PART 1 – ZUPPA DI BACCALA – Baccala Soup
(PART 2 – INSALATA DI BACCALA – Baccala Salad – to follow on Friday of this week in an extra post!)
*** See end of this blog post for the “Name The Dessert” contest winner !!
Growing up in an Italian household that held traditions dear, I can attest to the experience of any holiday celebration as concentrated at the table with several courses to the meal and much lively banter. Of all holidays and celebratory events, none compared to Natale (Christmas) and La Vigilia (The Vigil or Christmas Eve). Relatives and friends would come and go during the long Christmas Eve dinner and someone would inevitably begin singing a familiar Italian melody with others chiming in. This celebration was long anticipated all during the year, and when it finally arrived, it lasted for hours and never disappointed. The meal, prepared by both my mother and father, Loretta and Attilio, centered around seven courses of fish.
Much is made about “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” in descriptions of the Italian Christmas holiday, and many wonder what’s with the fish?? The “fish thing” began in medieval times and was religious in origin. In the Roman Catholic faith, Christmas Eve was a day of fast and abstinence awaiting the “arrival of the bambino”. Meat and butter were not permitted – so families ate fish cooked in olive oil. When I was a child, many Catholic families hoped that the bishop would give a dispensation for the meatless day which he often did. No matter in my house! Whether or not the bishop dispensed, we adhered to tradition and had fish! No one was unhappy.
Well then, why seven? Seven signified the seven sacraments of the Church. Many Italian families had fewer than seven, and many had as many as 10, 12, or 13! We rarely counted. We loved ALL of them! These fish dishes were divided by Loretta and Attilio – each preparing their specialties. The flurry of creation started weeks in advance: Stuffed Calamari with Sauce and Linguine, Calamari in Attilio’s spicy sauce, shrimp, Clams Oreganata, Fried Smelts, Baccala Soup and Baccala Salad and sometimes MORE such as Sardines prepared a couple of ways, Seafood Antipasti, Baked Smelts , Octopus, and Eel!
Two of the favorites were preparations of Baccala – Dry Salted Cod. One of them, Baccala Soup, is a lovely tomato based soup, rich in Napoletana tradition. You can almost smell the Mediterranean when you prepare it. Tasting it is nothing short of heaven! It is delicate in flavor yet substantial in nourishment and content. We will discuss this soup today. The second preparation is the beautiful and tasty Baccala Salad which we will talk about later this week in an extra post. Don’t wait for holiday time to prepare these lovelies. They are wonderful anytime, and the soup can be frozen.
Salt cod as it is called – sold in slabs, dried out, and packed in coarse salt, comes to life when soaked in cold water which is changed several times over 24-48 hours. There are many ways to prepare Salt Cod, and you will find recipes prepared differently in Italy depending on the region. In our house, Loretta always served it for Christmas Eve two ways and was an example of what she liked to call “peasant food” because of its simplicity. Other courses might vary but the Baccala Soup and Baccala Salad were always on the menu – and they, of course, represented two of the “required” Seven Fishes. Regardless of its simplicity, today, you will find Salt Cod on the most sophisticated and authentic of Italian menus. Fresh Cod can be used but the result is somewhat different. The Salt Cod retains a firmness that the fresh cannot. The fresh tends to flake and fall apart to a greater degree, and of course, does not have as much flavor.
Growing up, I often went along with my mother to shop at Bruno’s Market in Binghamton,NY, for the Salt Cod. As soon as you opened the door of the little market, you encountered the scent of wonderful strong Italian cheeses and meats hanging from the ceiling. Another aroma that captured my nose emanated from the unmistakable presence of Salt Cod kept in barrels and crates near the fresh meat section in the back of the market. Shoppers could reach in and select just the right piece and quantity. These pieces or slabs were caked with coarse sea salt. The aroma wasn’t a bad one – but it made a statement.
How in the world, you might ask, did this ever get started. Surprisingly, the use of this form of Cod goes as far back as the 1500’s. It was often prepared by the poor. It was prized as it did not easily spoil, lasted indefinitely, and made fish accessible to areas of Italy that were far from the sea. Also, consider that no refrigeration was available. One might think that because of its frequency of use, it might be a Mediterranean fish, but it is not. It has been shipped into Italy for centuries from the Scandinavian countries packed in large wooden boxes in so much coarse salt, that the fish were not readily visible.
As far as nutrition – Salt Cod is full of the valued omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, potassium, B-12, niacin, and magnesium. The very healthy Baccala Soup (which is almost stew-like) is delicious served in a bowl over fried polenta. Aside from the soup and the Baccala Salad, the cod can be baked and even served with my Orange Pesto! See the following link to the Orange Pesto from my post on Roast Chicken: (HERE!)These are all preparations that are quite nutritious as well as tasty.
The Salt Cod is available in most markets (you might have to request it). Whole Foods has it in their frozen seafood section – “frozen” for some unknown reason. It comes in small one pound wooden containers. In all cases and no matter the recipe, the Salt Cod must be soaked in cold water for at least 24-48 hours, changing the water several times. It is, then, ready for any mission you might have in store!
Today, we shall fill our kitchen with the essence of the sea – Let’s cast our nets!
ZUPPA DI BACCALA
1 lb Salt Cod – soaked in cold water 24-48 hours – change water several times – at least 4
1/4 c. Olive Oil
4 Cloves Garlic chopped
1 Large Onion sliced
2 Fennel Bulbs sliced horizontally
1/3 c. chopped Fennel Fronds
1 c. White Wine
4 Peeled Potatoes – sliced – I then cut slices in half
1 28 oz. can Peeled tomatoes – give one quick turn in the blender – this seems to give the perfect consistency
1/2 c. Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 c. Chopped Fresh basil
1 Bay Leaf
1/2 tsp. Red Pepper Flakes
2 c. water ( you can add more after it gets going if you like more liquid)
2 tsp. Kosher Salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped Fresh Basil for garnish
Heat oil and add garlic cooking a couple of minutes.
Add onion and fennel slices.
Cook about 6 minutes until just tender.
Increase heat and add wine. Cook down 3-4 minutes.
Now add the tomatoes.
Add fresh herbs, bay leaf, fennel fronds, and red pepper flakes.
Add water.Bring to boil and reduce heat to simmer until potatoes 10-12 minutes.
Cut the fish into pieces about 2 inches long.
Add Cod. Cover and simmer – do not boil – for about 30 minutes or until the fish is tender and potatoes are fully cooked.
Check for seasoning and adjust. Remove bay leaf!! The experience of having one in your mouth can be unpleasant and may cause choking.
I like to serve this over a thick slice of Italian crusty bread first brushed with olive oil. For the photo, I used a thick slice of delicious and fresh Potato Rosemary Bread.
A drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil completes the experience. Troppo Bella!
With this dish, I would suggest serving a dry white wine and also using the same in the soup preparation. My ”gotta have it” favorite Italian white wine to serve with seafood is Falanghina Irpinia Terredora DiPaolo.This is a full bodied white. I had a 2009 recently that was perfection! The fact that it comes from the Campania region which is the area of my heritage is an added bonus in my book. You will love this wine.
Watch for Part II of Two of the Seven on Friday!
PARLA COME MANGI!
***Thanks to all who placed entries in the “Name the Dessert Contest”. It was fun to read the entries, and they were GREAT! The winner of the contest and the Linda’s Italian Table apron is STEPHANIE WAHL with her submission: “Nubi del Cielo” – “Clouds of Heaven”!! Thank you, Stephanie!
Also: See the RECIPE OF THE MONTH on LINDA’S ITALIAN TABLE!
Food Photos By Tommy Hanks Photography