If you thought Italian cooking is all made of recipes with delicate flavors, like risotto alla milanese, lightly dressed pastas or fish, here is something that will make you change your mind.
Bagna caoda, literally meaning “hot dip” (it’s local dialect, standard Italian would be “salsa calda”), is as hot as its name suggests, and it’s also savory and deeply aromatic, thanks to salt cured anchovies and garlic it contains. But it’s surprisingly delicious, as long as you have it according to Piedmontese tradition, that is with vegetables, because they temper its strong taste.
Bagna caoda is a typical dish from Piedmont that scarcely goes beyond the region’s boundaries – and it’s a kind of mystery, because it not only is tasty and very easy to prepare, but it also has a “social character”, because it makes people gather around the table and make them take their food from the same tray, helping sharing and socialization, while, at the same time, preserves hygiene allowing everybody to eat from his or her own dish.
Italian household products shops (particularly those located in Piedmont, Ligury and Lombardy) sometimes sell special cups (or set of cups) for bagna caoda, which are basically the same as the one for fondue (which is another dish from Piedmont, and it’s called fonduta in Italian language), consisting in a proper cup to pour food in, and a space for a teapot candle that will keep food warm.
Even without such an impressive equipment, bagna caoda can be enjoyed as well.
How to make bagna caoda at home
For the dip itself:
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup milk
60 g salt cured anchovies
10 garlic cloves
50 g butter
For the whole dish:
Assorted raw and steam-cooked vegetable of choice, but mainly raw peppers of every color, raw tender artichoke leaves, raw Belgian endive, raw Trevisano radicchio, plus broccoli, cauliflowers, carrots and zucchini.
Clean raw vegetables, cut them into finger-food size pieces and set aside.
Clean vegetables to be eaten once cooked (broccoli, cauliflowers, carrots and zucchini), cut them into small pieces, too, and steam cook them; set aside.
Peel garlic cloves and let them boil for about ten minutes in a cup of milk. Once they become tender, switch the burner off and wait for the milk to turn cold with garlic in.
Once it’s warm, take the garlic out of the milk. Discard the milk and add boiled garlic to a pan with oil and anchovies. Cook on very low fire to allow anchovies and garlic become a mash, stirring with a wooden spoon to help them melt.
Add butter and let it melt, keeping on stirring. The mixture should now look like a rough, brown purée. If you prefer it to be smoother, you can make it more uniform with a blender.
Now you can pour your bagna caoda in the serving pot; make sure it can keep the sauce at high temperature, or arrange for a teapot candle to keep it warm.
Provide each guest with a small cup (fruit cups are okay, if not too fragile) that had been sunk for some minutes in hot water, to make it warmer. Serve a small amount of bagna cauda in each warmed cup and place the pot at the center of the table to let anyone take more when needed.
Do the same with vegetables and let tablemates pick their favorite ones and dip them in the sauce before having it.