I’ve walked many wharves recently. The blog posts have slowed, and I skip a column more than occasionally; for my family there are two dinner scripts: “Here, darlings: dinner tonight is two variations of Bacalau a Braz, Portuguese crispy fried potatoes with salt cod and creamy scrambled eggs. For dessert we’re having three versions of Sconset Chocolate Cake.”
Or, this: “I’ve been reading recipes all day; you expect me to cook something now???? Make a salad.”
Our refrigerator is either stocked with salt cod, kale, potatoes, cabbage, linguica, chorizo, did I mention salt cod? – mesh bags bulging with fresh oysters, quahogs, steamers, and mussels, along with blueberries, cranberries, chocolate – and salt cod.
Or, else there is nothing but almond milk and apples.
The rolling wake of writing a cookbook lands thus upon my household.
But, we have all become salt cod converted. Call it baccala, bacalhau, kala, or just salt cod. Cut into pieces after that required soaking, rolled in rice flour and fried, salt cod becomes a golden, pillowy, crispy gift from the sea. Those who say salt cod is an entirely different being from its fresh cousin are correct; salt cod is salt cod, a sweet chunk of firm white fish still wearing some ocean. Fresh cod is more fragile, with a little less body.
In a small Provincetown cookbook dated 1941 the author, Harriet Adams, wrote this:
A booklet I have just read – a very modern booklet – says that to freshen salt fish you should lay it in a kettle of cold water, bring it almost to a boil, drain, refill with water, rebring almost to a boil. All in all, performing the process four separate times.
The idea, I presume is to persuade your salt fish to imitate the flavor of a fresh one. Well, a fresh fish certainly has its virtue. But, if we want a fresh fish, it isn’t too difficult to get one. Remember, a salt fish has a virtue all its own. If we don’t take steps, they will soon be topping it with Fudge Sauce.
Let us not give our salt fish velveteen breeches, an Eton collar or an Oxford accent. But, gentle ladies, let us not be too primitive. A salt fish really needs freshening. Some of its salt must really be removed. And by the length of time that you soak or boil it you are able to control the amount that you remove… But whatever you do to it be sure that you keep the essence, the salt-fish-ness of the fish. Be sure you save the gamey and yet invigorating whiff of that old billy goat – the sea.
I am having a great time writing this cookbook, which will cover delicious meals right off the boat, along coves, on beaches, in fish shacks, upon Inn porches from New Bedford to Newburyport. I’ve tallied a full week of hours in local libraries, some of them museum pieces themselves.
If you haven’t been to the Provincetown Public Library, the schooner Rose Dorothea sails through the second floor.
And I’ve found the best place on the North Shore to buy salt cod. Although I’m hoping my cookbook re-introduces what was once the ingredient that launched explorers around the world, don’t wait for me; the New England Meat Market in Peabody has a beautiful selection of salt cod; find a recipe – Finnish, Portuguese, Italian, or good old Yankee, and start soaking.