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Baccalà: Salt cod is a sturdy comfort food to many

Thursday, March 22, 2001

By Mary Miller

Gatorade, Power Bars . . . and salt cod?

Fortunata DeMicco often prepares Baccalà Napoletano, a cod dish, in her Brookline home, helped by husband Pasquale, left. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Yes, salt cod just might have been the first nonperishable performance food. The brave sailors who discovered our world used it to sustain them through months of hard work and bad weather while at sea. Most might agree that we would need a month at sea without food in order to give salt cod a try.

Those who grew up with baccala on their Lenten or Christmas dinner tables talk about salt cod almost like a dear family member about whom they have warm, wonderful memories. For those who have never tried it, it might be time to make a memory.

Cod is lean with a mild flavor. Because of over-fishing, many times seafood described as cod on low- to moderately priced restaurant menus is often not cod but another type of mild whitefish such as haddock. Scrod, by the way, is officially cod that is small, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds, but some full-grown codfish can weigh up to 25 pounds.

Called baccala in Italian, bacalao in Spanish, bacalhau in Portuguese, morue in French, or just plain salt cod in English, this saline treat is nothing more than codfish fillets that have been cured in salt and then dried.

Not to be outdone by their southern neighbors, the Norwegians have a similar product called stockfish, which is dried unsalted cod, and yet another culinary treat is lutefisk, which is codfish that has been dried and soaked in lye. It makes regular salt cod sound good.

In reality, although briny, dehydrated and slightly malodorous at the market, when soaked in water the fillets lose much of their saltiness and the flesh becomes firm and slightly chewy without a strong fish taste -- the perfect basis for fish stews, cod cakes, fritters and more.

It's not just that salt cod is a lean source of protein that makes it so special. What might not be known is that every bite holds a bit of history -- the discovery of the Americas, the African slave trade, the roots of commerce in New England.

In his beautifully written book, "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," author Mark Kurlansky writes that, according to legends, cod once was so thick in the area called the Grand Banks off Newfoundland that sailors could actually walk on the fish to get to the shore.

The Viking explorers were the first to find these fertile seas, and as far as we know, the first to dry cod.

These early travelers survived because they learned to preserve this fish and, according to Kurlansky, "They could break off pieces, and chew them, like hardtack."

David Sunseri of Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. in the Strip District,often moves his display of baccalà, or salt cod, to the sidewalk. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Salt cod was the perfect food for early sailors not only because it was high in protein and easy to eat, but also because it took up little space on the ship and could last a long time without spoiling because of its low fat content.

After the Vikings, many other discoverers came upon the cod surplus off the rocky northern coast of North America on their way to find a fast route to Asia for spices. These explorers, including Christopher Columbus and Giovanni Caboto (his name was changed to John Cabot by the English), found the coastline of Newfoundland perfect for salting and drying the fish that was so abundant in the chilly, northern seas.

Historians think that the Basques were the first to cure cod with salt. The salt deposits and strong hot Mediterranean sun made salting a popular method of food preservation long before they discovered cod. Once the Basque fishermen found the codfish stores off the shore of Newfoundland, they applied what they already knew about salting other foods to cod. The Basques are credited with expanding the trade of salted codfish, although for many years they kept their fishing place a secret, never claiming it for their country.

In medieval Spain and throughout Europe, the Catholic Church prohibited eating flesh on certain fast days. Included were Fridays, since Christ was crucified on this day, the 40 days of Lent and other days of special religious significance.

When tallied, these fasting days -- called lean days -- totaled almost one half of the days in the year. Cold foods were permitted on these days. Fish, waterfowl and whale were designated cold foods by the Catholic Church, since they came out of water.

Kurlansky: ". . those lean days eventually became salt cod days. Cod became almost a religious icon -- a mythological crusader for Christian observance."

In the 18th century, the surplus of codfish changed New England from a sleepy coastal area to a commercial powerhouse. Cod-laden ships sailed from Boston to Bilbao, Spain, where the best cod was sold. They then sailed for the West Indies, where the leftover, poor-quality codfish was purchased to feed the slaves.

Landowners in the West Indies did not want to use the small amounts of farmable land to grow food for the slaves, which were then arriving in droves from Africa. Even though the workers had 16-hour days working in the hot sun, they often had just a few pieces of dried salted codfish for their dinner. Although the slave trade ended long ago, menus in the Caribbean and in parts of Africa still reflect the role that salt cod played in the history of these areas.

Several soakings later, the baccalà is ready for cooking. Fortunata DeMicco of Brookline uses it to make Baccalà Napoletano, a preparation that includes tomatoes, capers and olives. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

After selling the last of the cod, the sailors from Boston used their earnings to purchase Caribbean sugar cane, molasses and tobacco. The sailors would return to the States with a ship filled with precious cargo; rum was made from fermented sugar cane and molasses. The rum industry flourished in the Boston area. So did the economy.

The cod became an emblem of prosperity. Reminders of the fish were everywhere -- from official crests to engraved stationery to embroidered clothing. Even some of the first official American coins had pictures of codfish on them.

Though prices have increased, the demand for salt cod over the centuries in the United States has been steady, mainly because of the immigrant population. Because of over-fishing and strict regulations, the supplies off of New England and the Grand Banks have dwindled or, in some cases, are legally off limits.

Most salt cod today comes from Norway and Canada, but supposedly the best still comes from off the coast of Labrador.

"When buying salt cod, look for uniform texture and color; avoid pieces with a yellowish tint," says Martha Rose Shulman, cookbook author and chef. The salt cod that is skinless and boneless is easier to handle than that with bones and skin, and the thicker pieces from the middle of the fish are usually better.

Often found in Italian, Greek or Portuguese markets and at some larger grocery chains, salt cod is usually displayed in its opened wooden shipping crates. Avoid purchasing salt cod that is packed in plastic bags.

The dried fish must be soaked before cooking to remove the salt. Shulman states that " . . . desalted cod has a more interesting flavor and texture than fresh cod -- almost like ham compared to fresh pork."

Sources disagree on the length of time for soaking -- anywhere from 8 hours to three days. A lengthy soaking has proven helpful for removing most of the salty taste from the fish, but others feel that this long soaking removes too much flavor.

Whatever the soaking time, the method is the same. Cut the cod filets into chunks and put them into a large bowl. Cover the bowl with cold water. Change the water at least four times a day. Old timers will say that it does not need to be refrigerated, but the general consensus is to keep the cod-filled bowl cold. After the fillets have been soaked and drained, the fish should feel soft and pliable, with only a taste of brininess.

For cod cakes, fritters and purees, poach the fish before using. Salt cod doubles in weight after soaking.

The difference between cod, pollock, haddock and scrod can be confusing. All of these fish are part of the same family, but cod has the whitest flesh and little waste -- with almost all parts, including throat, cheeks, even ovaries and sperm -- serving as delicacies in many parts of the world.

Maybe just the salt cod fillets don't sound so bad, after all.

Related Recipes:

Salt Cod Cakes
Baccalà Salad
Baccalà alla Napoletana

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