Many foods that were popular in the years before refrigeration became common have since fallen out of favor, replaced by fresher, tastier alternatives. Salt cod, however—cod that’s been salted and dried, thus preserving it—is still ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean and northern Europe (plus Brazil and the Caribbean), even though it’s often more expensive than fresh cod.
But as Harold McGee explains in the food-science tome On Food and Cooking, the process of salting the fish breaks down “flavorless proteins and fats into savory fragments, which then react further to create flavors of great complexity.” He adds that the finished product is “the piscatory equivalent of salt-cured hams.”
Tony Mantuano, who was challenged by Quartino’s John Coletta to create a dish with salt cod, has a great affection for the ingredient. His grandmother, a native of Calabria (the fish is called baccala in Italy), used to prepare it with tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, and fresh basil—though Mantuano has never quite been able to replicate her recipe. “That was the one dish I could never get right for my dad,” he says. “Every time I made it he’d be like, ‘Eh, it’s close.’ ”
Instead of trying yet again to re-create Grandma Mantuano’s recipe, the chef made a dish that involved poaching the salt cod in olive oil. First, though, he had to soak it: the preserved cod is so dry and salty that it’s “completely inedible,” he says, and requires a day or two of soaking (and changing the water frequently) before it can be cooked. Mantuano speculated that an easy way to do this might be to put the salt cod in the water tank of a toilet, so that the water would be changed every time the toilet was flushed. “I don’t recommend trying that at home, nor do we do it at Spiaggia,” he jokes. “My grandmother might have done it.”
Spiaggia chefs make their own salt cod, putting it on salt for two weeks, after which it can be kept almost indefinitely until the chefs are ready to use it. Mantuano poached the rehydrated salt cod in oil with thyme, bay leaves, and garlic for about five minutes, just until the fish was warmed through. He served it with a puree of purgatory beans—a type of white bean—and topped the dish with a generous amount of Australian black truffles.
“The beauty of [the dish] is that it’s all about the truffles and how they highlight the baccala,” Mantuano says. “Unfortunately, my ingredient wasn’t truffles, but the baccala is at a whole other level when you cook it like this.”
Mantuano has challenged Takashi Yagihashi (Takashi, Slurping Turtle, Tabo Sushi) to create a dish with bottarga—the cured roe from gray mullet or tuna. Mantuano says that he cooked a dinner with Yagihashi “where we sort of flip-flopped—I did Japanese and he did Italian. He gave me this ingredient that he claims is like Japanese bottarga.” What it’s called, Mantuano can’t remember, but he decided that the “real thing” would be an appropriate challenge for Yagihashi.
Baccala With Purgatory Beans and Truffles
1 cup dried purgatory beans, soaked in cold water overnight, drained
1 yellow onion, cut into quarters
1 carrot, peeled, cut into chunks
1 stalk celery, cut into chunks
1 pound reconstituted salt cod, cut into one-inch squares
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh truffles for shaving
Note: Buy the salt cod in its dried state. Soak the cod in water over a three-day period. It is crucial to change the water every five to six hours. Rinse the reconstituted fish and pat dry before cooking.
Prepare the beans: Place the beans in a large saucepan with fresh water to cover by three inches. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the beans are tender, an hour to an hour and a half.
Drain the beans, reserving a half cup of the cooking liquid. Discard the onion, carrot, and celery. Transfer half the beans to a small saucepan over low heat until ready to use. Transfer the remaining beans, the reserved cooking liquid, and two tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil to a food processor and puree. Transfer the puree to a small saucepan and keep warm over low heat until ready to use. Season both bean preparations to taste with salt and pepper.
Prepare the fish: Add the remaining one cup extra-virgin olive oil to a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the baccala and poach gently for five minutes, or until the fish is heated through.
To serve, transfer the puree to four warm plates. Divide the beans equally among the plates. With a slotted spoon, place the poached cod onto each plate. Shave truffles over each and serve immediately.