I’m trying to empty a deep freeze and things are being unearthed that I’d forgotten I’d ever bought. This morning it was a freezer bag full of soaked-out salt cod, already cut into serving-sized pieces, as well as a tray of salt cod morsels, so dry they looked ancient.
Salt cod is rare in my house — first because I try not to eat too much salted anything and second if I am going to indulge, it’s with a whole split cod (the flavour can’t compare on those tiny scraps). But I’m darned if I can throw away good food, so now I’m contemplating recipes.
Salt cod in olive oil and white wine
There’s an old Italian recipe that has salt cod fillet fried in olive oil with hot peppers. This is my version, and, if you are a salt cod lover, you will enjoy this dish. Serve it with golden brown roasted potatoes and whatever vegetable sides you would have with fresh fish and this is a winner.
If you don’t want to fuss with roasting and peeling red peppers, I have to admit the jarred ones work perfectly. You will need two medium jars to get six peppers’ worth.
Allow about one pound of cod for every three people, so this much will serve six.
3 lbs. salt cod
6 red bell peppers
1/3 cup decent quality olive oil — not necessarily extra virgin
6 cloves garlic
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (to taste)
1 cup flour (for dredging)
1/2 cup dry white wine (drinking quality)
1/2 tsp. salt (more or less, depending on how salty the fish is)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
There are no accurate instructions for soaking out salt cod. The time it takes depends on the thickness of the fish, how heavily salted it was to start with, how old it is, and how you like it at the end.
For best results, cut the fish into serving-sized pieces and put in a deep bowl or pot. Cover with lots of cold water and soak in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, changing the water whenever you think of it.
The way I test it is to squeeze the fish and lick my fingers — sorry if you find that unpleasant but it’s the only way I can tell whether enough salt has soaked out. If the flavour is not too salty but still has a little relish to it, the fish is ready to cook.
If you want a more surefire method, cut off a small piece, boil it for a few minutes in plain water and taste it.
Drain fish and dry thoroughly on paper towels.
While the fish is soaking, roast the red peppers in a hot oven or under the broiler until they are charred and the skin completely blackened all over. Put in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap until they are cool enough to touch, then rub off the skin.
A few pecks of black left won’t hurt a bit. Get rid of the stems and the seeds, as well. I see lots of recipes saying to rinse them, but I prefer not to — I really believe you wash away a substantial amount of flavour. Cut the peppers into 1/4-inch slices and set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large frying pan. Peel the garlic cloves and smack them with the flat part of the knife blade to crush them slightly — don’t cut them up. Add them to the hot oil along with red pepper flakes and cook until toasted and golden brown. Fish out the garlic and discard — it has done its work.
Dredge the cod in the flour and place in a single layer in the hot oil. Fry on one side until lightly golden brown then flip over. Brown on the second side. Add roasted red peppers to the pan along with wine, salt and pepper.
Simmer together about 10 minutes, or until fish is cooked through. Place fish on a serving platter. Stir parsley into the mixture in the frying pan and pour over the fish to serve.
Most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians assume you mean salt cod cakes when you say fish cakes, even though we may make an occasional fresh one I am sorry to say.
I’ve eaten my freezer stash and I’m going to invest the last of the salt fish in my house (at least this house, before I move) in fish cakes. No doubt I’ve shared the recipe before but I get asked frequently, so it bears repeating.
Some say you need breadcrumbs and herbs and eggs and various other things mixed in. I don’t hold with that, but the choice is yours if you have a favourite version.
1 lb. salt cod, soaked out as in the previous recipe
4-6 yellow-fleshed potatoes, peeled, boiled and coarsely mashed
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp. butter or margarine
1/4 cup (or more) vegetable oil for frying
Boil the cod in lots of water about 10 minutes or until tender — the thicker the pieces the longer they take to cook, of course. Cool and remove the bones. Flake apart with your fingers and add to mashed potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Fry onion in butter until soft — I know lots of people use raw onion but I prefer it cooked.
Cool and add to fish and potatoes. Form into cakes about one-inch thick and as large around as you like. Fry in oil until golden, crusty brown on both sides and serve with lots of homemade bread and molasses, if you are fortunate enough to have both on hand.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s.
Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86,
St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.