Baccalà alla Marchigiana

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 baccalà; 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 baccalà 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, baccalà 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 baccalà, 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 Baccalà alla Zia, my ever-so-modest Aunt would have none of it. So, to honor both her and Nonna, the recipe is called Baccalà alla Marchigiana – but you and I know its real name.

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Baccalà alla Marchigiana Recipe

Ingredients

  • 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 baccalà, soaked, and cut into 3 inch chunks (See Notes below)
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 400˚.
  2. Season potatoes with salt & pepper, toss with a splash of olive oil, and roast on a baking sheet for 20 minutes at 400˚.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat olive oil over med-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes
  4. Add garlic & parsley and continue to sauté for another minute.
  5. Add tomatoes & marjoram, bring to boil, reduce to simmer, and cook, uncovered,  for 30 minutes. If sauce is “tight”, meaning too dry, add water.
  6. Add roasted potatoes and continue simmering for another 20 minutes. Add water if necessary.
  7. Add baccalà to the tomato sauce and place pan into the 400˚ oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Taste before seasoning with salt & pepper, if necessary.
  8. Serve immediately.

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Variations

Whereas baccalà 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 baccalà to make “fish balls,” which he deep-fried. In other words, the only thing limiting how baccalà might be prepared is your own imagination. And for those who believe that fresh or frozen cod is just as good as baccalà, I caution against mouthing such heresy in the presence of Zia’s Youngest Son. A word to the wise is sufficient.

Notes

Baccalà 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 baccalà 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 baccalà 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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88 thoughts on “Baccalà alla Marchigiana

    • That episode hasn’t aired here yet but I will look for it. I’ve heard that, in Italy, baccalà is sold from tanks filled with water, thereby eliminating the need to rinse the fish for 2 days before cooking. There just isn’t that kind of demand for baccalà on this side of the Atlantic to warrant such convenience. Pity because I would surely shop there!

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  1. The last part of your story gave me a good laugh! I can even imagine the look on your mom’s face as she put that tub in your grandpa’s room! Ritchey tells of the dried fish in the markets in Africa – Congo to be exact. He said you smelled them first – far away – before actually seeing them! And, yes, he loved them!

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  2. LOL…I am just laughing over your mother frantically checking out your bedroom!! This post is so detailed and perfect! I’ve made this only once and the smell did turn me off – I thought something was wrong! I definitely need to try this again, now with your clear instructions. I didn’t have any family to fall back on to ask questions, so I love that I can “borrow” your family!!!

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    • Mom would give us every opportunity to clean that room but, when she had reached her limit, she was in there like a whirlwind and that day was no different. We were just lucky that she didn’t find anything which, when you think about it, is remarkable for a boys’ bedroom. As for the baccalà, yeah, there is an aroma about it, that’s for sure. Still, unlike stoccafisso, the smell does dissipate rather quickly once you start soaking the fish and I love it so the smell is just a minor inconvenience. And considering how similar our backgrounds are, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if our families were connected in some way. Maybe they met in some dandelion field one sunny May morning. :)

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  3. Fantastic recipe – I love salt cod but rarely make the effort to prepare it myself. We have a wonderful dish here called “brandade” that I buy from the traiteur as it’s one of those things that’s pointless attempting at home – it needs to be done in massive quantities by someone who truly knows their art.

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    • You are so right, Roger, and therein lies my problem with many of these old family recipes. They often make too much for one person, unless I plan on dining on leftovers for a few days. So, when I’m packing for a visit with Zia, I make sure to include some of these ingredients. She, too, lives alone, so, she and I pull out the old recipes, cook a dish or two, and reminisce during the process. It’s a great source of material for this blog!

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  4. John, now I know all about the fish I’ve seen, lying open in wooden flats at Groceria Italiana.
    Love the memory of childhood with your Grandfather’s fish soaking and how your mother took care of that!
    Wonderful post. I am probably not going to make the recipe but I know it would be so delicious. I should be more adventurous. At first I thought it said Michiganiana as in Detroit Michigan? Read the title too fast.
    Do you ever video Aunt Zia making something start to finish? That would be so great to see and hear.

