If God had intended us to follow recipes, He wouldn't have given us grandmothers.
My love of cooking began in my Nonna’s kitchen. That is where we spent so much of our time, where we bonded, and where she first taught me about food. What I enjoyed most were those wonderfully simple and hearty dishes that had been carried over across the Atlantic from the “Old Country.” They felt less like recipes than they did traditions: knowledge that was being handed down from one generation to the next. Even now, whenever I’m in the kitchen I’m reminded of her. One of my Nonna’s best dishes was baccala, a simple stew of salt cod.
The History of Baccala
Fish preserved in salt -- mostly anchovies, eels, sardines, herring, tuna -- had been a part of European cuisine since antiquity. Baccala -- the Italian word for salt cod -- entered the Mediterranean diet sometime in the fifteenth century. European fishermen, mostly from England, Ireland, and parts of Spain had been visiting the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland for much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but they were few in number and travelling in small boats, and so their trade was limited. Only in the fifteenth century, when more and larger ships began to visit the Grand Banks, did the North Atlantic fish trade begin apace. The salt pans of the Mediterranean provided Northern fishermen with the necessary salt to preserve their catches. A string of poor harvests, coupled with the general poverty of the Mediterranean fish stocks, created a ready market. Cod was plentiful and could be had for cheap and it quickly became a staple in the diet of Italy's poor.
Most every region of Italy found its own way of preparing baccala. Some as stews, others as baked dishes, and some still as fritters. Likely each will also insist that their way is the only real way of preparing baccala. My Nonna’s recipe combines the traditions of two places: Vicentina and Livorno. Together, they produce a stew that is at once simple and rich, hearty and delicious.
Preparing the Baccala
Before salt cod can be cooked, it must first swim again. The first step in preparing baccala is to return the salt cod to something more resembling its fresh state. When buying salt cod, make sure you piece of baccala is close to white in colour, clean, and smells of fish. Even though it has been preserved, it should still retain its “fishy” smell. Bad baccala will look brown or grey in colour and smell "off."
At least two days prior to cooking, and probably three, thoroughly wash off all the salt that has collected on the fish. Next, soak the fish in a container what will hold a lot of water. The fish should soak for at least forty-eight hours and the water should be changed at least twice, and if possible, three times a day. While the fish is soaking, store it in a cool place. One method to speed up the soaking process is to cut the fish into smaller pieces beforehand. The smaller pieces of baccala will absorb water and lose salt faster than a larger piece will.
Cooking the Baccala
After those two or three days have passed, remove the baccala from the water. It should be, more or less, like a piece of fresh fish. Rinse it off under cool running water to remove the last bits of salted water and dry with a paper towel. Cut the baccala into similarly sized pieces, usually about two inches by two inches will do. Next, dredge each piece in flour. Here I’m using kamut flour but regular all-purpose flour will do just as well. Once done, set the dredged fish aside for now.
Set a large pan over medium heat. To that add a generous amount of olive oil, a few peppercorns, the tiniest pinch of crushed chili peppers, and a couple of bay leaves. Next add a one large onion that has been diced, two finely chopped celery stalks, and three cloves of garlic that have been crushed and finely chopped and allow them to cook until golden. Add to that a splash of white wine.
Next, add the baccala pieces and let cook for about five minutes or so on each side until they've browned. Add to this about one and one quarter cups of tomato. You can use whole tomatoes for this recipe, but I prefer to run them through a food mill before adding them to the pan. For this I use the same San Marzano tomatoes that I use for pizza. My Nonna often used tomatoes that had been peeled and jarred in the summertime. As always, tomato quality is very important. Too acidic and the tomatoes can ruin the dish; too flavourless and they'll just leave the meal bland and boring.
Bring the tomatoes to a simmer over medium heat and then add about one half of a cup of milk or cream along with a handful of parmesean cheese. Continue to cook over medium to low heat for another forty-five minutes to an hour. I was taught to hold off for as long as possible before adding any salt to the dish. Checking the seasoning with a dish like this is important. The cod can retain some of its saltiness but it is often difficult or impossible to predict how much. Adding any additional salt and pepper towards the end, once you've been able to taste the baccala, keeps you from over seasoning the dish.
Enjoying the Baccala
With its flavourful and creamy sauce, baccala is best served alongside, or atop of, a stiff polenta. In a pinch, some crusty Italian bread will do. Italian parsley also makes for an excellent garnish, adding a bit of fresh colour and flavour to the meal.
I've considered using fresh cod for this recipe. The results should be much the same and it would save the process of soaking the fish and the hassle of changing a large pot of water every eight hours or so. But I think that would be a mistake. Making baccala is about more than the meal for this bear chef. The tradition would be broken that way and the connection would be lost. It might be harder, but it feels right to do this the way my Nonna taught me.
P.S. Sorry about the poor quality on the prep pictures. My digital camera wasn't handy and so I had to use the camera on my cell phone.
P.P.S. The title of this article comes from the sticker that my Nonna placed on the front inside cover of each of her books. As I was looking through one of her cookbooks to learn a bit about the history of baccala, I came across one of those stickers. It struck me as the best, most appropriate title for a talk about this recipe and these memories.