The 12 days of Natale, recipes for the Italian holiday table. Day 6 & 7: baccalà

Apologies for skipping yesterday, I'm hoping to be pardoned by offering 2 versions of the same delicious ingredient: baccalà.

Baccalà is codfish preserved in salt and a staple on the Italian tables on Christmas Eve. There are infinite ways of preparing baccalà, these 2, both from the Roman tradition that informed much of my adored mother's cooking, are the ones that speak to me of home the most.

The first is perfect to be eating while held in hand and sipping prosecco, maybe around the tree while watching the frenzy of children tearing packages open. The second is a dish that gets better with a little aging, generally with too unusual a taste to be appreciated by children, thus better savored while the children have collapsed exhausted from that gift ripping frenzy.


Filetti di baccalà

Battered and fried salt cod fillets

 

for 4 to 5 filetti

1 pound skinless and boneless salt cod fillets

1 teaspoon fresh OR a generous 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

2 tablespoons lukewarm milk (if using fresh yeast)

OR pinch sugar (if using dry yeast)

1/2 pound all purpose flour

salt

fizzy water

frying oil

Rinse off the excess salt from the cod and soak it in cold water for 3 days changing the water 4 times a day. Strain from the soaking water and dry well. Cut in fillets 1” wide and 4” long and dry them well.

If using fresh yeast, dilute it in the milk and mix into a paste. If using dry active yeast, place it in a small bowl with a tablespoon of room temperature water and a tiny pinch of sugar. It will grow into a bubbly blob. Stir the blob into a paste.

Season the flour with salt in a bowl and mix in the yeast. Whisk in the water in a steady stream until you reach a thickish and smooth consistency.

To test the batter, perform this test: lift the whisk, thread the batter over the bowl. The threads of batter should “write”: think of the batter in the bowl as a sheet and the whisk as a pen: the pen leaves a trace and the sheet stays flat, it does not part to swallow that trace, rather the trace just kind of disappears after a couple of seconds.

If no trace is left, the batter is too liquid and needs some flour. If the sheet parts to swallow the writing, the batter is too thick and can be fixed with a bit of water.

Once you are satisfied with the batter, cover it and set it aside to rest at room temperature to let the yeast can work its magic.

In a shallow, wide saucepan heat a generous amount of oil to approximately 330˚F. Dredge the cod pieces in the batter until they are completely coated.

Carefully drop in the heated oil to deep fry. Keep turning them over and sploshing oil over them. Watch the coating of batter puff and cook until it has no wet spots.

Turn up the heat to impart crunchiness and a lovely golden color to the fillets. Drain over paper towels and serve while still warm.

 


Baccalà alla romana in agrodolce

Sweet and sour Roman style salted codfish

for 6 people

1.5 pounds salted codfish

1 bunch Swiss chard

1 yellow onion

2 carrots

2 celery stalks

salt

1/4 cup currants or raisins

1/4 cup pitted prunes

1/2 cup olive oil

3 bay leaves

1 large can peeled tomatoes

pepper to taste

flour

frying oil

1/2 cup pine nuts

sugar and vinegar to taste

 

Soak the codfish in water for 2 days, occasionally changing the water.

Divide the chard stalks from the leaves. Finely chop the onion, carrots, celery and chard stalks. Stack the chard leaves, roll them and cut them in very thin ribbons.

Soak the currants and prunes in warm water.

In a shallow pot heat the olive and the onion, carrots, celery and Swiss chard stalks and bay leaves with a generous pinch of salt. Soften them completely until they start caramelizing, stirring often to prevent them from burning.

Add the peeled tomatoes and a can full of water. Smash the tomatoes while they are coming to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium low and season with salt and pepper.

Cook the sauce down to a rather thick consistency, for about an hour, adding a bit of water if necessary.

In the meantime, drain and dry the salted cod, eliminate bones and skin and cut in pieces of about 2” x 3”. Dredge each piece lightly through flour and shake to remove the excess flour and ensure even coating.

Bring a panful of frying oil to 320˚F and deep fry the pieces of cod until they appear golden and crispy. Fry in batches as not to overcrowd the pan and lower the oil temperature. Set aside on a paper towel to drain excess oil.

When the sauce is about 10 minutes from done, drain the prunes and raisins. Add them and the pine nuts to the sauce. Add a small amount of sugar and vinegar and keep adjusting the balance until you find it pleasant to your taste, then give the the sauce a final 10 to 15 minutes on the heat to bring all the flavors together.

Transfer the sauce to a baking dish and arrange the pieces of cod in it in a layer. When ready to serve, heat in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes.