Wind drying and salting are among the oldest methods of preserving food known to Man. One application of these techniques, dried and salted cod, has been around for hundreds of years and is common throughout much of Europe. In Italy, it is called baccala; in Portugal, bacalhau; and you may have seen it in Spanish markets as bacalao. No matter what name is used, if you’ve ever seen it in its dried state, you certainly won’t forget it. Off-white and heavily salted, the preserved fish is sold in pieces about 18 inches long, 4 to 8 inches wide, as much as a half-inch thick, and stiff as a board. Well, except this last piece I bought, which required refrigeration and was actually soft, relatively speaking. (Who knew?) Dried stiff or soft-ish, the cod must be rinsed, again and again, before it can be cooked. (See Notes below.) Once re-hydrated and “de-salted”, you can treat it like you would any fresh fish.
Last week, I spoke of my family’s tradition of serving a seafood feast on Christmas Eve, made possible by Dad’s employment at the restaurant, and mentioned that baccala was often one of the famed 7 Fishes in many Italian homes. Well, not in our home, much to my dismay. Whether it was because Mom or Dad didn’t like it, or, Mom wasn’t a fan of the prep work, baccala was a dish served only in Zia’s home. Good thing, too, because although it wasn’t as convenient as having it served at my own dinner table, Zia and her Mother-in-law, Nonna, were masters of its preparation. As a result, as Zia recalls, I was forever trying to snag whatever leftovers I could from their meal. Although both women used the same ingredients, Nonna preferred to bake her baccala, while Zia cooked hers atop the stove. As one who “sampled” both preparations, I can attest that each method produced a delicious dish. As for our recipe today, Zia and I combined both methods, partially cooking the dish atop the stove before finishing it off in the oven. Although I wanted to name the dish Baccala alla Zia, my ever-so-modest Aunt would have none of it. So, to honor both her and Nonna, the recipe is called Baccala alla Marchigiana – but you and I know its real name.
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Baccala alla Marchigiana Recipe
- 3 to 4 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and quartered
- olive oil
- salt & pepper, to taste
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp marjoram
- 3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 large can (28 oz) tomatoes (whole or diced)
- 1 lb baccala, soaked, and cut into 3 inch chunks (See Notes below)
- salt & pepper, to taste
- Pre-heat oven to 400˚.
- Season potatoes with salt & pepper, toss with a splash of olive oil, and roast on a baking sheet for 20 minutes at 400˚.
- Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat olive oil over med-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes
- Add garlic & parsley and continue to sauté for another minute.
- Add tomatoes & marjoram, bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes. If sauce is “tight”, meaning too dry, add water.
- Add roasted potatoes and continue simmering for another 20 minutes. Add water if necessary.
- Add baccala to the tomato sauce and place pan into the 400˚ oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Taste before seasoning with salt & pepper, if necessary.
- Serve immediately.
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Whereas baccala is cod that has been salted and dried, stoccafisso is cod that has been dried but not salted. Once properly prepared, both forms can be cooked in a variety of ways. The portions can be baked in a sauce as above, pan-fried, baked, grilled, or poached and served in a salad. Recently, I watched a re-broadcast of Molto Mario as he used baccala to make “fish balls,” which he deep-fried. In other words, the only thing limiting how baccala might be prepared is your own imagination. And for those who believe that fresh or frozen cod is just as good as baccala, I caution against mouthing such heresy in the presence of Zia’s Youngest Son. A word to the wise is sufficient.
Baccala must be thoroughly rinsed and soaked before you can cook it. If it is salted and fully dried (pic on left), it will take 2 days to get it re-hydrated and de-salted (pic on right). This is readily accomplished by placing it in a large baking dish filled with cold water and changing the water occasionally over the course of the 2 days. I find it helps to let the water run gently into the dish a few times, as well. If, as was the case with my most recent purchase, your baccala is not fully dried but refrigerated, you may be able to get away with a 1 day soak. You will know when the fish is ready by its appearance, feel, and, yes, its smell. Be careful, however, not to let it soak for too long or to run the water too forcefully. The fish could lose its firm texture and might even disintegrate.
No post about baccala would be complete without mention of its “aroma.” Certainly not as strong as stoccafisso, when first you begin to soak the cod, you will notice it that it smells like, well, dried fish. The smell quickly dissipates in the rinse water and soon its scent compares favorably with any other fish product. Stoccafisso, however, is not so easily rendered scentless and should only be attempted outdoors or in a well-ventilated room. To illustrate my point …
I was about 5 or 6 years old and shared a bedroom with my brother, who was about 10 or 11 years old at the time. Our bedroom, as well as the bedroom of my cousins’ directly above ours, was separated from the rest of the house by a stairwell that ran from the 2nd floor to the basement. One morning, Mom entered our bedroom in a cleaning frenzy, convinced that my brother or I had done, or left, something disgusting in the room. Angels that we were and despite our claims of Godliness, a foul stench had reached her kitchen, which was located on the other side of the stairwell, and our room declared a crime scene — ground zero, in today’s parlance. Lucky for the two of us, Mom found nothing untoward in our room and now, more determined than ever, she set out to find the source of the stench. It wasn’t long before her nose led her to the basement where, under the stairs, she found Grandpa’s stoccafisso, bathing innocently in a tub of water. Well, revenge is a dish best served cold, so Mom patiently bided her time. It wasn’t long before Grandpa left the house, as he did every morning like clockwork. Seizing the opportunity, Mom placed the tub of stoccafisso under his bed and closed his bedroom door as she left. Even Grandpa’s Old Spice, the scent of which permeated that room, proved to be no match for stoccafisso, as Grandpa learned when he opened that door a few hours later. To be sure, Mom and her Father “discussed” the matter but, being so young, I wasn’t privy to that conversation. I do know, however, that Grandpa never soaked stoccafisso under those stairs again.
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