Baccalà is salt cod (cod fish that has been preserved by packing in salt and drying) sold by the slab, an unlikely food to get excited over. Indeed, for much of its history, nobody did; it was cheap and kept very well, which made it an ideal food for the poor, and for others too, on Fridays (when eating meat was forbidden) and no fresh fish was available. It was a staple food for many people in the days before refrigeration, eventually finding its way into many different cuisines throughout the world, particularly in the Mediterranean.
Famed Italian food writer Pellegrino Artusi, in presenting recipes for baccalà in his cookbook La Scienza in Cucina, repeatedly warned his readers not to expect miracles. However, he included more recipes for baccalà than for almost any other kind of fish, an indication that it met with his favor.
The truth is that well-cooked baccalà is a delight: Firm, slightly chewy, and not at all fishy in flavor. Italians import baccalà, and though most now comes from Norway, some hold that its roots lie with the Portuguese. In any case, the traditional technique for producing high-quality baccalà is to take three- to six-foot-long cod, split them, salt them for about 10 days, and partially dry them. There are a number of different grades of baccalà; before overfishing took its toll, the best came from fish caught off Labrador, in northeastern Canada.
Since it is heavily salted for preservation, all baccalà requires soaking before it can be used. Many Italian delicatessens sell pre-soaked baccalà on Fridays, but I prefer to buy it and soak it myself -- it's cheaper, and I can select the piece I want and tailor the soaking to fit it. Salted baccalà comes 1/2- to 1-inch thick, in 3- to 6-inch wide pieces that are 12 to 18 inches long (7 to 15 cm by 30 to 45 cm), and are white on the flesh side. The flesh should be pliable, compact, and not feel woody; you should try to select a piece of uniform thickness so it will soak evenly.
To prepare it, rinse the salt off and soak it in cold water for 12 or more hours, depending upon its thickness (refrigerate it during soaking in hot weather), changing the water 2 to 3 times. Once it has soaked, skin it, pick out the bones, and it's ready for use.
[Edited by Danette St. Onge]
Ways to Prepare Baccalà
- Baccalà Vicentina Style, or Baccalà a la Visentina
This is actually stockfish or dried cod -- what the rest of Italy calls stoccafisso the Vicentini call baccalà -- simmered in milk until it becomes libidinously creamy.
- Baccalà Bollito
Boiled baccalà is very simple but very tasty.
- Baccalà alla fiorentina
Florentine-style baccalà cooked simply, with tomatoes and wine.
- Baccalà alla livornese
Tuscan-style baccalà in tomato sauce, from the coastal town of Livorno.
- Baccalà Fritto
Fried baccalà is simplicity in itself.
- Baccalà Indorato
Fried baccalà with an egg or flour batter.
- Baccalà alla Vicentina & alla Cappuccina
Two classic preparations of the Veneto region: Simmered in milk (with garlic and other delights) and with a green sauce.
- Baccalà in Graticola con Peperoni
Grilled (or broiled) baccalà with roasted peppers on the side.
- Patate e Baccalà
Baccalà with a tomatoey sauce, on a bed of potatoes.
- Peperoni Ripieni di Riso e Baccalà
The combination of stuffed bell peppers and fish is quite successful, and these will be perfect in hot weather.