A not-so-distant cousin of Provençale brandade de morue, baccalà mantecato is one of the signature dishes of Venetian cuisine and a staple of those wonderful hidden-away Venetian bacari, or wine bars.
The name of the dish comes from the verb mantecare, which is a culinary term meaning to ‘beat’ or ‘whip’ or simply to ‘stir vigorously’ so as to create a creamy consistency. It is the same word used to describe the final stage of making a risotto, when you stir the rice vigorously to incorporate grated cheese and butter, to creating that luscious creamy consistency that we all know and love. The technique serves the same purpose here, but in a wholly different context.
Ingredients (for 4-6 servings)
250g (1/2 lb.) salt cod, soaked for 24 hours and cleaned of any stray bones
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped (optional)
Olive oil, about 100g or as much as you need
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cut the salt cod into manageable pieces and place them in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to a gentle simmer. Add a small pinch of salt, a slice or two of lemon and a bay leaf. Continue to simmer for 20 minutes, until tender but not yet falling apart. When done, transfer the pieces of salt cod to a large bowl with a slotted spoon.
Start to break up the salt cod pieces with a sturdy wooden spoon. When the fish has broken up into shreds, add the garlic (if using) and then start to drizzle the oil into the fish. Stir with the wooden spoon, incorporating the oil slowly into the fish as you stir, as if you were making mayonnaise. Continue like this until the fish has formed a nice, but not entirely smooth paste. There should still be small bits of fish here and there. If you find the paste a bit too thick, you can add a spoonful or two of the cooking water. Taste and adjust for seasoning—you may not need any salt, but you probably will, as salt cod can be surprisingly bland after it has soaked. Mix in some chopped parsley.
Baccalà mantecato should be served at room temperature, typically on top of crostini di polenta as shown in the picture above. In Venice, polenta blanca or white polenta is the most autentic choice, but yellow polenta as shown will certainly do fine if you, like me, you don’t have any of the white variety on hand. It can also be served with soft, hot polenta for a more substantial dish
NOTES: To make crostini di polenta, simply make a batch of polenta using the usual method, pour it out on a wooden board or baking sheet, in a thinnish layer, to cool completely. It will have hardened enough to cut into rectangles or square pieces. Grill or griddle your crostini on each side until lightly spottled. These crostini have many other uses—they are perfectly delicious slathered with gorgonzola cheese, for example.
If you are being a bit lazy, you can—if you must—blend the salt cod in a food processor, drizzling the olive oil through the spout as you use the pulse function to avoid overblending. Of course, this method does not produce a dish with quite as much character but it will certainly save you some effort. What you should avoid, however, is using a blender, which will purée the fish rather than producing the typically ‘rough’ texture that characterizes the dish.
The recipe given here is from the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato, one of the many confraternita or associations (literally ‘brotherhoods’) in Italy charged as guardians of the most significant traditional local dishes. This one is, of course, based in Venice. The original recipe calls for stoccafisso, or stockfish, which is another form of preserved codfish, wind-dried rather than salt-cured and so much harder. It requires several days of soaking. It is a rarity in the US, but salt cod is a perfectly acceptable substitute, in my humble opinion. The original recipe does not call for garlic, but most recipes (even Italian ones) will include it these days. For a more assertive flavor, some recipes call for a fillet or two of anchovy.
Many recipes you will find, perhaps most, call for a mixture of milk and oil, often in a 50:50 ratio but sometimes mostly milk (or even cream) and only a bit of olive oil. I have read—though I can’t find the source now for the life of me—that the all-oil version is typical of Venice itself, while the milk and oil version comes from the inland areas around Vicenza. In the old days, olive oil was probitively expensive outside areas where olive tree grew, which meant most of northern Italy outside Liguria. Venice, itself, however, was lucky enough to have olive oil production nearby, where a micro-climate allowed for it. I now begin to doubt this explanation, however, as its seems that there is olive oil production in several areas in the Veneto (something I never knew until I looked into it) including around Vicenza. In fact, olive oil from the Veneto has its own DOP designation. In any event, the oil you use should not be too fruity. A lighter Ligurian or Provençale olive oil (assuming you don’t have access to the local variety!) would probably be the best choices. Avoid those fruity Puglian or Sicilian oils which, as wonderful as they are, would be too ‘heavy’ for this dish.