enturies ago, when Rome’s 2,000 year-old ghetto was a real ghetto filled with little shops for smoked fish and caviar and halvah and baccalá, I’d rise early on Friday and caddy over to the salt cod depot, where, in large sinks, I’d find white filets paddling around in icy water, ridding themselves of the excess salt in which they’re typically preserved.
These days you may make the same trek but to Ruggieri, my favorite Campo de’ Fiori grocer, where the same stainless steel bin is filled (seasonally) with baccalá taking their running water baths before being sold off and made into deep-fried bastone mantecato (a Venetian version of the French brandade) or my favorite baccalá con patate, baked in the oven with onions, potatoes and garlic until golden brown and creamy.
My love affair with baccalá, which began in Rome, soon grew even more passionate in France, where our local food store offered what seemed to me possibly the best baccalá I’ve ever tasted. They refused to disclose where they get their fish.
The best filets are not dried. They should be white, covered with salt, and be fairly thick in the middle sections while tapering off at the ends (not a thin, beige strip of fish that is actually stockfish, the Italian stoccafisso, which is not cured in salt but dried on the outside like clothes hung out on a windy line. It lacks the sweet, cod taste).
I desalinate my own fish, because I sometimes find that commercially desalinated filets have been in running water too long and have lost their flavor.
The first step is to wash off all the salt, put the fish in a deep container of cold water and place it in the fridge. I cut mine up so that more sides are exposed to water. This helps the fish desalinate faster. Mine usually stays in the fridge two days, the water changed twice a day, and to test it, I actually bite into the fish to see how salty it tastes. Saltiness is a subjective measure, so take it to whatever degree you like and consider it ready for preparation. You’ll need about 1-1/2 pounds of baccalá, or just a bit over half a kilo.
For four people, heat the oven to 375F/190C and cut pieces into six or eight 2-inch slices, covering them in flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Set them aside.
Now, cut 4 small potatoes into thick slices, along with 1 large sweet onion, sliced thin, and sauté quickly in olive oil. When the potatoes and onions are just tender, add 3 garlic cloves, chopped, and cook together for a minute or two to soften the garlic.
Brush a large baking dish with olive oil and put the onions and potatoes in a layer to cover the bottom. Lay the floured pieces of cod on this fragrant bed, and pour over all 1 cup of whole milk and 3/4 cup heavy cream. Dot with 2 tablespoons of soft butter and sprinkle with 1/2 cup fine bread crumbs (or toasts made into crumbs) and bake for about 30 minutes until the dish is bubbling and browned.
The dish will hold, covered with foil, for another 10-15 minutes. It can also be made ahead and brought to room temperature, then reheated (cover loosely with foil) in a hot oven in about 15 minutes.
I squeeze a bit of lemon over the dish just before serving to balance the acid.
Pour a nice, crisp Vermentino or Pinot Grigio and thank cod it’s finally ready for the table.