In the last week or so several people have asked me about baccalà mantecato, knowing that I always make it for Christmas Eve. This salt cod preparation is not my usual Southern Italian fare. It comes from Venice, and it’s essentially the same as Provençale brandade. I’ve had versions of it in Liguria, too. It’s fluffy (mantecare means to whip) and mellow. People who say they don’t like baccalà almost always like this. It’s traditionally been the opener to my big Christmas Eve fish dinner. It’s a perfect fit with couscous-stuffed shrimp, spaghetti with clam sauce, zuppa di pesce, orange and fennel salad, or whatever I decide on for any given year.
Christmas Eve has always been my favorite holiday meal. Its food incorporates many of my favorite flavors, such as baccalà, and is pure joy for me to prepare. Lots of fish, lots of wine and candles, lots of people, lots of drama. Unfortunately, Christmas has now become quite hard for my family and me. A few years ago my mother had an operation that has, so far, left her unable to eat by mouth, a frustrating situation for anyone but in a food-centric Italian family like ours, up there in the realm of heartbreak. It’s almost impossible for her and us kids to get around this, taking a lot of creative thinking to shift the focus from the traditional food-heavy Christmas Eve and go in a more forgiving direction. A return to Catholicism doesn’t seem to be an option. Music helps, Verdi, Modugno, but the forbidden heart of the evening is always there, the platters of shrimp, the aroma of garlic and mint, the gorgeous color of blood oranges. What to do? What I do now is cut way way back. At first I found this upsetting, but now it’s really okay, actually the only way.
I might not be making seven or thirteen fish dishes this year. They, from experience, would just make my mother withdraw into a dark place. But nothing’s going to stop me from making this baccalà.
We all have our problems, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a Merry Christmas. Best to you.
Baccalà Mantecato and Peperonata Bruschetta
(Serves 5 or 6 as an antipasto)
1½ pounds salt cod (try to get the thicker middle section, which has fewer bones and less skin 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
About a dozen slices of Italian bread
2 roasted red bell peppers, skinned, seeded, and cut into thick strips
Sprigs of marjoram for garnish
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. 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 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 any bones and 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 2 or 3 tablespoons of milk, and pulse again. You shouldn’t need any salt.
Scrape the baccalà from the food processor, and spoon it into a bowl.
Toss the roasted pepper strips in a little olive oil, and season with a pinch of salt.
When you’re ready to serve, place the bread slices on a sheet pan, and toast them on one side under a broiler. Take them out, give them a flip, and spoon some baccala mantecato on each one. Top with two strips of the roasted pepper (a cross pattern would be in spirit). Now put them back under the broiler to lightly toast the bread and warm the cod, about a minute or so. Garnish with marjoram sprigs, and serve warm.