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Baccalà

Unexpected delight from Salt Cod

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Baccalà in a tomato sauce
Italy Chronicles Photos/Flickr
Baccalà is salt cod 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 when Friday loomed and no fresh fish was available. Artusi, in presenting recipes for baccalà in his Scienza in Cucina, repeatedly warns his diners not to expect miracles. However, there are more recipes for it than for almost any other kind of fish, a sure indication that it met with his favor.

And well it might -- 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 cod from three to six feet long, spit them, salt them for about ten 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.

Since it is salted, all baccalà requires soaking before it can be used. 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 slats that are 12 to 18 inches long (7-15 by 30-45 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 it and soak it in cold water for 12 or more hours, depending upon its thickness (refrigerate it in hot weather), changing the water 2-3 times daily. Once it has soaked skin it, pick out the bones, and it's ready for use.

Baccalà Recipes:

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