Bagna cauda or, more properly, bagna caôda, means ‘hot sauce’ in English. It refers to a typical Piedmontese dish for communal eating that is popular in cold weather months, a kind of cross between fondue and pinzimonio, if I can put it that way. It is, quite simply, a collection of raw and steamed vegetables, which you dip into a garlic and anchovy sauce that you keep warm like a cheese fondue in a little terracotta pot placed over a flame.
Here’s the recipe for making the sauce:
Ingredients (to serve 4 or more):
4 (or more) cloves of garlic
100g (4 oz.) fillets of anchovy
200 ml (1 cup or small glassful) olive oil
50g (2 oz.) butter
Freshly ground pepper
Pour the olive oil into a small saucepan and heat gently. Add the garlic, which you can either slightly crush, for a milder flavor, or slice or even finely mince for a much more assertive flavor. Keep the flame quite low. You are infusing the oil with the flavor of the garlic, which should not brown at all. (If you like you can remove some or all of the garlic at this point to avoid its flavor from becoming overpowering.) After about 5 minutes, add the anchovy fillets and butter and continue to simmer very gently for another 10 minutes, until the fillets have completely melted and the various flavors have been well amalgamated. Season with a bit of ground pepper.
Pour the sauce into a small fondue pot, preferably made of terracotta, and keep warm at the table. Regulate the flame so that the bagna cauda simmers gently all the while you are eating. Serve with various raw and steamed vegetables in season, which you dip into the sauce.
NOTES: The typical vegetables that go with bagna cauda include roasted or raw red peppers, cardoons, artichokes, steamed potatoes, steamed or raw carrots, steamed cauliflower, fennel, celery or leafy vegetables like savoy cabbage, radicchio and endive. Harder vegetables are best lightly steamed, (or roasted) while larger vegetables should be cut into bit sized pieces or sticks. To this dish I added a somewhat unusual choice of Brussel sprouts—they were delicious in this sauce. I also used a bit of frisée, which go very well with the anchovies. But really just about any seasonal vegetable would be fine.
There are lots of variations in making the sauce. While the measurements are quite flexible, as is the order of ingredients: whether you add the butter or oil, or the garlic or the anchovy first or at the same time. But most of the variations revolve around different ways to ‘soften’ the flavor of the garlic. The recipe above calls for adding the garlic, raw, to the sauce, but many recipes call on you to simmer the garlic beforehand, for up to an hour in milk or cream. The garlic is then drained and crushed or puréed, and the recipe continues from there. With this method, you can use larger amounts of garlic, as the simmering considerably softens the garlic’s pungency. I even found this remarkable recipe for bagna cauda from the esteemed Kyle Phillips of About Italian Food, which calls for an enormous amount of garlic—5 heads (yes, heads, not cloves)—that simmer in milk for an hour before proceeding with the sauce. Some recipes also call for adding a bit of milk or cream at the end, before serving, which also is meant to smooth out the flavor. (Being a garlic hound, I like my garlic ‘straight up’.)
In Italy, it is quite usual these days to serve bagna cauda in individual little terracotta fondue pots called forneletti (known in Piedmontese as fujòt). Unfortunately, I didn’t bring any back from Italy and they are apparently impossible to find here in the US, so—as you will see above—I improvised with a terracotta soup bowl placed over a fondue burner. A regular fondue pot would also do fine. The one from Emile Henry is made from terracotta and is the best one I’ve seen for the purpose on the market here.
While usually categorized as an antipasto, bagna cauda can easily serve as a meal, followed by some stewed fruit, for example pere in vino rosso. Serve with a robust red wine and lots of water, too, to quench your considerable thirst.