Baccalà is dried and salted codfish and has been a much-loved ingredient in many cuisines around the Atlantic and the Mediterranean for more than 500 years. Traditionally, codfish was dried outdoors by the wind and sun hanging on wooden scaffolding or lying on clean rocks by the seaside, but now is usually dried indoors with the aid of electric heaters. Today baccalà is a major export of the North Atlantic region with Norway, Newfoundland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands being major producers.
Bacalà con Panna
Drying food is the world’s oldest known method of preservation maintaining much of the nutrients and in the process making the food tastier; and baccalà with a storage life of several years is no exception. Salting food became economically feasible during the 17th century, when cheap salt from southern Europe became available to the maritime nations of northern Europe. The method was cheap and the fisherman or his family could do the work. The resulting product was easily transported to market, and baccalà became a staple item in the cuisine of Catholic countries on “meatless” Fridays and during Lent.
Baccalà, as we Italians call it, and the names of the dishes made from it are derived from the root bacal, which is of unknown origin. However the Italian explorer and navigator Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, reported that the inhabitants of Newfoundland used this name. Over time it became variously known around the Mediterranean and in Europe as: bacalhau in Portuguese, bacalao in Spanish, bakaiļao in Basque, bacalà in Catalan, bakaliáros in Greek bakaljaw in Maltese, bakalar in Croatian, and bakkeljauw in Dutch. Originally baccalà was produced only from Atlantic cod, today however, because of the decline in stock due to overfishing, products sold as baccalà may be produced from other whitefish, such as pollock, haddock, and blue whiting.
Before it can be eaten baccalà must be rehydrated and desalinated by soaking in cold water for one to three days, changing the water frequently every several hours. In Europe the rehydrated baccalà is prepared in a wide variety of ways, most commonly with potatoes and onions in a casserole, as croquettes, or battered and deep-fried. In Portugal Bacalhau com Natas, “com natas” meaning “with cream”, is a popular baked casserole which also includes onions, potatoes and a cream sauce made from butter, flour and milk, known as béchamel or besciamella in Italian. Bacalhau com Natas translates to Bacalà con Panna in Italian and is also enjoyed in Italy, often around Christmas as an alternative to more traditional preparations. The basic preparation is “Italianized” with the addition of Provolone and Parmigiano cheeses and a sprinkling of seasoned breadcrumbs.
So with Christmas just around the corner, try adding Baccalà con Panna to your Christmas Eve Vigilia dinner, La Festa Dei Sette Pesci.
- ¾ pounds of baccalà, cut in 6 pieces
- 2 large onions, peeled and sliced thin
- 2 cups milk
- 6 tbsp. olive oil
- ¾ pound of potatoes, peeled and sliced
- 3 tablespoons of all purpose flour
- ¼ cups of water
- 5 tbsp. of unsalted butter
- ½ tablespoon of pepper
- ¼ cup grated provolone cheese
- ¼ cup (2oz) grated Parmigiano cheese
- ¼ cup Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
- ½ cup of heavy cream
- Rinse and then soak the baccalà in a covered pot with enough water to cover. Place in the refrigerator. Drain and change the water every 4-6 hours for at least 24 hours, more if possible.
- After the final drain, remove bones and skin from the baccalà then shred and set aside.
- Add 4 tbsp. olive oil and the sliced potatoes to a heavy skillet and fry the potatoes for about 5 minutes. Add the water, turn the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for about 15 minutes.
- Add 2 tbsp. olive oil to another heavy skillet and sauté the onion over low heat until soft and golden.
- When the onions are ready, mix in the baccalà and ½ cup milk, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the mixture becomes too dry, add more milk a little at a time.
- While the baccalà cooks, prepare the besciamella. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat and slowly add the flour while stirring until the flour is incorporated. Add the remaining milk and heat, stirring constantly until thickened.
- Preheat the oven to 450 F.
- When the bacalà is done, mix in the potatoes, besciamella and cream.
- Transfer to a baking casserole dish and sprinkle the grated Provolone and Parmigiano cheeses and breadcrumbs on top. Bake uncovered for 15 min, then lower to 350 F and let it bake for another 20 to 25 minutes until the Baccalà con Panna is golden brown