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    • There’s no mistaking baccalà for anything else, so, if you’ve seen it, you know it! :)

      I have taken videos of Zia preparing a few dishes and have compiled videos for the family. It’s a shame that this technology wasn’t so readily available when Mom was still with us. I would love to have videos of her at work in the kitchen and she would have gotten a real kick out of all of this.

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  5. I have a feeling that we would enjoy this dish. We do like our fish prepared this way as we learned recently. I’ve never tried salted cod though. I’m going to have to keep my eyes open for it. Where did you find it?

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    • I’m sure you guys would like this, Kristy, considering how the Portuguese dish was so well-received. I buy mine from a Greek grocery but I’ve seen it in Latino markets, too. It really is a hit or miss thing. If you have a Latino section of town, head to one of the larger groceries in that area and hope for the best. If nothing else, ask the butcher if he knows where you can find some. Good luck!

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  6. That is an hilarious story! Your grandfather and his salting fish!! This must be fantastic to eat. But I am confused: please forgive me but is your aunt named Zia AND you grandmother. Just to make sure. Maybe you could draw me a quick family tree! Yes. That would be useful. You only need go back a few generations (laugh). Though I am only half kidding. Your family fascinate me! Do you have a murky day up there today? it is so damp and misty down here. c

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    • It is a fantastic dish, Celi, and I love it!

      Now, “Zia” is Aunt in Italian. She and Mom were Sisters and the Grandpa in these stories was their Father. You and my Sister share his Wife’s (Grandma’s) name, Cecilia. Better?

      The weather here is no different, more like November than a few days before Christmas. It looks like Christmas this year will be anything but white. Bah, humbug!

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    • Thanks, Eva, Mom was a real card! After 2 days, pretty much all of the salt is gone from the fish. In the recipe, just to be on the safe side, the only salt added to the dish is when the potatoes are roasted and then again at the very end, if needed. We’ve never had much of a problem with it but, then again, I wouldn’t know it any other way.

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  7. Hahahha hilarious story. I can’t even imagine how awful your grandpa’s room must have smelled. Especially with the door closed for two hours! Your mom sure showed him. ;) Anyways, this dish sounds fantastic, John. :)

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  8. Still chuckling about Nonno and his antics. Reminds me of a pal who decided the best place for a mushroom growing kit was under the matrimonial bed…well, I think you know how that one ended up! Anyway, haven´t seen Big Man all day so am just warning you that he might be on a flight from Malaga to Chicago in the hopes of Baccala for dinner with you…he adores it and I´ll have to do your version soon for him as he loves it cooked in so many different ways :)

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    • Bring him on, Tanya! I’ve just returned from my Greek market with a nice piece of baccalà, which I’ll start soaking tomorrow. There’s more than enough for 2 people. In fact, you jump on the next plane and I’ll pick you up at the airport. Of course, we may have some ‘splaining to do if “Big Man” was just busy and didn’t leave for here, but, we’ll worry about that after dinner. :)

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  9. Pingback: Christmas (vigilia) Dinner: Baccala alla Marchigiana | Le Marche and Food | Scoop.it

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  11. John I really have to salute your dedication and the love and passsion you put into every post and I really love the fact that you insisted on mentioning that it should be named after Zia..so sweet.

    I am not really into sea food but I love your recipe..so many harmonious flavors.

    P.S. I love lidia too

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    • Thank you, Sawsan, for your lovely comments.

      If you do not like seafood, this dish is not the one to convince you otherwise. Still, if we all liked and ate the same thing, what a boring world this would be! Lidia would be like every other cook — and we both know that just wouldn’t be right!

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  12. I’ve never tasted Baccala, or any of the variations, but it sounds so interesting and good. I may not make it, but I sure am going to see if I can find some to try in a local restaurant! The story of your mom placing the stoccafisso was hilarious and I’m wondering just how long it took that smell to wear off…I’m thinking clothes, bedclothes…whew! I just love reading your family stories, John, and look forward to many more. A very Merry Christmas to you and yours!

