serves: 6 servings or more
I love dishes made from preserved cod fish, and in the Veneto they make marvelous use of cod preserved by different methods. Baccalà is cod fish that has been salted and this is made into baccalà Trevisano, which I share with you here. Then there is stoccafisso, cod fish that has been air dried and that is used for baccalà manteccato, whipped with olive oil and garlic.
Today salted cod-baccalà-is available in many supermarkets and your fish monger should carry it. It comes in boneless sides and it is to get center cuts which are meatier and less salty. In any case, thorough soaking, as detailed in the recipe, is vital to the success of the dish. In Treviso, baccalà Trevisano is always served with baked polenta, and the combination of flavors and textures is so delicious I never break tradition. Make the polenta the day before you cook the baccalà and you can finish both in the oven at the same time.
2 pounds boneless baccala, (salt cod)
1 cup flour, or more, for dredging
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 quart milk, or more if needed
1 cup Grana Padano, or more as needed
To remove the salt from the salt cod, put it in a large deep container that fits in your sink, under the faucet. Run fresh cold water over the fish, filling the container completely so water is spilling over the brim. Keep a slow steady drip of fresh water going as you soak the baccalà for at least 12 hours, up to a couple of days. Occasionally drain the water and refresh (which you can do whenever you need the sink). If you can't keep the drip going, change the water every 4 hours. To decide when baccalà has been soaked sufficiently, lift the fish out of the water, press a finger against it at a thick part, and touch it to the tongue. If it's palatably salty, it is ready to be cooked. Drain the baccalà, pat dry, and cook within a day or so. Store it in the refrigerator, well wrapped.
Cut the baccalà into chunks, about 3-inches square and dredge on all sides in flour. Put the butter and olive oil in the saucepan and set over medium heat. When the butter is foaming, lay in a batch of floured codfish chunks in one layer, not crowded. Cook and color the underside for several minutes, turn the chunks and crisp and color the other sides. When lightly browned all over, remove to a platter. Fry the remaining chunks the same way.
Dump the onion slices into the pan and toss well in the remaining oil. As the onions start to sizzle and wilt, pour in 1/2 cup water and stir and scrape up the browned bits on the pan bottom. Cook the onions, stirring frequently, until wilted and translucent, 8 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the milk almost to a simmer.
Lay the baccalà chunks on top of the caramelized onions, nestling in all the chunks in one layer. Pour in any juices from the fish platter and enough hot milk to completely cover the fish. Over medium heat, bring the milk to a gentle bubbling simmer. Set the cover slightly ajar and simmer the baccalà for about an hour and a half, until the fish chunks break apart when stirred.
Uncover the pan and maintain the slow simmer to gradually reduce the milk (which by now has curdled and separated-no cause for concern). Stir the fish occasionally and break up the flakes into smaller pieces. As the moisture evaporates, lower the heat and scrape up any crust on the pan bottom, to avoid burning.
Cook uncovered slowly for 2 to 2-1/2 hours, until the baccalà and milk have melded into a thick sauce, about half the original volume. (If you need to shorten the cooking time, boil the milk over higher heat but be sure to stir the baccalà and scrape the saucepan frequently.)
When fully cooked and thickened in the saucepan, pour the hot baccalà into the baking dish and spread it in an even layer. Heat the oven to 350 degrees and set a rack in the center. Sprinkle grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano over the top of the baccalà and bake for about an hour or until the top is crusty and browned.
Bake slices of firm polenta, topped with grated cheese, during the last 15 or 20 minutes that the baccalà is in the oven. To serve, put a slice or more of crisp polenta in a plate and spoon some hot baccalà alongside.