Like most Italian ingredients, baccala or salted cod started life as something only the poor people would eat. Since fresh fish was well out of their budgets, they would make what little they had last by curing it under an extremely thick layer of salt. The board of cod – seriously, it’s so hard, you could kill someone with it – would then sit happily in the cool room for weeks without going bad.
My grandmother was born in 1920s Calabria and she’s an amazing cook. I’m working on a cookbook of all her recipes at the moment and she has a killer one with baccala. So I went to my local fishmonger’s to buy some and almost fainted when I saw it cost 17€ a kilo! It seems what was once poor people’s food is now a luxury item!
Still, I bought some anyway and turned it into this gorgeous stew that’s perfect for a winter’s day.
You can buy baccala salt-cured or already soaked. If it’s the latter, you can use it straight away. Otherwise, you’ll need to soak it in water in the fridge for 3 days. Remember to change the water once or twice a day. Here’s the before and after!
- 1/2 white onion
- 1 clove garlic
- handful of parsley
- 250ml tomato pasta sauce
- 3-4 pieces of soaked baccala
- fresh bread, to serve
Dice your onion, garlic and parsley and chuck them in a casserole dish with a good lug of olive oil. Fry over low heat until the vegetables are soft (8-10 minutes) then pour in your tomato sauce, lower the heat right down to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes covered.
Add your baccala and stir carefully to stop the pieces from breaking into a crumbly mess and cook covered for another 20 minutes or until the cod is soft. Season to taste (be careful, the baccala is pretty salty on its own) and serve with freshly sliced Italian bread.
What does baccala taste like? Even though its been salt-cured, it doesn’t taste like other cured fish like anchovies or smoked herring. Cod stands up really well to soaking and preserves most of its flavour. It’s a little bit saltier, but the meat is fleshy and flavoursome and very much like any other fresh white-fleshed fish, which makes it perfect for this tomato sauce.