My mind immediately associates salt cod with Lent and with a poor man’s meal. Probably I got this impression because this dish was part of the diet of local rural families. My grandmother used to prepare bakkaljaw cooked in a tomato, caper, olive and mint sauce during the fasting period in Lent. Yet, I have recently dismissed the connection with a poor man’s meal because salt cod is truly not the cheapest of fish to buy anymore. Is it because it travels all the way from the Atlantic? Didn’t it use to travel so far before?
Today, salt cod, with its odd appearance and pungent smell seemed to have lost its prominence in local cuisine. It might be the peasant identity which attaches to it, or the time-consuming re-hydration process but even menus in local restaurants rarely contain salt cod dishes. Salt cod looks unappetizing but its texture is ideal for various recipes. If you have a look at Italian, Portuguese and Spanish recipes you will realize that the fish is suitable for casseroles, stews, fish cakes, fritters, salads, patés, it can be fried, grilled, boiled or roasted. Indeed, Portuguese have 366 different recipes of cooking bacalhau, one daily and an extra one for the leap years.
So, the versatile characteristic of salt cod can make a plain hearty meal and doubtlessly even a sophisticated one. Recipes and combination of ingredients seem to be infinite. I will surely be trying different recipes and proposing them to you. Meanwhile, I look forward to see salt cod on our local restaurant menus!
To cook salt cod you need to plan ahead. The cod needs to soak in cold water for at least 48 hours in order to desalinate. You should change its water regularly and keep it refrigerated until it is ready for cooking. Then there’s that tedious process of removing its skin and bones. To facilitate this stage I suggest you boil the cod in some milk until it’s just tender, then remove it skin, bones and cut as required by your chosen recipe. For my grandmother’s adapted recipe I chose to remove the skin and bones without boiling the salt cod. Well, it took me some time!
Oven-baked salt cod with tomato sauce & potatoes
Ingredients for 4 persons:
- 500g soaked salt cod
- 4 medium potatoes, same size
- 400g peeled tomatoes
- 100g capers
- 1 onion
- a bunch of fresh parsley
- a couple of fresh mint leaves
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp sugar
- salt & pepper
Peel, wash and finely chop the onion. Fry it in some extra virgin olive oil until it’s transparent. Add the tomatoes, sugar, salt & pepper. Cook for 15 minutes on medium heat until the sauce has thickened. Throw in the capers and mint leaves. Keep cooking for some more minutes.
In the meantime, peel and wash the potatoes. Cut into even slices and cook in salted boiling water for 3 minutes. Leave to drain on some kitchen paper.
Cut the desalinated cod pieces into cubes and coat with finely chopped parsley. Drizzle some extra virgin olive oil in an oven dish, spread some tomato sauce as a base, lay the potato slices round the edge of the dish leaving some space in the center. Place the salt cod cubes in the center of the dish, add the remaining tomato sauce and pour some extra virgin olive oil on top, cover with aluminium foil and bake in a preheated oven of 180 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. Remove aluminium foil and cook for another 10 minutes until the potatoes are golden. Serve with crusty Maltese bread.