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    • If you wish to try baccalà, this is certainly the time to do it. Most Italian restaurants will feature it because it is traditionally served Christmas Eve. I love this story and it’s sure to bring a laugh whenever someone retells the tale. The day stoccafisso became a weapon! May you and your family, Betsy, have a warm and merry Christmas!

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    • You’re leaving in 2 days and, with Christmas right around the corner, you spent some precious time to write me a comment? Giovanna, you are too much! Thank you very much and I hope you have a lovely trip. Feliz Navidad!

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  13. Well I don’t know what rock I’ve been living under, but I just recently learned of the Feast of The Seven Fishes on the Food Channel last week. And I’m MARRIED to an Italian… well half. I would love to try to prepare the Feast of Seven Fishes someday. Maybe with your blog I’ll be able to! :) The Baccala looks delicious!

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    • Not all Italians celebrate The Feast and I think that all of the cooking shows on TV have probably done more for publicizing the meal than anything else. Still, it is a great meal to prepare and can be a lot of fun planning. Give it a go one year. You’ll be glad you did!

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  14. John…one of the great things about reading your blog is you’ll post something like this and I’ll in turn ask Liz about it and she’ll give me a look as if I really know nothing about food. However, I don’t care because you Italians have great food and I’m constantly expanding my horizons. Next up baccala!

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    • Thanks, Jed, but you know enough about wine & beer to make up for any (supposed) lack of knowledge about Italian home cooking. Your Thirsty Thursday posts teach me something every week, without fail.

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  15. I have certainly seen dried cod in stores, but I never knew how one would work with it! It’s so odd and unappealing if you don’t know! So this was very informative! I wanted to tell you, also, that I felt very adequate to the conversational challenge today at a workplace holiday lunch (at a great Italian restaurant), when one woman regaled the table with her Christmas Even plans— the Feast of Seven Fishes! I nodded knowingly and actually did know a lot about it, thanks to you! Have a wonderful Christmas, John. You obviously have a wonderful family–enjoy! Debra

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    • Yeah, seeing baccalà stacked in some grocery is about as unappealing as any display can possibly be. And, frankly, it isn’t until after it has soaked a while before one can begin to see its potential. Glad you found my history of the 7 Fishes useful. :) I hope you and yours, Debra, have a great Christmas!

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    • Thanks, Claire. Although baccalà can be prepared any number of ways, I think that the tomato-based Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian versions are pretty similar — at least the recipes I’ve seen are. The seasonings may be a bit different but each is equally delicious, I’m sure.

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    • Thank you so much. That picture was taken at Zia’s. It was a baccalà dinner she & I had prepared together and all of that dinner’s components and service items are instantly recognizable to us all. For this recipe, in particular, it seemed like the only way to go. I hope you and yours have a wonderful Christmas!

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  16. I really enjoyed this post today… your writing, it’s detail and comedic styling makes it so much the better for reading! I loved how you started out with such informative descriptors of this salted fish (which I have never seen/heard of before) but end with this sooo funny story about your boys’ rooms.. I love the language “foul stench” and “claims of godliness”… I’m sure you would have gotten along great with my brothers (also scenes of mess destruction:) This was some of your finest writing.. and now I have to find some baccala, I think I would like the salted version best!
    ps and yes… videos!!

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    • Thank you, Smidge, for your wonderful comments. I really did enjoy writing this post for it is a favorite memory from my youth in the two-flat. Whenever baccalà is mentioned, my Aunt, “Zia,” will recount this story and everyone laughs. It has become a part of my family’s folklore and this blog wouldn’t be complete without it being told. I’ve not put up any videos because I’m concerned for Zia’s privacy. I’ll discuss the possibility with her and the family and see what everyone thinks. In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Smidge, to you and yours!

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  17. Lovely read as always, I do love hearing about your childhood and growing up in such a culinary rich family! Not sure I have had salt cod before, trying to think but can’t come up with an occasion where I would have eaten it – best I rectify that soon! :-) Mandy

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    • Thank you, Mandy. I know salt cod is common to Scandinavia (where much of it is preserved), the Mediterranean countries, and in the Americas due to the Spanish influence. I’m not so certain about other areas of the world, however. You might be able to find it in a Spanish or Italian market, if there’s a sizable enough community to suport one. I hope you enjoy a very merry Christmas, Mandy!

