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Published: Tuesday, 11/6/2007

Salt cod: This slow food requires soaking on a rack

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

It had been years since I thought about salt cod and the time my mother-in-law visited our Pennsylvania home and made her classic codfish dish.

Then last spring at the International Association of Food Journalists conference in Chicago, I attended the "Two Culinary Divas and One Remarkable Fish" cooking demonstration. The divas were Norwegian cookbook author Ingrid Espelid Hovig and Fulvia Sesani, who runs the Italian cooking school Venetian Cooking in a palace in Venice.

Although now in their 80s, both were filled with energetic culinary expertise. Each woman prepared recipes and compared notes on this classic international food with Australian moderator Kate-Ellie McGhie guiding the presentation. Since I was seated next to Chef Leticia Schwartz of Weston, Conn., a native of Brazil who is writing a book on Brazilian food, I was fascinated by the global accents and experiences from the stage as well as from my new acquaintance. It underscored the versatile way that salted dried cod fish is used in dishes around the world, from Ms. Hovig's Bacalao or Norwegian dried salted cod fish casserole with Spanish pepper and tomatoes, to Ms. Sesani's mousse of dried codfish.

Salt cod epitomizes the "true international quality of cross pollinating of cultures," according to the speakers. The roots of salt cod are found in climate and geography. Cod is caught in very cold water. The drying of cod can be traced back to more than 1,000 years in Norway. To dry larger fish in the warmer climates of Central and Southern Europe, salting is required for preservation and no refrigeration. Through the centuries, long journeys by land and by sea required a food source, and the dried fish became an international commodity.

And although the United States is a melting pot of the world's cultures, salted cod is rarely made here except during the holidays, when specialty stores such as Sofo's get 40-pound boxes of dried cod from Italy and divide and repackage it for customers. Salt cod is also popular in some communities during the Lenten season.

I tackled the culinary project of salt cod in my home kitchen with Mrs. Schwartz, Liz Sofo of Toledo, and my mother-in-law, Virginia Smith of Michigan, as my culinary consultants via phone.

First, I couldn't buy the large dried cod that Ms. Hovig had brought from Norway to Chicago. Instead, I bought one-pound boxes of salt cod at $9.99 per pound from Rohr Fish in Toledo, where it is stored in the freezer.

Dried cod doesn't really need to be frozen, according to Mrs. Schwartz and my mother-in-law. And the chef advised me to bring the cod to room temperature before I tried to remove it from the small brown wooden box.

"Salted codfish is a huge part of Brazilian cuisine," she said. "Once salted and dried, it doesn't need any refrigeration."

The key to using salt cod is soaking it. "To de-salt it, change the water many times. The container should be 10 or 15 times bigger than the cod," said Ms. Schwartz.

Her best piece of advice was to put a rack on the bottom of the container used for soaking. My Dutch oven has a rack, and I gently unfolded and laid the salty cod fish fillets across it and then filled the dish with ice-cold water and put on the lid (to reduce odor) before returning it to the refrigerator. The dish was not 10 times bigger, but it worked just fine for me. I changed the water every 6 hours for 3 to 4 days, although 2 days is the minimum recommendation.

"Soak cod fish," says Liz Sofo, who has made this food several times. "It takes almost as much maintenance as a baby. It's worth it." She and her husband, Tony Sofo, enjoyed salt cod dishes when traveling in Italy in last year.

Initially, there is an odor from salt cod soaking or cooking. "You reduce the smell by soaking it," says Mrs. Sofo, who makes cod sauteed with new potatoes, cannellini beans, and rosemary for a stew. "That's how I had it in Italy. I love it." Even her children Tony, 17, and Caroline, 14, tried it.

Sofo's expects their salt cod order to arrive mid-November.

There are many ways of cooking salt cod. I made Ms. Hovig's Bacalao, Norwegian dried salted cod fish casserole with Spanish pepper and tomatoes, in my Dutch oven. I sliced red skin potatoes leaving the skins on, yellow onions, and Roma tomatoes. I also used sweet red bell pepper and tomato puree with garlic and chopped canned tomato. Black pitted olives garnished the dish which I started on the stove top and then put in the oven.

(This experience made me think about the cast-iron Dutch ovens that are so popular today. See sidebar.)

The dish is ready when the potatoes are tender. I cooked it only one hour, although I thought the fish was not as flaky as I expected, maybe because there was not a lot of sauce.

"Salted cod does not flake as a fresh cod," said Mrs. Schwartz. "You can't always substitute salted dried cod for fresh cod in recipes. Fresh cod is delicate and salted cod is more peasant and a country fish."

The next day I tried to re-create my mother-in-law's codfish recipe made with a white sauce which is served on boiled potatoes. I could also have made it into a stew with vegetables like the creamed carrots of Norwegian Bacalao made by Ms. Hovig.

I discovered salt cod croquettes recipe in Street Food by Tom Kime (DK, $22).

Penelope Casas advises in Tapas (Knopf, $30) that dried, salted codfish (bacalao) is excellent for tapas because it has a firm flesh and an assertive flavor. The amount of time of soaking depends on how salty the cod is and how strongly flavored you wish it to be.

Baccala Salad, a warm salad, from The Young Man & The Sea by David Pasternack and Ed Levine (Artisan, $35) is a recipe from Pasternack's grandmother. From Lidia's Italy by Lidi Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Knopf, $35) comes Creamy Baked Salt Cod, which is traditionally served with Baked Polenta.

In Italian Holiday Cooking (William Morrow, $35), author Michele Scicolone writes about the Baccala Stew served for Christmas Eve. In Puglia, Italy, it is cooked with tomatoes and chickpeas and tossed with fresh pasta for Christmas Eve. Baccala Stew served with capers and pine nuts served for Christmas Eve in Reggio Calabria area of Italy.

Mrs. Sofo also noted that Chef Isabella Nicoletti of Paesano's at 3411 Washtenaw Rd. in Ann Arbor prepared a salt cod recipe at a cooking class last December at Sofo's. Plus, Salt Cod Vincentina Style is in Perbacco Isabella! Italian Country Cooking from Your Good Friends at Paesano's by Isabella Nicoletti (Huron River Press, $35).

Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.

Contact her at food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.


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