Baccalà, or dried salt cod, is a favorite meal around our house, even if it only appears occasionally on the dinner table. One of the most delicious ways to make baccalà has got to be baccalà alla vicentina, or in the style of the northern Italian city of Vicenza, slowly simmered in milk flavored with a savory soffritto of garlic, onions and anchovies.
Before going any further, I should mention that the ‘baccalà’ in this dish is actually what in other parts of Italy would be called stoccafisso, or stockfish, codfish that is not salted but sun and air-dried until it is almost rock hard. Stockfish needs to be soaked in several changes of water over 3 or even 4 days before you can cook it. Some recipes even tell you to beat the cod with a mallet to soften it before soaking. Salt cod, by contrast, is usually still more or less pliable to the touch and requires a much shorter soak, usually 24 hours or less. Stoccafisso is the usual codfish used in the cooking of the Veneto, where this dish originates, while in other parts of the Italy baccalà predominates. But if you can’t find stoccafisso—it can be hard to find—this recipe works perfectly well with baccalà, with a few adjustments.
- 1 kilo (2 lb) dried codfish
- Flour, q.b.
For the soffritto:
- 500g (1 lb) onion, thinly sliced
- 4-5 anchovy fillets
- A handful of parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- 200g (7 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- More olive oil
Begin, as mentioned, by soaking the baccalà in water. Depending on how long it has been cured, baccalà can take as much 24 hours to soak, or as little as 8 hours for some lightly salted, relatively fresh varieties. In any case, for this dish, which is seasoned with anchovies, you will want to make sure that the fish is well soaked and almost all of its saltiness removed. Change the water several times during the soaking period. If in doubt, taste a bit of the baccalà; if it is still very salty, keep soaking.
Meanwhile, make a soffritto by sweating an ample amount of thinly sliced (or finely chopped) onion—about half as much as the fish by weight—in olive oil until quite soft and translucent. Season with some salt and pepper, and add a few anchovy fillets and a handful of chopped parsley. As soon as the anchovies have ‘melted’ into the soffritto, turn off the heat.
Once the baccalà is ready, dry the fillets thoroughly, cut them into relatively even square pieces and dredge them in flour. Spread a spoonful or two of the soffritto on the bottom of a casserole dish, preferably of terracotta, then lay the pieces of baccalà over the soffritto, snugly but in a single layer.
Spread the rest of the soffritto on top of the baccalà. (If you have more fish than will fit in a single layer, then add just a bit of the soffritto on top of the bottom layer, place another layer of fish on top of that, and then spread the rest of the soffritto on top of the second layer. If you have more fish than will fit in two layers, then your casserole is too small!)
Pour over enough milk to just barely cover the fish pieces. Then sprinkle the top with abundant grated parmesan cheese. (This is one of the relatively rare cases in Italian cooking where fish and aged cheese are combined—an exception that proves the rule.) Then drizzle the whole with a generous filo d’olio.
Now you have two choices: either you can simmer the dish on top of the stove—over very gentle heat—or you can place the dish in a moderate to slow oven (no more than 180°C/350°F, but better at 150°C/300°F). The dish should just barely bubble as it cooks. In either case, the baccalà should simmer for about 3-4 hours, shaking the pan once in a while to avoid the bottom burning or the fish sticking, but not stirring, until the the liquid is almost entirely consumed and the fish is very tender. Your patience will be richly rewarded, as the flavor of the dish is absolutely ambrosial!
Serve your baccalà alla vicentina with soft polenta, preferably the polenta bianca that is typical of the Veneto, but in a pinch your average yellow polenta (as pictured above) will do fine.
As noted above, the main concern when using salt cod rather than the original stockfish is to avoid over-salting, so be sure that the codfish is well soaked in several changes of water. You may or may not need to season the dish at all.
There are many subtle variations on the above recipe for baccalà alla vicentina. Some recipes call for butterflying and ‘stuffing’ the salt cod fillets rather than simply layering them top and bottom. Some recipes say you should roll the fillets in the soffritto before flouring them. Some recipes call for mixing the soffritto into the milk rather than stuffing or layering the fish with it. Some recipes call for browning the floured pieces of cod before adding them to the casserole. Some recipes call for including a bit of garlic in the soffritto. And some recipes call for adding white wine to the soffritto and then allowing it to evaporate. Ada Boni, in her classic Talismano della Felicità, suggests adding a bit of wine to the dish as it cooks if it starts to dry out during the long cooking process. Almost all recipes call for a long, slow simmering of 3-4 hours, but one source I found specifies only 1-1/2 hours at a relatively high temperature. And, as noted above, you have the choice of simmering on the stove or in the oven. Personally, I prefer the oven method, which avoids scorching the bottom of the casserole and allows a pleasant crust to form on top. Just be careful to regulate the heat so that the crust does not brown too much.
Baccalà alla vicentina is such a famous dish that it actually has its own ‘official’ website, which sets out the official recipe of the Venerabile Confraternita del bacalà alla vicentina—which is the one set out in this post.
Vicenza, by the way, is one town in Italy that I have not had the chance to visit, but one I most certainly want to, if only to see some of the 23 palazzi there designed by Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), a native of the city who was perhaps the most influential architect of all time. (If you’ve visited Monticello in the US or enjoyed the buildings of Christopher Wren or Inigo Jones (not to mention countless neo-Classical stately homes) in the UK, you’ve seen examples of Palladio’s enormous influence. There are so many structures by the famous architect there that UNESCO has designated Vicenza as the “City of Palladio” on its list of World Heritage Sites. Among other noteworthy natives of the city are Sonia Gandhi, Indian politician and wife of Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, and Roberto Biaggio, famed football (soccer) player.
By the way, this post reminds me of a story an old friend once told me. As a young girl, she lived with her Italian nonna. It happened that she was luxuriating in the bathtub a bit too long, as she was wont to do, and her nonna knocked on the door and shouted, “Hey, get outta the tub, you baccalà!”