Recipe: Baccalà Mantecato
In the last week or so several people have asked me about this salt cod dish, knowing I always make it for Christmas Eve. Baccalà mantecato (mantecare means to whip) is a Venetian dish, but it’s essentially the same as Provençale brandade. I’ve had versions of it in Naples too, but whipped-up, creamy salt cod is not as popular there as dishes where the salt cod is left in chunks and simply simmered with potatoes, tons of onion, white wine, and possibly tomatoes. It can include raisins, pine nuts, or capers, too, or all three.
I’ve always loved this creamy preparation, which by the way is made without cream; it gets its lovely texture from whipping poached salt cod with olive oil and sometimes a little cooked potato. You can do this with a whisk, a potato masher, your fist, or in a food processor, if you pulse quickly and gently (too much processing will make it overly smooth and possibly gummy, especially if you add a lot of potato). I’ve got the food processor thing down.
Salt cod is a unique taste, one that I crave, but to keep it special I save it for Christmas Eve, plus I don’t love soaking salt cod all that much, since it stinks up the kitchen. The cats do however love clawing and chewing at it while it soaks (I once found a huge piece pulled from the pot and dragged under the bathroom rug). They also like the finished dish. A beautiful white dish for two beautiful white cats. If you’ve got any old people or cats with no teeth to feed on Christmas Eve, this is the perfect thing.
And for your listening pleasure, here’s Louis Prima, doing what he did best, singing about baccalà:
(Serves 5 or 6 as an antipasto)
1½ pounds salt cod (try to get the thicker middle section, which has fewer bones to deal with)
1 fresh bay leaf
½ cup dry white wine
1 baking potato, cooked soft, peeled, and roughly mashed
1 large garlic clove, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A few big gratings of nutmeg
5 or 6 thyme sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
A few tablespoons of milk
¾ cup homemade breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
A handful of black olives
Toasted crostini made from slices of baguette, brushed with a little olive oil
You’ll need to soak the salt cod in a big pot of cold water for about a day and a half, changing the water a bunch of times and putting the pot in the refrigerator overnight. Toward the end, taste a bit to see if a sufficient amount of salt has leeched out of it. If not, soak it a little longer. Then drain it.
Place the salt cod, cut into pieces if necessary, in a large skillet. Add the bay leaf, and pour on the white wine. Add enough cool water to just cover the cod. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to very low. Cover the skillet, and gently simmer the cod until it just begins to flake. This should take only about 15 minutes, maybe even less, if you’ve got thin cuts. If it cooks any longer, it might become dry. Take the cod from the skillet, and when it’s cool enough to handle, pull off the bones and the skin.
Put the cod in a food processor, and give it a couple of pulses. Add the potato, the garlic, about ¼ cup of your best olive oil, and the lemon zest, thyme, nutmeg, and some black pepper. Give it a few more pulses. You want a texture that’s creamy but not completely smooth. Add about 2 tablespoons of milk, and pulse again. You shouldn’t need any salt.
Scrape the baccalà from the food processor, and spoon it into a shallow baking dish. Top with the breadcrumbs, and drizzle the top with olive oil.
When you’re ready to serve it, heat the oven to 425 degrees, and heat the baccalà through, about 10 minutes. If the breadcrumbs don’t turn golden, run the thing under a broiler for a minute. Scatter on the olives, and serve with the crostini.