Baccala Mantecato, translated as mashed or worked cod, is a Venetian classic available throughout the year and typically served at intimate neighborhood cantinas called baccari. At the baccaro, Venetians take time for some small nibbles and a glass of wine wine known as Cicheti & Ombre in the Venito. Cicheti or snacks, are generally displayed on the bar countertop in small plates and include the gambit of specialties the city has to offer. One may find fried olives, polpette (little meatball) of veal, sardelle in soar (sweet and sour sardines) and other local specialties. Cicheti is always accompanied by Ombre or shade, which is a glass of wine enjoyed away from the sun; a moment to set aside the worries of the day.
In Venice, baccala can be referred to as stockfish, stick fish, or stoccafiso and historically was Norwegian Arctic cod. There is some discussions as to the the actual curing process with respect to baccala versus stoccafiso. Some food historians note that baccala is salted and air dried in the sun, while stoccafiso is simply air dried. There are many versions of Baccala Mantecato however one thing is certain, they all begin with dried salted cod mashed to a creamy paste. Served on a toasted polenta or toasted bread, it makes a delightful accompaniment to a leisurely glass of wine or a cocktail.
Baccala always comes to mind in the weeks approaching Christmas. Family run Italian grocery stores on the east coast are certain to have an open crate of baccala available for customers to prepare for Christmas Eve. Every region of Italy has their own traditional preparation for baccala to be included in the celebratory fish meal for La Vigilia, or Christmas Eve.
Living in Silicon Valley, baccala is not as easy to locate as it was in the northeast. Naturally it can readily be found in San Fransicso’s Italian section North Beach, but I had no time for a trip up the peninsula. A little research revealed that the Portguese community has a local store with a high quality dried salted cod. Now don’t be surprised, but Whole Foods also carries dried salt cod in small wooden boxes which is kept in the frozen section of the fish department. Being unfamiliar with this particular product, I was apprehensive about the quality of the cod, recalling the open wooden crates of my childhood at the corner store. I am happy to report that the quality was excellent and the quantity just right for this recipe.
Similar to the French dish Brandade di Morue, Baccala Mantecato is not difficult to prepare but does require some planning and patience. There is a soaking process which necessitates a change of water twice daily to hydrate the cod and remove the high salt content. After 4 days of changing the water, the packaged baccala was not at all salty; actually the finished dish needed additional seasoning. Once the cod has been soaked it is simmered in milk, a practice attributed to the Jewish population of Venice, then emulsified with olive oil, potato and seasonings.
This holiday season, take a culinary journey to Venice by creating a baccaro of your own, featuring Baccala Mantecato with a nice glass or two of wine. Buon Natale and Chag Samech…
- 1 pound of dried salted cod, baccala
- 1 russet potato, about 6 to 8 ounces, with skin on & scrubbed well
- 1 quart of whole milk
- 1 small onion, left whole
- 1 celery stalk, cut into 3 or 4 pieces
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ to ¾ cup of extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground white pepper
- Long loaf of Italian bread
- Olive oil for frying
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- ½ cup freshly chopped Italian parsley leaves
- Four days before you would like to prepare the Baccala Mantecato, remove the baccala from any packaging and rinse well with cold water. Place in a glass or ceramic container, large enough to hold the baccala with an ample amount of fresh cold water. Refrigerate, changing the water twice a day for 4 days. When changing the water, rinse the baccala well before refilling the container with fresh water.
- Drain the baccala and examine for bones or skin. Remove the bones with a kitchen tweezer and peel away the skin, discard. Fill a medium sized saucepan with the onion, celery, bay leaf, 1 clove of garlic, and the cod. Pour the milk over the cod and add enough fresh water to cover the fish completely. Bring to a boil over medium heat, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the cod can be easily pierced with a fork. The cod should be tender, but not completely falling to pieces. Remove the cod using a slotted spoon to a place; reserve the cooking liquid.
- At the same time place the potato into a pot of cold water and bring to a boil over medium/high heat, reduce the heat to a strong simmer. Cook until the potato is fork tender, remove to a plate to cool slightly. Once cool enough to handle, peel the potato and mash gently using a fork.
- Take two of the cloves of garlic and about a tablespoon of freshly ground white pepper and mash into a smooth paste with either a mortal & pestle or the tines of a small fork; reserve.
- Place the warm baccala in the work bowl of a standing mixer along with the mashed garlic. Using the paddle attachment on medium speed, break up the cod. Once the cod seems to be uniformly broken, it may seem somewhat stringy, begin to drizzle in the olive oil while the mixer is running. Continue to run the mixer while dribbling in the olive oil, the amount of olive oil will depend upon the consistency of the fish. The mixture should start to appear emulsified. Add the coarsely mashed russet potato, combine thoroughly. Begin to add some of the reserved poaching liquid, about ¼ cup at a time, being careful and not adding it too quickly. To achieve a creamy consistency, you will need to add at least 1/ 2 cup of the poaching liquid and possibly up to 1 cup; do so carefully as the liquid may be quite salty. Beat on medium high speed until a smooth spread has been formed. Taste for seasoning and add additional white pepper and perhaps some salt. Set aside.
- Slice the bread on the diagonal into ¾ inch slices. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, once the oil is hot place the bread slices into the oil watching carefully. Turn when golden to toast the opposite side, remove to a paper towel lined plate. Pierce the garlic clove with a fork and gently rub the fried bread slices with the garlic on the side in which the baccala will be spread.
- Spread some of the Baccala Mantecato over the fried bread and garnish with some chopped parsley.