It's quite possible that salt cod is more well known by the Italian word for it, bacala (the Spanish and Portuguese words are similar to the Italian). Although the most popular recipes for the salted, north Atlantic Ocean fish are from Mediterranean countries but you'll find it used in Scandinavian countries and in Ireland as well. In fact, there's a custom of eating salt cod on Christmas Eve in most countries where Roman Catholicism is the majority religion. Eating "lean" or non-meat dishes on Christmas Eve is a religious dictate.
Because refrigeration is a relatively new concept, (in the grand scheme of things) at one time fish were salted, or dried after they were caught as a way to preserve them. Thick, white fleshed cod, preserves most successfully.
Then it's soaked to remove the salt , re-hydrated and made into delicious food. I have Portuguese-American, and Italian-American friends who have special Christmas Eve family recipes that star salt cod. And, I'm sad to say that those family recipes are stealth. I can only recreate the Aguiar family cod fish balls and the Finamore family cod with tomatoes and prunes by guessing the ingredients and method.
I do however, have my own special recipes, which I'm happy to share. While you may not have enough time to make these dishes for Christmas - make them for a New Eve's party, or New Year's day brunch.
I almost always purchase salt cod packaged in little wooden boxes. In the USA, most of it comes from Canada and contains the prized, thick, center cuts of the fish.
SALT COD FISH FRITTERS
These little fritters are my riff on the Portuguese codfish balls. Just a bit lighter and crispier.
Also, save the method of re-hydrating the salt fish for use in other recipes - it's easier and more expeditious than most instructions.
makes 50 to 60 1 1/2-inch fritters
1/2 pound salt cod fish
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced hot pepper such as Scotch bonnet, habanero, or jalapeno
1/4 cup chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley or cilantro
2 cups water
corn oil for frying
1. Place the salt cod in a bowl and add cold water to cover. Soak for 24 hours, changing the water at least 3 times. Then put the salt cod in a saucepan and add cold water to cover. Bring water to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, drain, and let cool. Flake the cooled cod, removing the remaining bones and any odd bits of skin.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, garlic, hot pepper, parsley or cilantro, and water. Add the cod and stir with a fork to thoroughly combine.
3. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat, heat 2 inches of oil to 350 degrees F. Drop the batter by teaspoonfuls into the oil, cooking 6 fritters at a time until pale gold, about 2 minutes. Remove the fritters from the oil with a wire-mesh strainer, shake away excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in a 200 degree F. oven until all are cooked and ready to serve. Serve hot. I like them with a spritz of fresh lemon juice.
The fritters may be made ahead and successfully reheated.
I'm crazy about both Bacala Mantecato and Brandade de Moure; the Italian and French versions of pureed salt codfish. Mantecato means whisked or churned, brandade means pommeled or pounded. The Italian version is made with olive oil, while the French use cream to achieve the dishes' characteristic fluffy texture. Both versions include potatoes in some recipes and others - no way!
I offer a recipe for the classic, Venetian Bacala Mantecato. Serve it as an appetizer with toasted bread, black olives and sliced, boiled potatoes, or alla Veneziana, with white polenta.
Makes approximately 3 cups
1 pound salt codfish
4 cups whole milk
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup chopped, fresh, flat-leaf parsely
to serve: toasted Mediterrranean-style bread, black olives, sliced boiled potatoes, or with hot polenta
1. Place the salt cod in a bowl and add water to cover. Soak for 24 hours, changing the water at least 3 times. Cut the fish into large chunks and then put it in a large saucepan and cover with the milk. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the fish with a slotted spoon. Remove any remaining bones and skin. Reserve the milk.
2. Add the fish and garlic to a bowl. Use a hand-held mixer to blend the ingredients while drizzling in the extra virgin olive oil until a creamy paste is achieved. Add salt and peper to taste. Continue to mix while adding as much of the reserved milk as needed make the paste smooth and fluffy - some pieces of fish will remain.
3. Mound on platter to serve. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Surround with toast, sliced potatoes, and black olives.
Here's what else I like to make with salt codfish. After it has soaked and boiled, marinate for about 30 minutes in freshly squeezed lemon juice, chopped garlic, hot pepper flakes, thyme, and extra virgin olive oil , then grill. Or, cook the softened cod fillets with peeled tomatoes, orange juice, rosemary, raisins, and walnuts.
SUSANSIMONSAYS: A little American history regarding salt codfish: In the early 18th century, the British, worried that the American colonies would try to declare independence from the Empire, began to give them some trade freedom. Besides England, the area with which trade was permitted was the British West Indies. While the Virginia colony traded tobacco and Pennsylvania traded corn, the Massachusetts colony began a salt cod - molasses trade.