Baccalà with Sweet Onion and Little Tomatoes
This Christmas I received two e-mails from readers whose Christmas Eve baccalà recipes had gone awry. I think I know why: People don’t often cook salt cod anymore, so when they try tackling a family recipe for a special occasion they don’t bring to the effort any experience working with the stuff. I decided to look into the matter and try an analyze what went wrong. Both letters were from people whose families were from the Naples area, one from Sorrento, the other from around Gaeta, so we’re really entrenched in Southern Italian style here. Both recipes used similar ingredients and were quite like the baccalà dish I often make for my own Christmas Eve dinner. So I thought I’d have a go at them.
Here are the letters I received:
Happy New Year to you.
This Christmas Eve I tried to make a baccalà recipe of my grandmother’s that she always served as part of our big fish dinner. I don’t think anyone in my family has made this dish for at least twenty years, but I wanted to try, since I remember really liking it and didn’t want it to be forgotten. I remembered it contained slices of potatoes and capers or green olives, so I just improvised. It came out okay. The taste was more or less the same, but the texture was not good. The fish was very dry. I remember the baccalà being tender and moist. I don’t know what happened. Maybe I didn’t buy the right kind of baccalà. I know my grandmother always used salt cod, not the hard stockfish, and that’s what I bought. I also remember her baccalà being brothy. I didn’t know how to create broth, so I added water, and it tasted watery. I remember this dish having no tomatoes, so I’m not sure where the broth came from.
If you know a recipe like this or could help me figure this out, I’d be very happy, since I’d love to try to make it again next year and do it right. My grandmother is from a small town near Gaeta, north of Naples, and I know that’s where the recipe comes from.
And the second letter:
I just bought octopus, scallops, shrimp and squid for the frutta di mare to bring to my parents’ place for Christmas Eve. I’m also going to surprise my father with some baccalà, which probably only he and I will eat. I can’t remember how his mother cooked it, so I’m going to wing it. Maybe if he describes it after the surprise I’ll have a “lost recipe” for you to come up with.
And his follow-up after Christmas Eve:
No luck in trying to recreate my grandmother’s baccalà recipe. After my father ate my attempt Christmas Eve, I asked him how his mother had made it, and he said, “She made it with potato.” There were about five medium Yukon golds sliced in among the pound of so of cod, so I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing this with him any further. I adapted a recipe from an old Romagnoli fish cookery book. The book has a pretty good variety of recipes, but I took the one that looked pretty basic and tried to make it like Grandma did, layering in a baking dish some sliced potato, a layer of thinly slivered onions, the baccalà, some finely chopped mixed rosemary and parsley, and a dab of canned tomato, deseeded and hand squeezed over the fish. Other layers followed, topped off with potato on top with a little more parsley/rosemary and generous drizzlings of oil. And then baked. Or rather baked in a somewhat slow oven, since Flavia accidentally turned it off when she thought she was turning off a burner! Took a little longer to brown, and maybe the potatoes got a little soggy. My suspicion is that Grandma might have used quite a bit more tomato, and frankly that wouldn’t have been a bad idea, since the dish was a little dry for my taste.
George is an old friend, and I remember hanging around his grandmother’s kitchen a few days before Christmas Eve one year, probably in the mid-l970s, when she was preparing, to my amazement, a whole octopus. She patted the giant thing dry and then sat it up on a sheet pan and shoved it in the oven, no olive oil, salt, nothing. This strange, austere kitchen image has stuck in my mind all through the years. I don’t remember watching her make baccalà, though, but I know it was always part of their big, very traditional Christmas Eve dinner.
My family never made baccalà for Christmas Eve; it was deemed too smelly and Old World. But I became extremely interested in it and started making it for Christmas Eve myself ten or so years ago. I love the unique taste the salting produces, a sort of gentle rich cure with the taste of fresh cod poking through. I looked up several versions, all from the Campania region around Naples, as it turned out, and worked out a personal recipe that I love. The recipes I looked at fell into three categories: with tomatoes; with onions and potatoes; and with onions, potatoes, and a touch of tomatoes. I focused on the third style and played around it with for a few Christmases until I decided on a recipe I liked and pretty much stuck with it. The onion-and-potato version seems to be what my two readers were struggling with this Christmas Eve (although George’s dish did contain a little bit of tomato). The big difference is that Camille’s dish, like the one I always make, is basically a braise, while George’s grandmother’s baccalà is baked. I can see how texture could become a problem with both approaches, and I believe that is where the problems lay.
