Our country is late to the salt cod game. Like, centuries late. Cod is a fish that, historically, has rarely been eaten fresh. Instead, it is salted and cured into a chunk of pure protein that can later be rehydrated. In his book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky describes the way this hearty, bottom-feeding fish became a sort of gastronomical superhero to much of the western world.
According to Kurlansky, when the Vikings discovered that salting and curing cod not only brightened its flavor, but also made long voyages and bitter winters possible, the game was on. Salt cod criss-crossed Spain, Newfoundland, Britain, and France, giving nourishment, gaining monikers in all languages, and providing fishers with one more reason to drift out to sea.
Discovering salt cod in the Twin Cities has been like falling in love with a new song. Once you’ve been seduced by its strains, suddenly you seem to hear them everywhere you go. So far, we’ve heard the call of salt cod at three different Minneapolis restaurants. Each place prepares them as fritters, and we definitely have a favorite:
Salt cod croquettes with saffron aioli and parsley oil, $8 for three
We wanted to love Rincón 38’s croquettes (above) after tasting lots of their other delightful dishes. On the menu it’s listed as bacalao, the Spanish word for salt cod. Size-wise, Rincón’s croquettes dwarfed the other fried fish we tasted. But inside there wasn’t much to brag about. Instead of a uniformly creamy filling, Rincón’s croquettes have a chunky consistency that is tough, dry, and uninteresting. Overall, they lacked levity and moisture, and there wasn’t enough aioli to make them shine.
Spill the Wine
Salt cod fritters with aioli, $5 for three / $8 for six
Spill the Wine’s fritters (above) are a combination of house-cured cod and ultra creamy potatoes. They have a delicate, cornmeal-like crust that provides a rough, welcome contrast to their pillowy insides. Spill the Wine certainly wins the award for a creamy, oozy center. It’s too bad that the flakes of cod felt stringy now and then, and the aioli was so harsh and acidic that we preferred the fried orbs without it. Still, that wouldn’t keep me from mowing down a plate of six on my own without flinching.
The Lynn on Bryant
Salt cod fritters with sauce gribiche, $10 for four
These fritters (above) are pricey for a small portion, and might work better billed as a small plate instead of an entrée (as they are listed on The Lynn’s menu). But damn are they fine. It’s obvious that Chef Peter Ireland cures his own cod rather than — as he says — “buying the shoe leather-like salt cod found in most stores.” Ireland cures the fish for around ten days and poaches it in milk to rehydrate it.
The little crispy orbs are made up of cod and creamed potatoes that have been roasted with garlic and thyme. The result is soft and smooth, but also feels like actual food. The grain of the fish and potato are fine but present — you notice each element. In contrast, the crust is satisfyingly chewy. With dollops of mousse-like, onion-flecked sauce, the fritters taste like the most high-brow and excellent warm potato salad ever. Fantastic.
Where else does salt cod lurk around town? It shouldn’t be hard to find out. For, according to Kurlansky, “If ever there was a fish made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod — the common fish. But it has among its predators man, an open-mouthed species greedier than cod.”