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  18. Oh my…stoccafisso (which,by the way, I just misspelled as stocafiasco first…freudian slip?) under the stairs. I love that your mom thought the awful stench was coming from your room. I usually blame my son’s room for any unearthly smells as well. ;) What warm and funny memories you have of your family. I hope my son has those kind of memories of our home as well. Have a wonderful Christmas John.

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    • “Stocafiasco”, how appropriate! I love this story because it is such a great glimpse into life back then. Grandpa wanted his stoccafisso so what’s a little smell? Besides, he couldn’t smell anything up in his room. Mom gets a whiff and immediately assumes it’s coming from our room — and 99% of the time, she would have been right! And then she plays one of the greatest practical jokes of all time, exacting her revenge in the process. My family laughs about this story each and every time it’s told.

      Your son will have his memories and stories to tell, that’s for sure. It’s an inescapable part of family life. If you’re concerned, you could always buy some stoccafisso and, as they say, “watch what happens.” :)

      I hope you and yours have a very merry Christmas, Geni!

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  19. The story about your mother’s revenge with the stoccafisso is priceless. My husband used to make baccala salad for Christmas eve when his mother was alive. It was one of her favorite dishes.

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  20. Besides your family stories I think I also love just reading the ingredients in every recipe, a prelude to the goodness to come. I wish I was a more seasoned cook. I’d be making this for sure. Gotta get over my fear of failure in the kitchen. There’s only so many ways to make macaroni & cheese.

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  21. What a great story John! It put a smile on my face! This will be my families first Christmas eve not having the 7 fish dishes, I have to say, I’m kind of sad that my husband and kids will be spending Christmas Eve alone. My parents left for Italy to visit family, my sisters are all going to their in-laws for dinner, my in-laws never have Christmas eve get togethers. So I’m thinking I’ll make this dish but with fresh cod, I know it’s not the same but it will suffice.
    I can’t wait to share your recipes with my dad when he gets back from Italy, I told him we need to sit down and write his recipes down for me and my sisters.
    Buon Natale to you and your family!

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    • I bet your parents are having a great time celebrating Christmas in Italy with relatives. How special is that! Yes, I bet it will seem odd without so many family members around this Christmas Eve but, then again, it’s the perfect time for you guys to start your own holiday tradition, something that only your nuclear family does each year. My suggestion would be to involve cheesecake but that’s just how I roll. :)

      It really is a great experience to sit with Zia and go over these recipes. I’ve learned so much about her, Mom, their childhood, some relatives I didn’t even know existed, etc. I’d be willing to bet your experience will be similar. And a buon Natale to you and all of your loved ones, too!

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    • Remember: that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Babysitting a 2 year old grand-daughter at Christmas should make you one of the strongest women on the planet! Hang in there!

      You cannot mention baccalà to Zia without this story being recalled. It really is a family favorite and sure to being laughter. And you think like my Mom? I knew there was something extra special about you!

      I hope you and your family have a very special Christmas!

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  22. I was thinking I needed to hurry as there are 8 minutes of Christmas day left to wish you a wonderful Christmas but wait, we can celebrate until January 6th. Any special meals for Epiphany?
    I bet so.
    It felt great to be surrounded by those I love and who love me. We ate well, too.
    Send your snail mail address to my regular email or to cardboard.me.travels @gmail.com (created for this project) and I will jump into an envelope and head your way for the new year.
    Thanks John.
    Merry Christmas Partridge in a Pear Tree Day 1.
    Ruth

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  23. Entertaining, delicious story-telling John! what a fun & funny read! Salted cod is something I’ve been intrigued by (love about all seafood) but regrettably haven’t had the opportunity to try. Hearing that I might find it in a Greek market gives me hope I may taste it yet. Love the sounds of this preparation.
    Thanks for a good recipe and a good laugh!

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    • You’re welcome! This story is a family favorite and its mention is always met with laughter. I hope that you find salted cod in your area. Once you get it re-hydrated and de-salted, you’ll find it’s very versatile and can be prepared a number of ways. Thanks, for visiting and subscribing. I’ll see you around your place, too!

