Baccalà. If you’ve never heard of the word, then welcome to my childhood nightmare. Being old school Italians, my grandmother refused to relinquish salt cod when she immigrated to Australia. We come from a pretty landlocked part of Calabria in Southern Italy. Our fish had to be cured or it would have survived the journey in post-WWII Italy. I’m not sure if they ate it out of habit or because they really liked the taste, but my grandmother continued to rustle it up from god knows where all through the ’60s,’70s,’80s and ’90s, well before big name chefs were using it in ridiculously expensive modern Italian restaurants throughout Australia.
One of life’s little mysteries will be how my grandmother – who spoke no English – managed to find seriously niche Italian ingredients like baccalà in suburban Melbourne. She thanked her supplier. I despised him.
The salt cod arrived in my nonna’s very brown mod kitchen in one giant slab. The fish was hidden under a crust of sea salt so thick, you could scrap off layers before you got a glimpse of cod… or another white flesh fish masquerading as cod, it was impossible to tell. Whatever it was, it was rock hard. Rigor mortis hard. It was as if the poor fish had died two deaths.
Whenever nonna pulled it out of its white paper wrapping, I ran for the hills and made sure I didn’t visit her for at least 3 days. That’s how long it took to thaw this thing. You had to soak the fish for 72 hours changing the water twice daily until it morphed into this opaque and slimy creature that looked like it had been reanimated by Dr Frankenstein himself. If you made the mistake of licking the fish at this point – which I did once when nonna wasn’t looking – it was so salty, it’d burn the tastebuds right off your tongue.
After rinsing it again for what felt like an infinite amount of times, the baccalà or salt cod was ready to be cooked and served, usually around Christmas, when my nonna would breadcrumb it and pass it off as fish and chips, minus the chips.
You might be asking right why I’m sharing a salt cod recipe when I appear to be absolutely revolted by the same? Suffice to say I’m not selling it, but in my defence, I was a fussy kid.
These days, I absolutely adore baccalà. Clearly all I needed was an adult palette. In most Italian supermarkets, you can buy it already pre-soaked. It costs a fortune, which is somewhat annoying, but that’s what happens when an ingredient goes from peasant’s fodder to high-end delight.
While I do sometimes make it crumbed like my grandmother would, I prefer it this way. Think tuna dip but way more creamy and flavourful. Not only is it a healthier alternative to the fried fish of my childhood, it’s a really quick and satisfying brunch dish that would work great at a party when you shudder at the idea of serving hummus… again.
A drizzle of lemon to brighten and a handful of thyme are all you need to bring out the sweetness in the cod. One of the highlights of the salting process is that it takes away the excessively fishy taste. Instead you’re left with a really light and garlickly dip that only has a hint of fish as a back note.
Quick baccalà (salt cod) dip
250g baccalà (salt cod), pre-soaked and cubed
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 fresh bay leaf
3 thyme sprigs
2 egg yolks
2 garlic cloves
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lemon, juice and rind
bread and fresh veggies for dipping, I used endive, radishes, cucumber, fennel and carrots
Rinse the salt cod in a couple of changes of water. That will get rid of the excess salt.
Bring the baccala, white wine, bay leaf and thyme springs to the boil in a small saucepan with about half a cup of water. Poach for 10 minutes or until the fish is soft and flaky. It’s already cooked, so you don’t need to worry about it being raw and slimy.
Drain the fish, reserving the poaching liquid. Put it in a blender with the egg yolks and garlic, whiz until you get a smooth paste. If you’re having trouble doing that, add a little of the poaching liquid to help the blender along. With the motor running, slowly pour in the olive oil to emulsify. Pretend you’re making mayonnaise. Season with the lemon juice and rind, but no salt. You don’t need to add any. It’ll be salty enough!
As you can see, it’s not perfectly smooth. I prefer texture in my dips, but you can make it velvet smooth by passing it through a fine sieve.
Enjoy with crudités and toasted bread bits!