dates back thousands of years. It is one of those dishes that will amaze you for its simplicity combined with an incredibly rich taste. It's a dish best served in late fall or winter, when the hearth is warm and the relaxed sharing of good conversation provides the perfect backdrop for a shared meal.

Here's what Piedmonte Magazine has to say about it:

Quote A Short History of Bagna Cauda

More than a dish, Bagna Cauda is a rite. It is synonymous of good company, delicious food, and the season's new wine....

The origins of this dish are remote: it may be a direct descendant of garum, a sauce that was ubiquitous in ancient Roman cuisine. Garum consisted of the foul-smelling fluid oozing from fish that was flavoured with spices and left to ferment. It must have resembled blachang, widely used in Southeast Asian cuisine.

Bagna Cauda - or rather its main ingredient, salted anchovies - reached Piedmont along with salt smuggled from Liguria through the Alps; this traffic originated in the attempts to evade Genoa's monopoly on salt. Smugglers often hid their precious loads under a thick layer of salted anchovies. After Genoa lost her privilege in the early nineteenth century, anchovies gradually became the real object of the no-longer illegal trade, and several former smugglers turned into dealers. Most of them were part-time farmers and peasants who left their fields in September to reach Liguria, maybe Sicily, or even Portugal and Greece. There, they bought their stock from fishermen or wholesalers and took off again for Piedmont's towns, markets, and farms.

Bagna Cauda is a simple dish, but with a number of local variations, as each town or village (or, indeed, family) claims to own the one and only "original" recipe. Whatever the recipe, the other main ingredient of Bagna Cauda is garlic. It needs no introduction, having been known and used for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, seven kilos of garlic could buy a young slave, whereas the Greeks and Romans believed it could enhance the strength and aggressiveness of athletes and soldiers. In the Middle Ages and afterwards it was considered a charm against witches and vampires, as well as a potent aphrodisiac, and so on.

The other protagonists of Bagna Cauda are the vegetables that are dipped in the piping hot sauce (which is exactly what "Bagna Cauda" means).

Here are the ingredients you'll need:

1 jar or tin of anchovies, in olive oil
8 ounces Porcini, Crimini or Portobello mushrooms
Olive oil
1 head (about 10 cloves) crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly-ground black pepper

To prepare this wonderful sauce, drain the anchovies, then mash them into a paste with a fork and set aside.

Take 8 ounces of Porcini, Crimini or Portobello mushrooms and chop them up really fine. I used Baby Portobellas and they work out equally well. In a saucepan, heat up a good splash of olive oil and a tablespoon butter, then put the mushrooms in to saute over medium-low heat. Add a splash of brandy as they start to sizzle. Once the mushrooms have cooked down and released most of their water, add the crushed garlic head, about 10 cloves or so. Saute everything for another 10 to 15 minutes on low, but don't let the garlic brown.

Add the mashed anchovies, 3/4 cup olive oil and 1 stick butter. Then, add about 1/2 teaspoon finely-ground salt and about 1 tablespoon fresh-cracked black pepper. Finally, add another healthy splash of brandy. The alcohol will evaporate, leaving behind the brandy's flavor to mix with the anchovies, which give this dish its unique taste.

Bring up to a strong simmer, then reduce heat to low and let cook, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently so nothing sticks to bottom of pan. At this point it is done, and you can cover it and keep it warm until serving time. A good thing about this is you can also refrigerate it and reheat for the next day - just don't microwave!

A proper bagna cauda should always have fresh-made, hot bread and fresh vegetables for dipping. Any vegetables are good; we prefer celery, bell peppers and carrots. It seems that carrots go so well with the flavours of bagna cauda that it is almost as they were made JUST for this!

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