Baccala or salt cod is one of the most important Christmas Eve dishes. It has as many variations as there are cities in Sicily. Although basically Sicilian influenced, this dish has close similarities in all the southern regions – Basilicata, Campania, Calabria, and Apulia.
- 1 lb. boneless, skinless salt cod,* preferably a thick, center piece
- (see notes below as to how to buy and prepare for cooking)
- 6 T. OO
- 1 tsp. oregano
- 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 3 C. tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped
- 1/3 C. golden raisins, plumped in warm water and drained dry
- 1/3 C. pignoli nuts, toasted golden in a dry skillet
- 1 T. capers, drained
- 1 C. Gaeta or Alfonso olives, pitted
- pinch crushed hot pepper flakes
- S & P
- 1/4 C. parsley, chopped
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Cut the cod into approximately 2-inch square pieces. Put 2 T. of OO to cover the bottom of a deep baking dish and in it, arrange a single layer of cod squares; rub with 1/2 tsp. oregano and a few grindings of black pepper. Drizzle the cod with another 2 T. of OO.
Heat the remaining 2 T. OO in a large heavy skillet. Add the garlic and sauté over low heat until soft. Stir in the tomatoes and heat to boiling; reduce heat and simmer for 3-5 minutes. Add the raisins, pignoli, capers, olives, remaining oregano, a pinch of hot pepper flakes, and salt to taste. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
While the sauce is simmering, bake the cod in the top of the oven for 8 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 375°F. Spoon the sauce over the cod and bake on the middle rack for 20-30 minutes. Correct the seasoning. Sprinkle with parsley before serving. Serve hot or room temperature with crusty bread or boiled potatoes.
* NOTES ON BACCALA
Baccala is fresh cod that is salt-cured and preserved in wood. Do not confuse it with stoccafiso (stockfish), which is air-dried rather than salted.
Baccala can be purchased with the bone or boned. I recommend buying boned cod fillets. Look for thick, smooth, supple pieces that do not give off flakes of salt when gently pressed. Allow 4-5 ounces per person (1 lb. dried boneless, skinless cod yields about 1 1/2 lbs. of soaked fish).
Because varying methods of curing produce different salt levels, guidelines for soaking the dried fish are only approximate.
To ready fish for cooking, place it in cold water in a bowl. Change the water 3 -5 times during the soaking period, or until the fish no longer tastes salty. Skinless fillets will soak in as little as 2 hours if the fish is shredded. Large pieces take about 12 hours and whole boneless sides, about 24 hours. Even in the same batch, soaking times may vary because of differences in thickness among individual pieces. The best way to tell when the fish is ready to be rinsed, drained, and refrigerated is to nibble a piece.
Refreshed salt cod should be treated like fresh fish. No fish takes kindly to overcooking, and cod becomes tough and cottony when so abused. It should never be boiled, but poaching, frying, roasting, braising, and baking all produce good results.