Last night, we had a hot olive oil bath and went to bed happy. We didn’t dive into olive oil; our dinner did.
Bagna Càuda, a specialty of Italy’s Piedmont Region, combines oil with anchovies and garlic to make a hot dip for vegetables and bread. Cooked over low heat, anchovies melt into oil and garlic’s strength turns smooth and mild.
I was first introduced to Bagna Càuda by the proprietors of Genoa Restaurant in Portland, Oregon. It was love at first taste. Genoa’s Bagna Càuda was rich and luxurious, creamy and indefinably delicious. I wanted more.
After I discovered Genoa’s recipe in a cookware store handout, its Bagna Càuda regularly showed up on the tables of me and my friends. Unlike the Bagna Càuda I make now, Genoa’s recipe doesn’t contain a speck of olive oil; its richness comes exclusively from butter and cream.
In the Portland years, I was young and undeterred by buckets of cream and butter. As time passed, I lost my enthusiasm for both. I used to cook with butter, using olive oil mostly for salad dressings. Now, I rarely use butter; olive oil has replaced it in my kitchens. I stopped making Bagna Càuda.
Even so, when my husband and I travelled to Italy’s Piedmont Region in 1997, I was eager to try Bagna Càuda in its homeland. We found it in a tiny lakeside restaurant in La Morra, where we were the only customers. The television was blaring, the florescent lights blazing, and our expectations for the food low.
When the Bagna Càuda arrived at our table, it was a revelation. It didn’t contain cream or butter. Instead, garlic and anchovies were melted in olive oil and served in a roasted red pepper half. Every bite was a pleasure.
As with Genoa’s Bagna Càuda so many years ago, the taste and aroma of this new-to-me version lingered in my memory. Back in Alaska, I developed a simple recipe incorporating its flavors, using only olive oil, garlic, and anchovies.
Last Thursday, my regular CSA box of vegetables arrived from Full Circle Farm. The refrigerator was overflowing; I couldn’t find space for an extra-large bunch of broccoli. Bagna Càuda (my version) was the solution. While the anchovy and garlic sauce simmered, I steamed broccoli and roasted a couple red peppers over a gas burner.
When the Bagna Càuda was done, we dipped our vegetables and bread in the hot savory bath, ate our fill, and licked our fingers clean.