Imagine, for just a moment, that you are a vegetable, washed and trimmed and waiting for what comes next.
Imagine that you are a piece of the heart of a cardoon. Or the leaf of an artichoke, perfumed with lemon after having it rubbed across your skin. Or a ruby red strip of bell pepper, painted with olive oil. Or a stalk of fennel, crisp and white and ready to impart your anise flavour.
Imagine that you are an asparagus spear, tender and green. Or a Belgian endive leaf, white with hints of gold around your edges. Imagine that you are whatever vegetable that you choose to be.
And now imagine, that waiting for you, is a bath … a hot, luxurious bath of garlic cooked until its creamy; of anchovies cooked until they have melted away and lost their pungency in favour of mellowness; and of olive oil and butter, married over the slowest heat until they have become one.
Imagine that each day, you push your way up through the soil of a place called Piemonte, which in Italian means a pie dei monti or at the foot of the mountains. And imagine that this land is called Piemonte because it lies in the embrace of the Alps and the Apennines, and that everyday you are kissed by the mountain sun.
Imagine that around you, surrounding you, are mountain plains where cattle graze; fertile valleys and hills where fruits, nuts and grapes grow; and mountain waters where the fish are still plentiful. And all of this is tended to by the people of this land, known as the Piemontesi. These people are proud and devoted to their land. They follow the same rhythms that their descendants did. They know who they are. They know where they come from.
Imagine that these people, with their traditions and history, take pleasure in what the land gives them. And in so doing, they maintain the culinary treasures they are blessed with: meat, butter and cheese from the mountain plains; apples, pears and walnuts from the valleys; grapes from the vineyards; and trout and perch from the mountain waters. Not to mention the rice, corn, and barley.
But imagine also, that these people remember to celebrate life’s moments with their food. So that for every holiday, and every festival, there is a special dish or two that is prepared in the time-honoured way. Slowly, never rushing. Properly, never cutting corners.
And imagine that one of these dishes is bagna caÃ´da, bagna meaning bath and caÃ´da meaning hot. This dish is prepared by putting olive oil and butter into a pan, and allowing the butter to melt over a low heat. Once the butter is melted, the garlic is added and cooked briefly, so as not to take on any colour. And once this is done, the anchovies are added and the mixture is cooked slowly until the anchovies have melted away. And this hot bath is transferred to a pot and brought to the table and placed over a flame.
Imagine that while all the world watched Piemonte’s capital city of Torino, miles to the South, as it celebrated the opening of Olympic games with much light; fanfare; and fire, the Piemontesi gathered around their own tables and watched their own flame as it warmed the bagna caÃ´da.
And now imagine again, that you are that vegetable, and that you are finally dipped into that liquid gold, creamy and rich with garlic and anchovies. Imagine what bliss.
This recipe is adapted from three versions which I found in the following cookbooks: Italian Farmhouse Cooking by Susan Hermann Loomis, Rustico by Micol Negrin and The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.
- 12 anchovies (packed in oil), drained and finely chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- your choice of any assortment of raw vegetables (fennel, Belgian endive, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, artichokes, cardoons — for this recipe I used fennel and Belgian endive)
- 2 to 3 red bell peppers, roasted (if you do not use fresh bell pepper, you can roast them and use the roasted bell peppers instead)
- Clean, wash and dry all of your vegetables; arrange in a serving platter and set aside.
- In a saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter until the butter is melted. You should do this over a low flame as you do not want the butter to burn.
- Once the butter is melted, add the garlic and cook for about 5 minutes. Be careful that the oil and butter do not get too hot as to cause the garlic to fry. Stir often.
- After five minutes, add the chopped anchovies and continue to cook over low heat, stirring often. Cook for 15 minutes. You’ll notice that the anchovies will begin to dissolve and melt down.
- After the 15 minutes, stir the the bagna caoda and taste it. Be careful as it will be very hot. If you feel it needs salt and a bit of pepper, season to taste.
- If you have a pot and flame device that will keep the bagna caÃ´da hot, or a fondue pot, pour the bagna caÃ´da into the pot and light the flame. Serve the vegetables with the bagna caÃ´da for dipping.
- If, like the Cream Puffs in Venice household you do not have one of these contraptions, the best way to serve the bagna caÃ´da is to pour it over your platter of vegetables. Be sure to serve lots of crusty bread as well.