by Lisa

A few weeks ago, the excellent Amanda Hesser, wrote about bagna cauda in her old/new New York Times column, which is worth following if you don’t already.  (Also worth checking out is her newer endeavor, food52, dedicated to home cooking.)  When I opened the magazine and saw the piece, I felt like I had been returned to a very old, very dear childhood friend because we eat bagna cauda all winter long, but no one else we know does. It’s dark, and weird, and made almost entirely of anchovies and garlic, but it’s totally, completely delicious.  Bagna cauda has been a kind of food secret for decades for me, and now for our family. And yes, it’s another sort of unusual thing our kids love (at least for a non-Italian/non Italian-American), but, like fegatini, it’s comfort food, pure and simple, that can be served just as easily to a crowd at a holiday feast.

So when I saw Hesser’s piece singing the praises of Bagna Cauda, not only did I feel validated, I felt like it was about time! Maybe now a wave of bagna cauda eating would sweep the nation, and I could serve it to others and they would know what it was, and wouldn’t give me weird looks, etc. etc.  Maybe now when I serve it to others, or bring it to a potluck, I can tell people: you know, the stuff Amanda Hesser wrote about the Times….

As Hesser writes, there are many variations of bagna cauda, which means warm bath. It’s a warm dip for cold weather and cold weather vegetables, and ideally everyone will hover around the warming pot and dip their slivers of peeled broccoli stems, sliced cauliflower, carrot, celery, toasted bread, puntarelle–whatever–into the rich, deep brown, garlicky mess, and drink a glass of a big Italian red, and be very, very happy.

Bagna cauda has a very long history for me. I learned about it from my friend, Ted Zoli, who was a terrific cook when we were in college, and who is now a certified genius doing completely amazing things in the world with bridges.  He took a friend and I fishing, once, in the woods behind his upstate New York home, and we caught loads of baby brook trout, which his father fried up for us, and the meal completely made up for nearly getting lost in those woods. (One of us, mind you, was in a cast, had injured a leg? an ankle? And had to be practically carried out. It was cold, wet, dark…an adventure with a great reward at the end.)

It came as a great surprise, then no surprise at all, but a very great happiness when it was announced this year that Ted had won a MacArthur Grant.  He has worked impossibly harder than anyone I know, at significant things, for decades, and it was gratifying to see such work rewarded.  Thankfully, there is some justice in the world. And thankfully, there is bagna cauda, for the rest of us.

Many years ago, when we were just out of college, he lived in an adorable, exposed brick, one bedroom walk-up on Christopher St. in NYC, and we all used to cram in there and hang out and eat good things. One day, when we weren’t planning on eating there, he had a small pot of something simmering on the stove over just the barest lick of flame.  It was bagna cauda, and I was sort of amazed that it was so simple and so good and that he could just leave the pot like that, simmering for hours, while we were out in the city. It seemed sort of brave and risky back then when none of us really knew much about cooking.

His method:  take a ton of garlic, a lot of anchovies, cover the  lot of it with olive oil, and simmer, simmer, simmer,  over the lowest possible flame until it all dissolves.

I’ve adapted his method some, adding a tiny amount of butter, but my proportion of garlic to anchovies is still generous compared to some.   The key is not to leave out or skimp on the anchovies, even if you’re a little afraid of them. Buy good ones, in a glass jar, and they will reveal themselves to you, I promise. They add depth, richness, and a lovely color and saltiness. There’s nothing like them.

Today, for my bagna cauda, which we’ll eat tonight after Mass, for our Feast of the Seven Fishes (of which we only eat 3 or 4 courses), I’ll use something like:

  • 2 jars of good anchovies
  • 6 or 7 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • olive oil to cover

and I’ll simmer, simmer, simmer on the lowest possible heat until the fish dissolve, the garlic becomes a thin paste, and the everthing is blended and transformed into something utterly new. Which is not only delicious, but a kind of metaphor for the night.