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A 'Hot Bath' With Friends
In bagna cauda, vegetables and bread are for sharing
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At the Pink Door, chef Jacqueline Roberts treats customers to a traditional Italian version of bagna cauda.
COOL, CRISP autumn evenings that call for a soul-warming fire in the hearth also righteously deserve what Italians call "la bagna cauda," or the hot bath. Don't let the name mislead you. La bagna cauda isn't about soaking in a tub of foaming bubbles. Capisce? Imagine this instead: A plate piled with slices of crusty bread surrounded by fresh celery, snappy carrots and bright peppers, maybe some radishes, too. And alongside, a simmering, savory dip, warmed over a flame, of garlic and cream, olive oil and . . . anchovies.

Whooaaa, hold on!

Just the mention of anchovies has you turning the page, right? You're not alone. Yet along with perhaps millions of Americans, you've missed out on some great food. It's likely not your fault. Usually you didn't fail to "acquire a taste" so much as you fell victim to salty little fishes that had been allowed to languish too long in the fridge.

That's how anchovies have unjustly earned their big, bad rap, says bagna-cauda aficionado Jacqueline Roberts, who owns the Pink Door restaurant in the Pike Place Market. A collective distaste for anything anchovy has kept "the hot bath" a relatively elusive dish here in the States.

"I often have to give it away to get people onto it," says Roberts. "Anchovies are like the MSG of Italian cuisine," she jokes, "but used correctly, they only enhance a dish."

Believe me, I, too, was skeptical. But once you get a whiff of the garlic and see the dip bubbling, your anti-anchovy armor starts to melt, giving way to the multiple charms of this sumptuous but simple dish. Put plainly, it's just good food for good company. Roberts explains that in Italy, this is a "dish of friendship," based on fun and sharing. Best of all, it's something warm for our many cold nights.

La Bagna Cauda Spacer
This is one of those recipes where dried herbs are definitely preferred because they will hold up to the strong simmer that this dish commands.

Serves 4

2 cans anchovies (look for the small, oblong tins from Italy)
1 cup virgin, cold-pressed olive oil
5 to 6 fat, juicy cloves of garlic, minced
5 pinches of celery seed
1 tablespoon dry basil, crumbled
1 teaspoon oregano
5 or 6 grinds of fresh black pepper

For dipping, cut a good, hearty bread into slices and select a few of the following vegetables, cleaned and cut to a convenient size for dipping.
  · Carrots
  · Bell peppers, all colors
  · Celery, leaves on
  · Radishes
  · Fennel
  · Spinach or arugula, stems on

1. Put the anchovies, olive oil, garlic, celery seed, basil, oregano and pepper into a medium-sized sauté pan over medium heat. Taking care not to burn the garlic, simmer 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Mash the whole anchovies as you stir.

2. Transfer the sauce to a pre-warmed crockery bowl that can withstand the heat of a candle or Sterno canister underneath.

3. Arrange the cut vegetables and bread around the crockery bowl. Dip vegetables deep into the bowl to catch bits of anchovies and garlic. A slice of bread in the other hand is handy for catching drips!

— From chef Jacqueline Roberts of The Pink Door

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The bagna cauda (BAHN-yah KOW-dah) is a tradition that trickled out of the Piedmont region, the northwest corner of Italy. It's a tradition that originates among the peasants and is another fine example of how resourcefulness and simplicity remain the common denominator for a lot of good food. When taste overcomes class distinctions, everybody wins. It's culinary democracy.

But I digress.

So by now you might be tempted, even if those salty little fish still make you nervous. Luckily a bagna cauda isn't complicated to assemble, so you have little to lose by giving it a try. If you haven't guessed already, success depends on buying the right kind of anchovy. Roberts advises, "in the can, packed in salt." Italian imports only.

"Like all recipes," says Roberts, "there are hundreds of variations." And as an Italian-American she has her own take on the classic formula: Hold the cream. Other options offer more gusto in the flavors. Experiment with herbs or try some capers. Roberts says one of her regulars prefers to pour his dip over pasta.

While tradition calls for certain veggies, practicality demands others be served with the bagna cauda. "My grandfather ate his with cardoons," says Roberts, "but they freak most people out." True, in the U.S., cardoons appeal to gardeners for their artichoke-like flowers. But you're not likely to find them in the produce section. Besides, the fibrous, celery-like stalks always struck me as more suited to flossing than to snacking.

So instead of cardoons, use celery, with the leaves on. And, Roberts insists, "fennel — it's a must." Carrots, bell peppers and spinach with the stems on are also great. When spring comes on, radishes and arugula make good dippers, too.

As for the bread, it's simple: Get the good stuff — something hearty.

I readily admit I'm intimidated by the prospect of choosing a good wine for bagna cauda. It's a tough balance, standing up to the garlic and anchovies without clashing. Roberts doesn't think twice. "I say Barberra."

OK, I say fine.

Now we're ready to "go fish" in a warm, golden pond. We'll be so busy scooping up all the bits of rich flavor we'll forget we ever fretted about those tiny little anchovies.

Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living on Whidbey Island. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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