Best kept secret on the Italian pescatarian table? Baccalà. Salt cod. Yes, you heard me right: this salt-preserved delicacy makes Italy swoon. Indeed Italians are only second to the Portuguese as the largest consumers of baccalà in the world.
Many an Italian eye fills with stars and longing at the thought of their mamma’s baccalà. From Venice to Naples and Palermo then back up to Piemonte by way of Tuscany, there are as many recipes for baccalà as there are mothers.
Baccalà is cod that has been dried and conserved with salt. The species best suited for this method is the Atlantic cod-or Gadus morhua. While it is fished and cured all along the North Sea, its two main areas of production are Norway and Canada.
Norwegian salt cod is most prized by chefs and home cooks alike. The specimens are larger with fatty, thick and flaky flesh, and a delicate, unmistakable flavor. It is also more expensive than its Canadian counterpart and not as easily sourced. The more readily available Canadian variety is still delicious, but with a slightly more marked fishiness and a somewhat less palate-friendly texture.
Baccalà is more commonly sold in fillets, but its best part are the loins, those pieces just below the gills where the fish’s body becomes wider and thicker. Fillets are cut vertically down each side of a whole fish, while loins are sliced across the whole body. As older specimens are fattier, the bigger the cod, the meatier and more delicious the loins. Also, the skin and bones still attached to the loins bring an additional flavor dimension. Leave the skin on for roasting, grilling or poaching. If the recipe calls for skinless, peel it off after the soaking is complete then crisp it under the broiler for an unexpected addition to salad or steamed vegetables. Bones are more easily extracted after cooking.
I always use the loins for roasting, grilling, poaching or a recipe that calls for large pieces. But when whipping, grinding or flaking baccalà, I turn to necks and belly bits. Both are very flavorful and fatty parts that are at least 30 percent less expensive than the loins.
Whatever your budget, keep in mind that, when rehydrated, baccalà has a much more generous yield than any fresh fish. If planning to feed 6 to 8 people, I generally buy 1 pound, whereas I would buy at least 2 pounds were I cooking fresh cod.
One of the most important steps for good baccalà is the soaking, as baccalà that isn’t properly de-salted can be inedible. My mother taught me that it is always better to soak to the point where you will need to season it again during cooking. How long one soaks it is predicated on both the thickness of the meat and how long the fish has been preserved.
As the winter holidays approach, I start honing my baccalà game, since it is a staple on my Christmas Eve table. Just 2 months ago, I taught a baccalà class as part of my Italy By Ingredient series at The Civic Kitchen. The waitlist was so long I will be teaching it again in March of 2020. Join the school’s mailing list to be notified when the class is posted to the calendar. Until then, you can try your hand with one of the recipes below.
The first is a whipped version of salt cod ubiquitous in Venetian bars. The second is the most common way baccalà was served in my childhood home. I cherish this recipe particularly, as it is a reconstruction from memories of taste and conversations with my mother.
Before I leave you to try your hand and this unfairly overlooked ingredient, a word on where to buy it. Fillets and whole sides of salt cod are typically stocked by Italian delis, Latin American bodegas and specialty food stores focusing on pan-European ingredients. For loins, necks and belly bits you have to look online. Locally, I have been able to find Canadian baccalà either in fillets or as a whole side. I have only been able to source loins from online merchants specializing in Portuguese foods, I order it from a family-owned Southern California based business of immigrant Portuguese fishermen that ships Norwegian salt cod in a variety of cuts. The price per pound can run from $8 to $20, depending on the provenance, the cut and the quantity you buy.
Locally, Casa Guadalupe on Mission at 26th Street sells whole sides. The Spanish Table at 130 Clement carries 1 pound bags of fillets. They have stores in Berkeley and Mill Valley as well. Both places carry the Canadian variety.
Whole Foods occasionally carries 1 pound in wooden boxes of Norwegian fillets in the freezer section, though the one time I bought it had freezer burn.
For consistently excellent Norwegian baccalà navigate to buy portuguesefood.com and browse through the many salt cod options. The Costas are so into it, they even have some short videos on the history and best use of this amazing staple
Rinse the excess salt off the fish and soak it in cold water for at least 2 (and up to 5) days, changing the water 3 times a day.
Keep it on the counter if the room and temperature are cool; otherwise, it should be refrigerated during the soaking. Be sure your soaking container allows ample room for expansion, as the baccalà will double or even triple in size as it rehydrates.
Keep in mind that some baccalà is saltier than others, and this will affect your soaking time. The releasing of salinity is also dependent on the thickness of the piece. Thinner parts will be ready in a couple of days. Thicker parts, especially the gorgeous loins, might be sweet and perfect on the surface, but still pack a punch of salt in their inner layers.
