Since living in Italy I’ve often see piles of dry salted cod (known here as baccalà) piled high in wooden crates but until now I had never actually eaten it and rarely seen it on the menu in our local restaurants. The history of baccalà goes back a long way, most likely to the Vikings, but there are all kinds or stories about how it came to be popular in Italy, most of which involve the shipwreck of an Italian boat from Venice on an island off the Norweigian coast. In fact 93% of the output of the Lofoten Islands in Norway now ends up on Italian dinner tables.
As with so many of the foods that we eat, baccalà was brought into Italy as a result of migration but is now seen as typically ’Italian’ and often eaten as part of celebrations. On Christmas Eve in Italy, baccalà plays a lead role in the traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes (which, as it turns out, is not such a straightforward Italian tradition either). And it is eaten in place of meat in the run up to Easter, usually on a Friday.
Anyway I finally bought some baccalà and made it into a delicious tomato stew with chickpeas, potatoes, olives and capers, hearty flavours for a cold evening in early Spring. The baccalà needs quite a lot of preperation which, I imagine, is why it’s no longer as popular as it once was – why buy salted cod when you can just as easily buy fresh? But the taste and texture is quite different so I’m glad I gave it a go.
500g salted cod
A tin of chickpeas
A tin of tomatoes
A red onion
A handful of black olives, halved
A handful of capers
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp paprika
2 cloves of garlic
Start by preparing the baccalà. You will need to do this about two days before you want to cook the dish. Rinse the fish under running water to wash off as much of the salt as possible, then cut into pieces and place in a bowl of cold water, fully submerged. Place the bowl in the fridge and change the water every 8 hours. After two days cut off a small piece of fish and boil it in milk or water for a few minutes. If it still tastes too salty soak for a little longer, otherwise you are finally good to go!
Remove the skin and cut the baccalà into chunks along with the potatoes. Peel and roughly chop the onion. Crush or grate the garlic.
Drop the potato chunks into a pan of boiling salted water. While they are cooking, fry the onion in a little olive oil until transluscent. Add the garlic and paprika and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Add the tomatoes and tomato puree, then the olives, capers and chickpeas. Stir well.
Your potato chunks will take around 10 minutes so they should be cooked now. Drain and add to the pan with the baccalà. Leave to simmer gently for 10 minutes. Season with pepper (you need to taste before adding more salt) and serve with a sprinkle of chopped parsley.