Sensational salt fish

Published on February 28, 2009
Salt cod simmers gently on the pan. Photo by Karl Wells/The Telegram

Zita Cobb of Fogo Island brought me some salted cod from the island the other day. On more than one occasion Zita and I have discussed our mutual passion for Newfoundland cuisine and it's various components. Of course, salt fish would be a major part of any discussion of Newfoundland culture and cuisine.

I watched as Zita carefully reached inside her cloth carrying bag and placed a tight, fat package of cod fillets on my counter, carefully wrapped in plastic. We gradually unpeeled the cling film to reveal six of the most beautiful pieces of salt cod I'd ever seen.

Zita Cobb of Fogo Island brought me some salted cod from the island the other day. On more than one occasion Zita and I have discussed our mutual passion for Newfoundland cuisine and it's various components. Of course, salt fish would be a major part of any discussion of Newfoundland culture and cuisine.

I watched as Zita carefully reached inside her cloth carrying bag and placed a tight, fat package of cod fillets on my counter, carefully wrapped in plastic. We gradually unpeeled the cling film to reveal six of the most beautiful pieces of salt cod I'd ever seen.

The fillets were white as freshly fallen snow. We smiled as only two dedicated foodies would at this treasure. Zita told me they've been experimenting with a different way of making salt fish on Fogo Island.

Actually, it's a little different for us, but not new. The method has been used in Iceland and other parts of the world.

Basically, fresh cod is covered in salt for three hours - just long enough for it to acquire the taste and texture of salt fish - and then it's refrigerated. That's what they've been doing in Iceland and it has worked wonders for them in terms of salt fish sales. Refrigeration delivers a much moister and attractive looking product to their European customers. Our traditional methods created a saltier, drier fish.

You can actually make your own version of this quick type of salt fish at home. It's just a matter of mixing up a salt rub and setting the fish in a covered container in your fridge. I did it once when I tried an Italian recipe for baccala - that's what the Italians call salt cod - that included tomatoes, anchovies, garlic and breadcrumbs.

The recipe, which came from the Puglia region of Italy near the Adriatic, called for what they term semi-cured cod - meaning fish that's a little less salty to the taste. Italians like choosing cod at various levels of saltiness.

Not celebrated

Zita Cobb has often wondered, as I have, why we in Newfoundland have never really celebrated the fact that it was here that salt cod was born, when even countries like Spain, Italy, Portugal and the Caribbean acknowledge the fact. This place, Newfoundland, is the land of salt cod or bacalao (Spain), baccala (Italy), bacalhau (Portugal), buljol (Caribbean) or saltfiskur (Iceland).

Why haven't we developed more recipes for its use? Why do we not have salt fish festivals? We have blueberry, partridgeberry and bakeapple festivals. I should think a salt fish festival might be of great interest to tourists as well as Newfoundlanders.

A quick scan of my Newfoundland and Labrador cookbooks came up with precious few recipes for salt cod, apart from the usual suspects: fish and brewis, fisherman's brewis and fish cakes. Even Newfoundland favourites like "Fatback and Molasses" and "The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes" barely touched on the subject.

"The Treasury of Newfoundland Dishes" did allow for salt fish balls, salt codfish pie and individual salt fish loaves. We were both startled when Zita found a recipe for curried salt cod in "Fatback and Molasses." What on earth was that recipe doing in the quintessential (supposedly) Newfoundland cookbook?

Even the 1966 "Come Home Year Cook Book" by the St. Michael and All Angels W.A. could only offer our returning ex-pats, starving for food of the homeland, a single fish and brewis recipe.

To their credit, "Our Favourite Recipes (1976)" by the Grace General Hospital Alumni and "Favourite Recipes (1982)" by the First St. James Cubs and Beavers Group Committee did offer identical recipes for something called salt cod and rice casserole. However, the dish really didn't have an authentic Newfoundland ring to it with its emphasis on rice, green peppers and canned tomatoes.

Foreign cookbooks

Then I began pulling out cookbooks I'd collected featuring the cuisines of many of the countries I've mentioned. In "Italia" by Antonio Carluccio (whom I've had the pleasure of meeting) I found baccala con peperoni alla griglia or salt cod and grilled red peppers. In the "Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Italian Cooking," recipe author Michele Scicolone offered a beautiful salt cod salad from Liguria. In Time Life's "The Cooking of Italy" they talk about dipping strips of watered and pat-dried salt cod in batter and frying them in olive oil to produce a dish called filetti di baccala.

Still more interesting dishes came from other cookbooks. In "Caribbean Cooking," by Devinia Sookia, there was the famous ackee and salt fish from Jamaica. "Classic Tapas," edited by Rafael de Haro, had the delicious bacalao al ajo arriero (cod with garlic) and bacalao encebollado (cod with onions). And in "Savouring Spain and Portugal" by Joyce Goldstein, I discovered an old friend, bacalhau a gomes de sa (salt cod and potato gratin) a national dish of Portugal.

I had found the recipe for Zita's cod gift. Having recently had my fair share of our own delicious fish and brewis with pork scrunchions, this was an opportunity to try something different from a culture that really took salt fish to another level on the culinary scale. I remembered enjoying bacalhau a gomes de sa a few times over the past 20 years. It's redolent with the aroma of olives and garlic.

Let's hope that in the future, with efforts now being made by Zita Cobb's Shorefast Foundation's cooks on Fogo Island, that we will not only be producing our own semi-cured cod but also great Newfoundland-based recipes to go with it.

Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa

(salt cod and potato gratin, shown above)

Recipe courtesy "Savouring Spain and Portugal" xxxxxxxxxxx by Joyce Goldstein, Time Life Books

Ingredients:

1 lb boneless salt cod, soaked overnight

Milk to cover if needed

1 1/2 lb boiling potatoes (3 large) peeled

6 tbsp. olive oil

2 yellow onions, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1 tsp. freshly ground pepper

20 oil-cured black olives

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced

Method:

Drain the cod and place in a saucepan with water to cover.

Bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat and cook until tender, 10-15 minutes. Drain, let cool slightly, then break up with your fingers, removing any bits of skin and small bones. Taste the cod. If too salty, cover with milk and let rest for 30 minutes, then drain and set aside.

At the same time, combine the potatoes with water to cover, bring to a boil, and boil until tender but firm, 20-25 minutes. Drain and slice 1/4 inch thick. Set aside.

In a frying pan over medium heat, warm two tablespoons of the oil. Add the onions and sautÉ until just tender, 7-8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. In the same pan, warm 3 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the potatoes and sautÉ until golden, about five minutes.

Preheat an oven to 400 F. Oil a large gratin dish or four individual dishes.

Layer half of the potatoes in the bottom, top with half of the cod, and then half of the onions. Sprinkle with a little of the parsley and the pepper. Repeat the layers, then drizzle the top with the remaining oil.

Bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Garnish with the olives and hard-boiled eggs and sprinkle with the remaining parsley. Serve at once. Serves four.