My wife is not a picky eater. She starts out her mornings with a forkful of my homemade kimchi, straight out of the jar, followed by a glass of my home-brewed lemon-ginger kombucha. She'll eat roasted bone marrow, raw oysters, grilled octopus, and beef tongue tacos. At Enoteca Maria in Staten Island, she even shared the whole sheep's head I ordered, which had been sawed in half, stuffed with garlicky breadcrumbs, and tied back together with butcher's twine and roasted. She sampled the brain and the cheeks but left me both the eyeballs. She's a culinary badass, but she doesn't do anchovies. I have to sneak them into her food.
My wife is not alone in her aversion to anchovies. Anchovies land on top of most surveys of the most disliked foods in America. I suspect this is because most Americans' first exposure to the strong-flavored fish was an ugly little fish sitting atop a pizza. Most pizzerias use cheap canned anchovies, which are mushy, ugly, salty and funky, so I'm not judging anyone.
Today's column is not about anchovies, however. It is about bagna càuda, (pronounced BAHN-ya COW-da), an Italian word that translates to "hot sauce." Bagna càuda is a specialty of the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, a landlocked region bordered by the Alps. Bagna càuda, which dates back to the 16th century, is a slow-cooked, warm dip of garlic and anchovies for raw and cooked vegetables.
First some historical background: How did a salty little fish become an essential component of an iconic dish from a landlocked region? It all had to do with salt and tax evasion. As I wrote in a previous column: https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/be-inspired-by-the-miracle-of-salt/Content?oid=16175839, "Salt is essential to life, and civilizations developed around sources of salt or depended on trade routes, even wars, to obtain it. Prior to the availability of refrigeration, cultures relied on salt for food preservation to get them through the lean times." Salt was heavily taxed along its trade routes. To avoid paying taxes, merchants began hiding salt under layers of salted anchovies. If a government official opened the barrel, they'd find anchovies and wave them on through without collecting the salt tax. Salt was the "contraband," and anchovy runners were the "drug mules" of the 16th century. This brought lots of salted anchovies to Piedmont, where they found their way into such dishes as bagna càuda.
Bagna càuda originated as a warming snack for vineyard workers during colder months and evolved into a communal dish to celebrate the harvest. In its traditional form, bagna càuda is simply garlic cloves and anchovies, gently warmed in olive oil. It is served out of an earthenware pot kept warm over an open flame, like fondue. Diners would gather around the table with a fork in one hand and a piece of bread in the other and dip crudités into the warm garlicky sauce. In modern times, Italians typically serve bagna càuda during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, and on Fridays during Lent.
Closer to home, the tradition was brought to central Illinois by northern Italian immigrants who came to work in the coal mines around Benld, Collinsville, Edwardsville, Maryville and Kincaid. You can still find a traditional version on the menu of Verrucchi's Ristorante, a supper club founded in 1914 in the Illinois River town of Spring Valley. Some modern versions incorporate butter and cream. This addition of dairy may stem from an earlier time when good quality olive oil wasn't readily available. Another theory of the origin of this practice is that poaching the anchovies and garlic in milk takes away some of the pungency of cheap, tinned anchovies and mature garlic bulbs.
Though traditionally a cool-weather dip, bagna càuda is especially appropriate for spring and early summer, not only because of the availability of milder green garlic but also the lovely seasonal young vegetables to dip into it.
Though anchovies give the sauce serious depth and umami, that hard-to-define savory deliciousness, miso can be substituted to achieve something similar. Chef Jeremy Fox, author of On Vegetables was head chef at Ubuntu in the Napa, which in 2008 was declared by the New York Times to be the second-best restaurant in America. Ubuntu started as a side project of a yoga studio that wanted to provide vegetarian food for its members. The restaurant had an adjacent vegetable garden. Chef Fox explains: "We harvested this beautiful broccoli from the garden, which I usually love eating with bagna càuda. But bagna càuda has anchovy in it, so I couldn't serve it at a vegetarian restaurant. To recreate the umami component that the anchovies bring, I started messing around with miso, and the vegetarian bagna càuda really started to come together."
For my wife and other anchovy-haters, I offer this plant-based alternative.
Miso Bagna Càuda
Adapted from On Vegetables by Jeremy Fox
If you are a wine drinker, pair this with an Austrian Grüner Veltliner or an Italian Vermentino.
For the bagna càuda:
Zest of one lemon and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
1 cup extra-virgin olive oi
1/4 cup red miso paste (I like Miso Master Traditional Red Miso. For a milder flavored dip, substitute white miso)
About 4 heads of green garlic, finely grated (or 1 head of mature garlic, peeled, and finely grated)
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt, as needed
Suggestions for raw crudités:
Suggestions for cooked crudités:
For the raw crudités, cut into pieces about 3 inches long and place in ice water to crisp. For the cooked crudités, lightly coat with olive oil and grill or roast in the oven.
Fill a medium saucepot with about 2 inches of water and bring to a gentle simmer. In a mixing bowl that sits snugly over the saucepot, add the lemon zest and juice, olive oil, miso, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Stir to combine. Cover the bowl tightly with foil and set it over the pot of gently simmering water. Allow the mixture to cook for about 45 minutes, topping off the water as necessary. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature. Don't worry if the sauce is "broken," meaning that the oil is separated from the solids. It will not emulsify.
Transfer any leftover dip into a jar, and cover with a little olive oil. It will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.