Here’s a bit of trivia for you – Italy is second among nations in the consumption of baccalà. What is baccalà, you might ask?
Baccalà is merluzzo, or cod, which has been salt-dried, and is later rehydrated, cooked and consumed. Baccalà is a relative to stoccafisso, or stockfish. Legend has it that Norwegian Vikings used to air-dry cod and take it with them for nourishment on their overseas travels. At the same time or shortly thereafter, whale hunters from Spain’s Basque Country devised a similar plan to support their nutrition needs on whale hunting trips. Due to the higher temperatures in the Southern Mediterranean, though, the Basque people salt-dried their cod instead of air-drying it, to save themselves from an otherwise very fishy-smelling voyage.
Once considered a food of the people, baccalà is now a delicacy across all of Italy, and is prepared in a multitude of ways, in venues ranging from the household Italian kitchens to high end restaurants. Recipes abound, their names often reflecting an Italian region or city: baccalà alla vicentina, baccalà alla livornese, baccalà alla romana, baccalà alla napoletana, baccalà alla calabrese.
Baccalà is also essential to la Cucina Romana. Filetti di baccalà are reliably found on the menù of all Roman pizzerie. These batter-fried pieces of baccalà are the Eternal City’s preferred pre-pizza appetizer. Moreover, entire baccalà stores, called baccalerie, supply any type of baccalà or stoccafisso you desire. Alimentari Micheangeli, located in the working class Roman neighborhood of Centocelle, is one such baccaleria.
When Stefano was a bambino, his grandmother had a little neighborhood alimentari, where she sold salt-dried baccalà, and also had a large basin of cold water with rehydrated baccalà ready for shoppers to buy and cook. Baccalà con patate, a favorite of Stefano’s father, Andrea, was a frequent meal in their household during his childhood.
Remember, you need to start soaking the baccalà the night before!
Ingredients for 4-6 servings
One filetto di baccalà (salt cod fillet)
Half of a medium onion
8-12 medium potatoes
1 28-oz. can (in Europe, a 1 kg. can) of plum tomatoes
1/3 olive oil
At least 24 hours prior, place the salt cod fillet to soak in cold water. Change the water every 3-4 hours as possible (don’t worry about changing the water overnight).
Chop the onion and cut the potatoes into small, uniform pieces. Place the potatoes and onion into a large pan with 1/3 cup of olive oil. Add the tomatoes, passing them through a food mill first. If you don’t have a food mill, use crushed tomatoes, or run the whole tomatoes though a food processor or blender.
Add a glass of water, cover, and cook over medium-low heat for 20-30 minutes until the potatoes are soft, adding water and lowering the heat as needed to prevent it from burning. You do not need to salt the mixture – your fish will provide enough salt once you add it.
Remove the fish from the water, rinse it and pat it dry. Cut the fish into portion-sized pieces, and add it to the potato, onion and tomatoes. Cook covered for approximately another 20 minutes, time for the baccalà to become tender and release its flavors. After 10 minutes, taste for salt and add a bit if needed.
Serve hot with crusty bread and a chilled glass of crisp, earthy white wine that can stand up to the saltiness of baccalà, such as Verdicchio or Frascati.