One of the things I’ve learned about salt cod is that it’s really fish, something one can loose sight of while working with it in the form of stinking, hard boards. Once desalted, baccalà cooks in the same time a piece of fresh cod would cook in. I think many people assume that since it looks so stiff and weird, it’s something that can simmer and braise forever, like stew beef. In fact long cooking makes it tough and dry. I suspect this is what happened to Camille Riccio, producing her dried-out baccalà. Twenty minutes, low heat simmering, tops, will give you a nice, moist result. It also helps to buy the thick inner cuts of baccalà, which are meatier and have less bones and skin. The skinny tail cuts are usually full of crud, and they’re also very easy to overcook.
Camille and George both complained that what they made lacked moisture. Juice from tomatoes is always a good way to add moisture, but when I want to make a “white” version, like Camille made, I always add a little wine and then add some type of broth, or a mix of broth and water. For my baccalà I start with a splash of Marsala and then add chicken broth and a little water. I then scatter in a few cherry tomatoes and let them just heat through. I understand that Christmas Eve is supposed to be a meatless night, so for the devoted, a light fish broth will work fine (and since you’re usually making a few seafood dishes for the occasion, you’ll probably have fish trimmings and stuff like shrimp shells hanging around to make a quick little broth with). And I always add a fresh drizzle of good olive oil before bringing the baccalà to the table, for both flavor and moisture.
In George’s case, his sister Flavia’s turning off the oven was his main problem. I think had the dish baked at a steady, medium heat with no interruptions, he probably would have come up with something with more integrity, certainly something less mushy, although I have to say that layered, baked dishes with fish can be tricky. I remember trying to make a Puglian recipe called tiedda, a casserole layered with potatoes or rice and various types of fish or mussels, when I was putting together my book The Flavors of Southern Italy. The texture, even after a few tries, was just unappealing to me. By the time the potatoes or rice got cooked the seafood was hammered to death. That might be an intrinsic problem with George’s recipe too. It also occurs to me (and maybe to George) that this could be the way the thing was supposed to be, sort of an old-fashioned taste and texture that just doesn’t seem right anymore. And of course there’s the “nothing could taste as good as Mom’s” factor to contend with.
Here is my Christmas Eve baccalà. It’s closer in technique to Camille’s recipe, but the flavors are maybe more similar to George’s, since I also use a little rosemary and the touch of tomato. So I’m hoping this will be the best of both recipes and will make everyone happy.
Baccalà with Sweet Onion and Little Tomatoes
(Serves 4 as a main course)
1 pound salt cold, choosing the thick middle cut, sliced into approximately 2-inch-wide chunks (easiest to do with a good kitchen scissor)
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (not the baby ones), peeled and thickly sliced
About 8 scrapings of nutmeg
3 sprigs fresh thyme, the leaves chopped
1 sprig rosemary, the leaves chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
A splash of dry Marsala
1 cup light chicken broth, either homemade or low-salt canned
About a dozen grape tomatoes, cut in half
A handful of flat-leaf Italian parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
Salt, if needed
Soak the salt cod in cold water for at least 24 hours, changing the water 10 times to remove excess salt. Taste a piece of cod to see if enough salt has been drawn out. If it still tastes excessively salty, soak it for another 6 hours.
Dry the cod pieces with paper towels. In a skillet large enough to hold everything more or less in one layer, heat about three tablespoons of olive oil over high heat. Add the cod, skin side up, and brown it on one side. Lift the cod from the skillet, and set it aside a moment. Turn the heat to medium, and add the onion and the potatoes, and sprinkle with the nutmeg, thyme, rosemary, and some black pepper. Sauté for a few minutes to brown everything lightly. Add the splash of Marsala, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down a bit, and simmer, uncovered, for about 5 minutes.
Put the cod back in the skillet, and simmer, covered, until the cod and potatoes are both tender, about 10 to 12 minutes (the really thick pieces of cod should be turned once so they cook evenly). When done, the cod will flake when poked through with a knife. In the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the grape tomatoes. You should have about an inch of liquid left in the pan (add a splash of warm water if you don’t). Add the parsley. Taste to see if it needs salt (it may or may not, depending on the saltiness of your cod). Drizzle with fresh olive oil, and give it a few grindings of black pepper. To serve, lift the cod pieces out, and place them on a large, warmed platter. Pour the potatoes and the rest of the sauce over the top.