Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home.
Today: The simple Venetian staple that needs nothing but a glass of something sparkly in hand.
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You cannot talk about Venetian food without talking about the cicheto, that wonderful ritual bite to eat with a sparkling, candy-colored glass of spritz or an ombra, a little, rounded glass of local wine. And you cannot talk about the cicheto without mentioning baccalà mantecato. Dried Atlantic cod, soaked, poached and whipped until mousse-like, spread on a slice of baguette or, more traditionally, grilled polenta -- it's an obligatory taste of Venice. In the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley compares it to France's brandade de morue, but adds,“Patriots and purists see the Venetian recipe as superior in every way.”
Like all good, simple recipes, you need the right ingredients. First, you need the right fish. Baccalà is a popular, traditional ingredient found on tables all over the Italian peninsula and originally comes from Norway. It usually refers to cod preserved under salt then dried, but cod that has just been dried without salt is known as stoccafisso, stockfish. The Venetians, confusingly, call stockfish baccalà. It's usually sold whole, while salted baccalà comes in pieces, and both need plenty of time soaking in fresh water to become tender (in the case of stockfish) and palatable (in the case of salted baccalà) before use.
Once the baccalà has been revived, it's poached, perhaps with a clove or two of garlic or maybe some lemon and fresh bay leaves or -- according to recipes from Venetian Jewish kitchens -- with a bit of milk. Then, while still steaming hot, comes its transformation. The key to making this dish is in the Italian verb, mantecare, which means to mix, but more specifically describes a movement and technique for creating something creamy. It's used for risotto, for example -- that technique of swirling the pan with the last minute addition of cold butter for the creamiest risotto that just melts and shimmies onto the plate at the right speed.
In fact, the technique for making a successful baccalà mantecato is much like making mayonnaise -- a dribble of olive oil at a time with one hand, while the other beats like mad. Of course, you can do it with a mixer, but purists will say the metal blade affects the texture and consistency. The traditional way? Beating with a wooden spoon.
This is the traditional recipe in its simplest form. Served with some slices of baguette or grilled white polenta, it needs nothing more other than perhaps a sprinkle of chopped parsley for some, some white pepper or nutmeg for others, and a glass of something sparkly in hand.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.