As a seafood-loving Christmas buff, I was thrilled when my friend Kim suggested that we collaborate on a feast of the seven fishes one Christmas Eve many moons ago.
The feast of the seven fishes (or five, nine, 10, 11, or 13, depending on whom you ask) is a traditional Italian Christmas Eve celebration with no meat and a surplus of seafood.
In my experience, dishes at the feast range from the simple and humble (a plate of store-bought smoked salmon or a tuna-noodle casserole) to the elaborate and lavish (think homard à l'américaine or super-rich seafood Newburg).
I’ve forgotten all seven dishes of our feast, but two left a lasting impression: shark-shaped butter cookies frosted with gray and white icing (at the time, I thought they were hilarious) and a salad made with baccalà (salt cod).
Though I’d considered myself to be pretty seafood-savvy, Kim’s salad was my first exposure to salt cod.
Salt cod is exactly what it sounds like: thick white fish fillets (always cod back when it was plentiful, but nowadays other types as well) preserved via salting and drying. It’s an ancient food that some say dates back to the Vikings, but it’s still available and popular in many cultures, including ours.
It’s common to find salt cod in Italian and Portuguese specialty stores and fishmongers, as it’s important in both cuisines. (Sometimes you can even find it in supermarkets, where it’s often packed in small wooden boxes.) Salt cod has also been a stalwart ingredient in the cooking of Spain, France, Norway, the Caribbean, and in other Latin American and Mediterranean countries.
In Italy, salt cod is called baccalà. In Portugal it’s bacalhau, in Spain it’s bacalao, and in France, it’s morue.
Closer to home, salt cod was a keystone product in colonial New England. Around the time of the American Revolution, the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was the center of the region’s cod fishing and salt-cod production. According to the authoritative New England chef Jasper White, in his book Jasper White’s Cooking from New England, at one point salt cod was even used as currency.
Salt cod was so abundant and durable, it was both traded in the colonies and shipped to other parts of the world, including the Caribbean and Africa. It sustained slaves on both long ship journeys and in their servitude.
But with the advent of first canning technology and then modern refrigeration, salt cod’s popularity in America faltered in favor of canned and fresh fish.
In small shops, salt cod may be sold straight from open containers, which gives you the chance to inspect it. Look for pieces that appear white, thick, and supple. If it has a yellowish hue and looks extra dry or dusty, it may be on the old side — which, oxymoronic as it may seem for preserved fish, isn’t ideal.
Before use, all salt cod must be rehydrated and desalted. That’s as easy as covering it with water in a bowl, covering the bowl, and refrigerating it for while, usually between 24 and 36 hours. The key is to change the water frequently — a minimum of four changes during the soak (and more is just fine) is necessary to get rid of the salt that’s coming out of the fish. The longer the soaking time, the milder the fish will taste in the end.
Some people — here I’m thinking of friends who grew up eating salt cod — prefer it stronger and saltier. But I, a relative newcomer to the fish, like it a bit tamer. (And that’s speaking as a man who gravitates toward strong flavors, like stinky cheeses and oily fishes.)
Note, too, that salt cod does not taste like fresh fish. I’ve read over and over again that its flavor is mild overall, but that hasn’t been my observation. It’s not strong or fishy per se, but even when it’s been well desalinated, I find that salt cod tastes concentrated, sometimes even veering toward funky — but in a good way. Compared to fresh fish, it has an appealing depth, much as country ham does compared to fresh pork.
Cooking salt cod gently is important to its texture. Keep the heat low so that the water barely simmers, because if you boil salt cod fiercely, it can turn tough and rubbery. Also, take care not to overcook it. When the fish flakes easily, it’s done, and further cooking won’t do the texture any favors. In short, treat it almost as gently as you do eggs when hard-cooking them.
In many of the cultures that cherish it, salt cod is associated particularly with Christmas. Hence my initial encounter with it, at Kim’s Italian-style Christmas Eve in her Baccalà Salad.
Jasper White’s Italian immigrant grandmother also made a version for Christmas Eve, from which my recipe is adapted. Brandade de Morue au Gratin, a garlicky mixture of salt cod, potatoes, and cream, is resolutely French and also served on Christmas Eve.
Buon Natale, and Joyeux Noël!
Adam Ried's regular gigs include a weekly Boston Globe Magazine cooking column, spots on the PBS cooking shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country from America’s Test Kitchen,” and frequent articles in Cook’s Country magazine. His most recent book is Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes.
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