Thursday, December 15, 2011

Baccala Mantecato and Lidia's Holiday Special

There was always fried baccala on Christmas eve. And fried smelts. And fish as small as minnows that stuck together in clumps when they were fried. When you ate them amid a boisterous family at a table that stretched to include neighbors too, it was like munching on a cluster of crunchy, salty, baby fish - which they were. There were other fried fish too, including eels - slaughtered in the kitchen one year, leaving the porcelain sink and the white curtains bathed in red.

There was pasta too - with squid or with crabs - always in tomato sauce. There was sometimes conch, especially when I was a teenager and my brother in the Navy got leave and brought home the freshly caught seafood. There was a nod to American cuisine too (and the 1960s), usually at the beginning of the meal when my mom placed a fluted glass holding six plump shrimp and cocktail sauce on each plate.

After I married, my mother-in-law introduced me to her stuffed squid recipe, which then also became part of my Christmas eve tradition, even after I scrapped most of the fried fish. Now I include a seafood risotto, which soaks up the tomato sauce from the stuffed squid so beautifully. Some years I've made seafood salad, or octopus and potato salad - always a hit, but a budget buster. But hey, it is Christmas eve, or "La Vigilia" as it's known in Italian.

I can't drop the baccala completely, even if it's no longer dredged in flour and fried in deep fat. Now I'm more likely to use it in codfish cakes, or as an appetizer of baccala mantecato, a dish that is typical of the Veneto region, where it's frequently served with grilled polenta.

salt cod or "baccala"

These are some of the foods that will be on my table for La Vigilia, and I'll bet on a lot of your tables too, if there are Italians in your household. Strangely though, none of my mother's relatives (in Northern Italy) follow this custom. Even in my husband's family in Abruzzo - the south-central part of Italy -  the so-called "Feast of the Seven Fishes" or "Feast of the 13 Fishes" is not commonly observed. There might be a pasta with seafood, followed by a whole roasted fish, or maybe a platter of fried fish instead. But not the "abbondanza" of dishes that we here in the states think of as the gluttonous Christmas eve repast. By the way, it's said that the seven fishes represent the seven sacraments in the Catholic religion, while the 13 fishes are symbolic of Jesus and his twelve disciples.

 I was reminded that Christmas eve is right around the corner, when I viewed an advance copy of a program that will be airing Tuesday, Dec. 20 on public television stations featuring  Lidia Bastianich. It's called "Lidia Celebrates America: Holiday Tables and Traditions." Here's a short clip to give you a preview:

The program really struck home with me when Lidia was shopping on Arthur Avenue with Mo Rocca and eels were slithering on the floor, and in her kitchen when she was preparing her Christmas eve feast with Stanley Tucci. "There's no vigilia without baccala and there's no vigilia without eel," Lidia says, as she starts cooking with Tucci in the kitchen that's familiar to viewers of her TV shows. This time, viewers are taken into her dining room too, as the abundant meal is spread out before guests, including Tucci's parents and Lidia's own beloved mother Erminia.

Aside from the Italian Christmas eve dinner, Lidia takes her viewers to San Francisco, inside the home of a Chinese family preparing for the lunar new year; to San Antonio, Texas where many generations of an immigrant family celebrate Christmas with Mexican traditions; and back to New York and the lower East side, where a Passover Seder is prepared at the home of one of the fourth-generation owners of specialty food store Russ & Daughters. Joining them is Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor, who prepares her mother's recipe for brisket.

"Everyone is longing for a taste of the past,"  says Reichl. "That's why holiday meals are so important. Everybody who has sat around the table in the past is joining us."

I admit I'm more sentimental than most - especially in this past year - but the people and traditions that were so lovingly on display in this video made me smile, but also brought tears to my eyes - and not just in the Italian segment. Each of the ethnic groups in the program has at its base a common denominator that goes beyond the ingredients, the markets and the dishes that are prepared. Watch for yourself next Tuesday and see if you don't agree with Stanley Tucci when he says that cooking and sharing these traditions is "... a way of passing on family history, emotions -- it's a way of connecting with somebody. It's a way of expressing love ... and that's the thing for me that makes food so interesting."

Here's a little bit of love coming your way, especially to Kathy of Birdy Chat, who is the winner of the tea from Mariage Freres that I offered as a giveaway. For the rest of you, here's my recipe for baccala mantecato.

Baccala Mantecato

Printable Recipe Here

1 pound salt cod, soaked for at least two days and cut into large pieces *see below

2 garlic cloves

1 medium potato, cut into chunks

3 cups milk

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup light cream

1/2 cup Italian parsley, minced

freshly ground black pepper

additional liquid from the poaching liquid, if needed

optional: 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

  • Place the milk into a large pot and add the potatoes and garlic pieces. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes are almost cooked, but need a little more time.

  • Add the codfish pieces and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of the cod.

  • Drain the potatoes, codfish and garlic, reserving the milk.

