My relationship with baccala began last summer when my husband was given the gift of Cod, a biography of the fish written by Mark Kurlansky. He is an avid catch-and-release fisherman, and since we generally eat a lot of seafood, the book quickly found its way into his weekly leisure reading stack. Toward the end of the book there is a section about baccala – salted dried cod — which is often served at the holidays, especially in Italy as part of the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas eve.
Now that Christmas is over and your cooking plans are no doubt moving on to New Year’s eve and post-holiday celebrations, I’d like to show you this baccala appetizer. I hope you are not all “cooked” out by now, because this dish makes a great addition to your New Year’s freezer stash since once made it can easily be pulled out, defrosted, cooked and served, with minimal effort.
Baccala Cakes are a high salt food
Please be aware that this is an extremely high sodium dish. One baccala cake contains nearly 3000 mg of sodium, which is double the total daily recommended amount of sodium for adults age 51 or older, or if you are African American, or have high blood pressure diabetes or chronic kidney disease. While there is a lot of research and debate ongoing currently on the topic of what the “right” amount of salt should be in our diet – regardless, this is clearly a high salt food. Eat it in moderation as a very “once in a while” type of food. Enough said, let’s move on to the details about how to actually make it happen.
Rolling back the calendar a few weeks, here’s how this dish began…In early December I stopped in at McCaffrey’s Market in Princeton, NJ to inquire about the fish, and found that it was in stock in preparation for the holiday season. I consulted Saidur Rehman, Seafood Lead Department Manager about the fish, and he suggested serving baccala hors d’oeuvres style — small dollops of tasty fish on endive leaves with a savory tomato-based sauce. I took his advice and bought a large piece of baccala fish to try out the idea and later that week went to work in my kitchen. While this recipe is not his exact recipe, I do want to give him proper credit for the idea because using the endive as a base for the appetizer is really a great way to serve this wonderful fish.
To make baccala you have to start 2-3 days in advance. This is not a weeknight quick and easy dish to make at the front end, although once it is prepared it freezes well and can easily become dinner on a night when you don’t have a lot of time to cook. When I made it, I did both the baccala “cake” version (think crabcakes but made with other ingredients) as well as the appetizer version so that I could serve it for a Holiday gathering.
Baccala Cakes and Appetizer
(makes 24 baccala cakes or 18 baccala cakes plus 30 appetizers)
- 2 lbs. baccala (salted, dried cod)
- 2 ½ lbs. potatoes (3 large), boiled in skin
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 2 tsp. oregano
- 3 dashes Tabasco sauce
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- 3 eggs
- 1-1½ cups Italian breadcrumbs for dredging
Tomato Caper Sauce:
- 1 15 oz. can diced “no salt” tomatoes
- 1 medium onion, chopped finely
- 1 Tbsp. capers
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- ¼ cup white wine
1. Start 2-3 days before you plan to serve the baccala.
2. Rinse the extra salt from the fish and place in a large pan that is deep enough to cover the fish with water. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Change the water at least 3 times/day.
3. When you are ready to make the baccala cakes or appetizer, start by boiling the potatoes in their skin for approximately 30 minutes until cooked.
4. Remove the fish from the soaking water and rinse under cold running water.
5. Place the fish in a large shallow pan and cover it with 1-2” of fresh water. Cook on medium – high for 8 -10 minutes until fish flakes and is gently cooked. Do not overcook. Remove from cooking water and set aside to cool.
6. Spray a large skillet with canola oil and sauté the onion for 2-3 minutes until translucent.
7. Peel the potatoes and puree them in a blender with ½ cup water until smooth.
8. Once the fish has cooled, flake it gently into small pieces.
9. Place the flaked fish, potatoes, onions, spices and eggs in a large bowl and gently blend by hand (wear gloves).
10. Using a 1/3 cup size scoop, shape patties by hand. Dredge in Italian bread crumbs.*
11. Place on a parchment lined backing sheet and freeze for later use (or refrigerate if using same day).
12. When ready to serve, make tomato caper sauce. Spray small skillet with canola oil and briefly sauté onions on medium high heat for 3-5 minutes until soft.
13. Add canned tomatoes, white wine, capers and black pepper and mix gently. Continue to cook for 2-3 minutes until well blended and consistency thickens slightly. Remove from heat and set aside until ready to serve.
14. For the baccala cakes, if they have been frozen, defrost in the refrigerator for at least a day before serving.
15. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place 1 Tbsp. of canola oil in a large skillet and heat on medium high. Place defrosted fish patties in pan and sauté until heated and cooked through. If they start to brown too quickly on the stove top, finish cooking by placing the skillet in the 350 degree F oven for approximately 10 minutes to ensure cakes are completely done.
16. Serve with Tomato Caper Sauce.
*Optional: If you want to make a baccala appetizer, spray a pie pan with canola oil and spread 2 cups of baccala mixture in the pan. Press gently to make an even layer. Top with sprinkle of Italian bread crumbs, cover and freeze for later use (or refrigerate if using same day).
The day before you plan to serve the appetizer, place tray in the refrigerator to defrost. The day you are serving, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Bake defrosted baccala in 375 degree F oven for 20 minutes or so until heated and cooked through.
Place small dollop of baccala mixture on individual endive leaves, top with Tomato Caper Sauce and parsley garnish, if desired.
Nutrition information per baccala cake: 210 calories; 2 grams fat; 0 grams saturated fat; 80 mg cholesterol; 2990 mg sodium; 18 grams carbohydrate; 2 gram dietary fiber; 27 grams protein (values are approximate).
Happy New Year! Wishing you the very best for a happy and healthy 2016!!