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  24. Ha! Old Spice covers a multitude of sin … wait, no, that’s love. Sounds like neither was gonna take care of that fish, LOL. Reminds me of my mom making goat cheese under the kitchen sink (no, I don’t know why she chose that spot). She was a novice to be sure, so occasionally when the cheese went “south” no one wanted to do the dishes (of course, no one wanted to anyway). Fun food stories are my favorite, always make my heart smile :)

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    • Thanks, Judy. Yes, to this day, I think of Grandpa if I catch even the slightest whiff of Old Spice. I, too, dabble in making cheese and when it goes “south,” it can be quite unpleasant. Having to wash dishes so close to a bad batch must have made the chore so much more an ordeal! I believe that food stories unite us. After all, everyone must eat a few times daily and usually do so with company. The resulting stories are bound to hit a responsive chord with most, at some level. We’ve all been there, in one way or another.

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  25. Oh poor Grandpa! This recipe sounds wonderful. Lo Jardinier has just ordered some bacalao from our village shop to make fish balls, accras, when our family are here at the weekend. Now I’m hoping there’ll be some left over to make this with as well!

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    • Those fish balls sound wonderful! How will you prepare them? I’d love to try to make them. Sounds like you’re planning quite a nice dinner for your family this weekend. I hope it goes even better than you’ve hoped!

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  26. I’m enjoying reading about your journey of making old family recipes with your Aunt and documenting them on your blog. I’ve been thinking I need to spend some time with my Mom, making some of the “old country” dishes from Belgium, so I can pass those along to my children as well. No salted cod in my background, but I developed a real fondness for pickled herring from my Dad. When my kids were all still at home, just getting the jar out of the fridge was a good way to clear the room and buy me a little peace and quiet, but that’s another story… :)

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    • Thank you so much! I do hope you’re able to sit with your Mom and go over her recipes. If the experience is anything like mine, you’re in for a real treat! Each recipe came with its own memories and anecdotes. I’ve learned so much about my family, not to mention some pretty good recipes, too. And I’m with ya about the pickled herring. I love it, too. :)

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  27. Hahaha! I can only imagine the smell coming from under that bed! I have never seen dried cod at my grocery store (but then again I have never looked) I need to keep an eye out. This recipe sounds great! :)

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    • Yeah, Mom sure showed Grandpa! LOL Our regular groceries don’t carry baccalà, or at least I’ve never seen it. My Greek market always has it, though, so I’ve little need to search further. The great thing about this blog, from my perspective, is that I’ve been re-acquainted with a number of these old recipes — and the memories that come with ‘em. It’s a win-win for me.

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  30. That’s a great story! And a great post. I’ve eaten, but never prepared, baccala. And it’s one of those things on my list of stuff to cook! (I think I’ve been interested in salt cod ever since I read Captains Courageous as a kid.) Anyway, I know the preparation is relatively easy. Trivial, actually, for anyone who has prepared a country ham (you know — scrub off the mold, then soak to remove some of the salt). Around here most of the salt cod I see is sold in little wooden boxes, although I sometimes see proper size pieces (like the one you illustrated). Anyway, super post. Thank you.

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    • Captains Courageous! In 6th Grade, we were assigned 2 books, one per semester. Treasure Island was the first and Captains Courageous the second. We had to prepare a booklet that included a plot outline and drawings of the characters. Not only did the assignments suck the joy out of reading those 2 books, it proved for all that I have absolutely no talent for drawing sketches or portraiture.
      Writing that post re-introduced baccalà into my diet — and I’m very thankful for that. You’re also right that if you’ve prepared a country ham, you can certainly handle the prep of a piece of baccalà. Give it a shot! :)

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    • THe area of Italy that Mom’s family comes from, Ancona in Marche, was once the port where all of Italy’s salted cod arrived. They are known for their cod dishes. This recipe is about as authentic as it gets. I’d not had it for decades and writing this blog re-introduced the dish to me. That’s quite a nice little benefit of this blogging thingee. :)

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