Adventure with Baccala

Adventure with Baccala

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

I ate baccala at a place in Rome that a friend turned me on to. I really couldn’t remember the name of the place but I knew that it was close to Campo di Fiori. I used Google Maps to get oriented and then went looking around using the Street View feature and, mamma mia!, there it was, Filleti di Baccala. I was there in December and had the obligatory breaded and fried baccala along with a salad of puntarella with an anchovy-garlic dressing, which is a great combination. I’ve never seen that chicory kind of green anywhere but Rome and it’s only available in winter at that.

After that aside into puntarella land, on to the baccala. Baccala, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is salt cod. It is dry and almost stiff as a board and keeps forever without refrigeration which was a very desireable attribute. I wandered into G.B Ratto’s in downtown Oakland (to see more about Ratto’s click here) and there it was, a box full of baccala. I’ve eaten it as noted above and certainly read about it but never have given it a try myself. In the heyday of cod and especially the Grand Banks this stuff sold by the shipload all over the world and still is said to be the most popular fish in Italy. (Could that really be true when there is such great fish available there?) Still I like a challenge and decided to go for it. The stuff is no longer cheap like it must have been at one time. I selected a piece and the clerk wrapped it up for me. It was almost two pounds and at over $17 as pound there was a bit of sticker shock. Of course when I started preparing this stuff I realized (doh!) that since it is dried it takes about half as much as fresh fish since it gains all of that water back. So I only soaked half of it and that was still enough for 3 meals for me and the lovely D. First the soaking part. Soak for 2 or 3 days and change the water at least twice a day. The story is that some in Italy would put the fish in the water tank of the toilet and let the natural rhythm of usage take care of the water changes. Uh, not for me! I decided to do the manual changes. So after a couple of days I was ready to go. For the recipe I turned to another of my favorite Italian cookbook authors, Carol Field. Highly recommended - who can go wrong with grandmother?The book is “In Nonna’s Kitchen”. What could be better than recipes from Italian grandmothers? The recipe actually calls for stoccafisso which is cod dried without the salting and is apparently hard enough to pound nails. You make this recipe in the oven by layering tomatoes, cod and potatoes and topping it off with a combination of parsley, garlic and breadcrumbs drizzled with olive oil and a little wine. It came out pretty good. The cod has an interesting consistency since even soaked and baked it is a little more dense than it’s fresh brethren. So it was good but was it worth all of that soaking? Maybe not. Still it was fun to try. I did another dish with the baccala cooked Venetian style, slow cooked with milk, and served over soft polenta but didn’t include the recipe here. If you’re interested I can direct you to the recipe or send it to you. It’s included in the photos below.

Stoccafisso della Cantino Sociale di Valdinaevola

(that’s a mouthful but you’ll need to see Carol’s book to get the story behind it)

The recipe is for 4 to 6 (I halved it and still had plenty left over from feeding 2)

12 oz baccala soaked for 3 days

2 large ripe tomatoes – thinly sliced (she says cut in half but that makes no sense)

3 small baking potatoes – peeled and sliced

salt and pepper

2 garlic cloves – minced

1/3 cup minced parsley – minced

½ cup dried bread crumbs

1/3 cup white wine

1- 2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

very little mile (so what does that mean? – I used about 1 tablespoon for ½ recipe)

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly oil the bottom a a baking dish big enough for half of the fish in one layer. Lay down a layer of tomatoes. Cut the filets in half crosswise and put a layer of the fish on top of the tomatoes. Follow this with a layer of the potatoes. Put a little salt and pepper on each layer. Repeat with tomatoes, fish and potatoes followed by a final layer of tomatoes. Mix the parlsey, garlic and breadcrumbs and strew over the top. Season with salt and pepper. Mix the water, wine and olive oil and our over the top. Cover with foil and bake for and hour and 20 minutes. Remove from the over and sprinkle with the milk. Return to the over 10 minutes and you’re ready to eat.

Any experiences with baccala, puntarella or any other very regional foods? What about that statement about baccala being the most popular fish in Italy? Could that possibly be true or was the the salt cod lobbying association at work? By the way, I still have half of the dried cod left. Any recommendations about how I should use it?

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