  • Place the potatoes, fish, garlic and black pepper into a food processor and add the olive oil and cream, and blend, keeping the machine running until you have a thick "paste." If you need to add more liquid, use the poaching liquid.

  • Put in the parsley and blend again. If the mixture is too thick, add more of the poaching liquid.

  • Add the cheese if desired. (To some, combining cheese and fish is tantamount to sacrilegious. Use at your own risk.)

*Note: When you buy salt cod, it's VERY salty and stiff as a board. Place it into a big bowl or pot that will fit into the refrigerator. Start by running cold water over the fish, in a bowl in the sink - for about 10 minutes straight. Then place the fish and the bowl filled with cold water in the refrigerator. At least twice a day, dump out the old water and replace it with fresh, clean water. The fish should reconstitute in less than a day, but it will still be salty. Sometimes I rinse the fish too many days (four or so) and I lose that familiar "salt cod" taste. Each year is different and each year the recipe turns out different.

This recipe will certainly keep overnight in the refrigerator, but it will stiffen up and become hard. It's best eaten when it's at room temperature or slightly warm and easily spreadable. If you don't want to make the grilled polenta (which spritzes oil all over the range!), serve with crackers or bread.

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  1. You must never -- not ever -- drop the baccala off of this menu.


    I'm begging you here.

  2. I hope that Lidia's show comes to the Canadian Food Network. I spent Christmas last year with a Portuguese family and over tiome have learned to love baccala.

  3. What a great starter! The baccala looks amazing.



  4. The baccala does look amazing, but I'm somewhat confused by this:•Add the cheese if desired. (To some, combining baccala and fish is tantamount to sacrilegious. Use at your own risk.)
    Is it cheese and fish that it's sacrilegious to combine or salt fish and fresh fish?

  5. Baccala is so hard to come by here. Sigh. There is so much in this post, Linda. I remember the abundance on Christmas Eve - although not quite what you had - because the same cast of characters would meet 12 hours later for a ridiculous amount of food. Tucci's quote is of course why I cook. In fact - it is exactly why I started blogging. And Reichl's quote "everyone wants a taste of the past" is spot on - sometimes we are innocents again - reliving the good parts of childhood through a meal. And if we can provide that - we are so lucky to be able to do so. I never watch TV but I may make an exception on December 20th. Interestingly, my mother hates baccala! But I'm noting the ingredients.

  6. June - Good catch. I made an error in saying "...combining baccala and fish is tantamount to sacrilegious." I meant to say "....combining baccala and cheese..." Will correct asap.

  7. Ciao Linda anche da noi a Natale si ricordano sempre gli eventi passati. Hai interpretato divinamente questo piatto veneto, le foto sono splendide. Un abbraccio Daniela.

  8. I always love reading about traditional Italian Christmas eve foods! Since my family is from the mountains north of Modena, the tradition of fish never took place. It sounds like such a great and delicious feast! Buon Natale, Linda!!! Keep up you great blog in 2012!

  9. My husband loves baccala and it would not be Christmas Eve without it in our table. I usually prepare Baccala Florentine, and also simply floured and deep fried. I will have to try this preparation!

    Lydia's show looks so interesting --I hope I get the chance to view it.

  10. I love this post and all the great memories you reminded me of! Baccala and seafood salad,wouldn't be Christmas eve without them! Your platter looks beautiful!

  11. Il baccalà mantecato è tipico della mia zona, a Trieste si può comperare già pronto in tutti i supermarket, non manca mai sulle tavole specialmente in questo periodo di festa! un bacione cara Linda, buon weekend....

  12. Oh my, wouldn't I love to sit at your table on Christmas Eve. Your post is wonderful, Linda, and it is so nice of you to share your family memories. Those traditions are a family's treasures.

  13. Ciao Linda, What a terrific post, as always from you! Thanks also for "The Taste of Lidia" - She is a Goddess! Buon Natale!

  14. This was such a lovely post it brought tears to my does not matter where we come from we are all the same...big family....small family...
    I am so looking forward to Lidia's special on the 20th...I just got the new cookbook and I already love it!
    I am always an honorary Italian on Christmas Eve...I could not imagine it being any other way...
    Merry Christmas to you and yours Linda!

  15. I'm always jealous of the feast of the seven fishes and wish I came from an Italian family! The rest of my family doesn't enjoy seafood nearly as much as I do, but I could serve baccala when I'm back at my house for New Year's Eve.

  16. it looks reeaaally good! I can't wait to try it

  17. I love Baccala very much, unfortunately I have to special order it, because I couldn't find it where I live. Thanks for the recipe Linda. Will keep this in mind whenever I have that salted cod in hand.

  18. Ciao Linda, un abbraccio e Buon Natale. Daniela.

  19. Darn - missed the special! Last-minute scrapbooking/cookie baking. I wish you a joyful Christmas and hope that your days are merry and bright with your family, good food and glad tidings.

  20. Bacala and stuffed squid.....what time is Christmas Eve?

  21. I love baccalà as I think you know, almost any way you can think of. And baccalà mantecato is one of my favorites.. Happy Holidays!