Before cooking, verify that the salt has left the fish. Pinch off a piece to chew – it should taste ready to be seasoned again. For thicker pieces, grab a wooden skewer and pierce to the center of a piece. Keep it there for 10 to 15 seconds, then extract it and lick it. If you taste salt, the gestation isn’t yet complete.
It can take 4 to 5 days to get a piece of salt cod to where it is well de-salted and rehydrated. Keep at it, and don’t forget to change the water. I promise you, it will be well worth it.
Baccalà mantecato alla veneziana
1/2 pound lean baccalà
1 quart water
1 pint milk
2 bay leaves
1/2 pound olive oil (a mild flavored, floral one is more suited)
salt as needed
1 clove garlic
1 cup parsley leaves
1 cup polenta
salt to taste
3 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
De-salt the fish as directed in the basic instructions recipe.
Make the polenta, even a day in advance. Place the water in a metal bowl and stir the polenta and salt into it. Fill the bottom of a pan with water and bring to a boil, place the bowl over it to make a double boiler. Cover and reduce the heat to medium. Stir after half an hour, then cook for another 20 to 30 minutes. The polenta for this preparation needs to be dense enough to slice; but, if it looks like it is burning from lack of hydration, add some liquid.
Stir in the butter, and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Pour into an oiled loaf pan and leave to set completely.
Place the fish in a saucepot and cover it with the milk and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes. Drain it, reserving the cooking liquid. Clean the skin off the fish and pick off the bones. Mince the baccalà flesh in the food processor with about 1 cup of its cooking liquid. Transfer everything to a standing mixer bowl and start whipping on medium-high speed.
Pour the oil in a thin stream (as if you were making mayonnaise) while the whisk continues to run. Beat in all of the oil then whip some more to give it a fluffy creamy texture. If it seems too thick or dry, use some cooking water to break the tension.
It is done when it is creamy, shiny and white and tastes delicious. Adjust salt and pepper to taste and place in a handsome serving bowl.
Mince the parsley and garlic clove very, very finely. Add some grated lemon zest and mix well. Dust the baccalà with the mince.
The polenta should be set enough to slice. Cut and warm the slices in the oven, then arrange them attractively on a platter to serve alongside the baccalà spread.
Baccalà alla perugina in agrodolce
2 pounds baccalà
1 bunch Swiss chard
1 yellow onion
2 celery stalks
¼ cup currants or raisins
¼ cup pitted prunes
½ cup olive oil
3 bay leaves
1 large can peeled tomatoes
Pepper to taste
½ cup pine nuts
Sugar and vinegar to taste
De-salt the fish as directed in the basic instructions recipe.
The day your baccalà is finally ready to use, start by making the sauce. Divide the chard stalks from the leaves. Finely chop the onion, carrots, celery and chard stalks. Stack the chard leaves, roll them and cut them in very thin ribbons. Set them aside as you will not need them until the end.
Soak the currants and prunes in warm water.
In a shallow pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When it is shimmery, runny and the fragrance reaches your nose without you bending over the pot, add the onion, carrots, celery, chard stalks and bay leaves with a generous pinch of salt. Soften them completely until they start caramelizing, stirring often to prevent burning.
Add the peeled tomatoes and a can full of water. Smash the tomatoes while they are coming to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium low and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Partially cover and cook for about an hour until the sauce is rather thick, checking occasionally to ensure it is not sticking and has a little moisture.
In the meantime, drain and dry the salted cod, eliminate bones and skin and cut in pieces of about 2” x 3”. Wrap the pieces in paper towels to absorb more moisture. Fill a wide shallow pot halfway with frying oil and bring it to 340˚F.
Dredge each piece of fish through the flour, then shake it off until it is coated by just a thin veil. Slide carefully into the oil and cook until they appear golden and crispy. Using a spider, lift from the oil and set to drain on a cooling rack over a sheet pan.
Do this in batches, as too many pieces of cod will cool the oil temperature and make the fish soggy and heavy. For a crisp fry, the oil temperature must remain between 340 and 370˚F.
When the sauce is about 10 minutes from done, remove the lid. Drain the prunes and raisins and gently squeeze off excess water. Add them and the pine nuts to the sauce.
Stir ½ tablespoon of sugar and ½ tablespoon of vinegar into the sauce. Taste and adjust the sweet and sour balance until you find it pleasantly suited to your taste. Remove the bay leaves, stir in the chard leaves, and cook for another 5 minutes to espouse all the flavors.
Transfer the sauce to a baking dish and arrange the pieces of cod in it. Heat in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Note that this dish can be prepared up to 2 days in advance and heated when the time to serve it comes.