Asgeir Benediktsson was born and raised in Iceland. In his yellow clapboard Rockport home, speaking English framed in a sturdy Icelandic accent, he says “in Iceland there are two meals a day: one is fish and one is lamb. As children we may have complained about having fish once again, but our plates were always clean.”
At twelve years old Benediktsson, now 54, learned from his father to cold-smoke haddock and salmon. Soon father and son were smoking 500 to 1,000 kilos of haddock at a time. Cold-smoked haddock, warmed and served with mashed potatoes and butter, is as classic a child’s meal in Iceland as America’s hotdogs and beans. Benediktsson attended a four year college for fish processing, a degree that must certainly be unique to Iceland, such a fish-forward country. There he learned every method of safely extending a haddock’s shelf-life, from canning to making stockfisk.
Afterward, Benediktsson went on to have career in fish processing that mimicked the world migration of a school of tuna. In South Africa Benediktsson created a fish processing plant with 500 employees on the floor. Working in Portugal he saw the old method of salting and hanging cod, with strings hung over the racks to deter seagulls, still practiced.
A world traveling fish-lover, Benediktsson says, “everywhere I go, I go to the fishmarket.”
But it was those early years smoking haddock with his father, burning oak and lumber from a neighboring shipyard, that facilitated a move to the U.S. Two years ago, following a long held interest of living in this country, Benediktsson accepted a job as Head of Fish Smoking at Whole Foods.
As mentioned, Benediktsson calls Rockport home now, with his wife, Sigrun, and teenage daughter, Gudrun. (The Benediktsson have left three grown children and a flock of grandchildren behind in Iceland.) He has since left Whole Foods to work for the Gloucester fish processor, Mazzetta Company, LLC
I first met the Benediktsson and his wife when we were all inducted as new members into Spiran Lodge, the Scandinavian Society of Rockport. Over one of the diverse Spiran Lodge potluck suppers, Benediktsson and I learned we share a passion for salted cod, his life-long, mine nascent. In the process of writing my book, “In Cod We Trust, From Sea to Shore, the Celebrated Cuisine of Coastal Massachusetts,” (Globe Pequot Press), I learned not to not just appreciate salt cod’s singular texture and taste, but to be a cheerleader for it.
As Benediktsson says, “salted cod has more flakes; it has more flavor.” Again, with that definitive stamp of a language that sounds like king’s English pooled with Norwegian, Benediktsson says, “I prefer cod salted.”
He is not alone. The French and Spanish have no word in their language for fresh cod because they only eat their Gadus morhua salted. La morue in French, bacalao in Spanish, salt cod is revered in these countries; these countries consider the fresh version of cod insipid. Most Americans have little residual affection for salt cod, upon which fortunes were made in the not so distant past, and few even remember it, but Portuguese communities in New Bedford, and some Italians still adore it.
“In Cod We Trust” has a number of recipes for salt cod: a baked version slathered in a spicy Portuguese tomato sauce, a fritter with mint and parsley that makes a delicious cocktail bite, a Finnish recipe baked with potatoes and salt pork which results in a broth more fragrant than the best chowder, and a fluffy fish cake from Louise Kenyon, once a Folly Cove designer. Kenyon describes her fish cake as “very superior fish cakes.”
I confess that working with salt cod is initially tricky. It’s important to find high quality pieces, which means a thick chunk far from the tail. You should be able to see your salt cod; don’t buy it in the wooden box, no matter how cute you think it is. (I find that brand the worst.) Salt cod should not really have a smell, except of salt. It requires soaking for at least 24 hours, changing the water many times, and then I simmer it in milk for another ten minutes just to make sure it is tender. But the results are truly something worth trying. The preservation changes the molecular structure of the fish, resulting in something firm and distinctive, the way prosciutto is different than ham.
And yet, if that process seems daunting, Asgeir Benediktsson has taught me a simpler way to achieve these singular salted cod qualities. Benediktsson brines a piece of cod for 24 hours, rinses it, and it’s ready to cook. “This way fits much better into the modern world,” Benediktsson says. I have prepared cod this way a couple of times, and the results are wonderful. The fish adopts just enough of the salted cod character – the flakes becoming thicker and more defined, the flavor becomes slightly sweeter – without the erratic toughness that the old world salted cod sometimes produces.
Along with this brining technique, Benediktsson also provided me with two wonderful recipes for cooking the cod. Both are brilliant. The first results in what I call an “instant, machine-less sous-vide,” the modern method of cooking very slowly at low temperatures, retaining more flavor than food prepared at higher temperatures, and resulting in a velvety texture.
In this case, the salted cod is removed from the brine and rinsed. A pot of water is brought to a boil. At the boil, the heat is turned off, and the fish is put in, covered, for exactly 7 minutes. I have not had such a perfectly cooked piece of fish in years. I served this cod with a simple homemade aioli and steamed potatoes, Icelandic style. The flavors made a delicate little bagatelle of a meal, a perfect dinner. (The photo here shows halibut prepared this way. As it was a thicker than a cod loin, I left it in the water for a total of 12 minutes. Use your judgement for thicker, denser fish, but I find this worked beautifully.)
Benediktsson’s second recipe is more expansive, but equally perfect. The salted cod is removed from the brine, and placed on a baking sheet covered with a pistachio “salsa.” The fish is roasted, and then served over a pile of lime and chili flavored mashed sweet potatoes. This dish’s origins may have been far from Iceland and but the results, I’ll boldly say, are closer to paradise. Again, this wide range of textures and flavors united into a dish not short of a masterpiece. This should be your next “company” dinner.
The Recipes, serve 4
For the brine:
Ingredients for 4 cod loins, about 2 1/2 pounds – a 10 ounce loin per person
12 cups water 1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon salt
Mix together salt and water to dissolve. Place brine and fish in a securely covered plastic tub, and let sit for 24 hours.
Perfect Fish in 7-Minutes
Brined cod from recipe above.
In a saute pan or skillet large enough to hold the fish, or even a stock pot, bring about 3 inches of water water to a boil. Remove fish from brine and rinse well. When the water boils, turn off the heat, and add the fish. Cover immediately, and let fish sit for exactly 7 minutes. Remove from pan, and serve immediately. This is delicious with aioli, or an herb butter.
Asgeir’s Cod with Sweet Potatoes and Pistachio Salsa
Brined cod from recipe above
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1” chunks
1-2 potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1” chunks (about 1/3 pound)
1 red chili, seeds removed (divided)
3 1/2 tablespoons lime juice, approximately (divided)
1 tablespoon butter, approximately
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
peel from 1 lemon
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1. To prepare the potatoes, place sweet and white potatoes in a pot of water to cover. Add 1/2 the red chili to the pan, and bring to a boil. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until potatoes are soft. Remove the chili, and strain the potatoes. Return to the pot, and mash them with 1/2 tablespoon lime and the butter. (I used an emulsion blender for this.) Add salt and pepper to taste. You may need to add more lime and butter, also, at this point. Keep warm and set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Remove the fish from the brine, and rinse it. Pat dry, and lay on a foil lined baking sheet. In a small bowl mix together the pistachios, remaining lime juice, lemon peel, olive oil, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Distribute mixture over fish.
3. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until fish is fully cooked. (Do not overcook, but watch the pistachios carefully. If they look as if they might blacken too soon, cover with aluminum foil) Distribute the warm sweet potatoes among 4 plates. Serve each cod loin on top of the sweet potatoes. Serve immediately.