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Salt Cod
M ention salt cod and most of us will probably turn up our noses. Fresh is the order of the day. Every day. So we ask for the salmon, the sole, the haddock and the snapper. We look over the tuna and the swordfish. On the rare chance that there is fresh cod at the fish monger's, we might take it home and cook it for dinner. But that dried slab in the corner with the salty crust and the strong fishy smell—why buy that when there is so much fresh around?

Ahh, but those from Africa, the Caribbean and particularly from southern European countries know better.

Salt cod was essential to people from the Mediterranean basin for almost a millennia. Meat was forbidden on Fridays and other days holy to the Catholic calendar, especially during Lent and on Christmas Eve. For many centuries dried fish, called stock fish, was imported from Scandinavia since there was not enough of a constant supply of fresh fish in the Mediterranean or in that part of the Atlantic bordering Europe.

The oceans of cod that Cabot and Cartier sailed through off Newfoundland brought fleets of boats from Europe. But the voyage was too long to bring the fish back fresh and the weather was too wet in Newfoundland to simply dry it like stock fish. Gutting, laying the fish flat and salting it was the best way to preserve it. When it was fairly dry it was stacked and brought back. Often the same ships that brought slaves to North America returned to Europe with salt cod. Later the trade route included trips to the Caribbean. Ships introduced salt cod to these islands and came back with rum.

To think of salt cod merely as dried fish is to miss the point. This is not a lower quality of fish; it is completely different. It is like comparing fresh salmon with smoked salmon. Or pork with cured ham. There is a place for each on our plate and choosing one does not denigrate the other.

The flavour of salt cod is intense and not salty when it is prepared. The texture is meaty and firm, not unlike swordfish or even chicken. It is chewy and toothsome.

Properly prepared salt cod means that it must be soaked and rinsed several times for up to two days depending on the thickness of the fish. Then the ethnic angle kicks in. Salt cod is common in Caribbean cooking, for example, where it is often with akee, a fruit with a cooked taste and texture like scrambled eggs. Many Caribbean restaurants serve salt fish and akee only for breakfast or on weekends.

In Greek restaurants look for bakaliaro tiganito. Here, the cod is fried in a light batter and usually served with cold garlicky mashed potatoes. In France a favourite dish is brandade de morue—a salt cod purée. In Portugal, its bacalhua; and in Spain bacalao, with tomatoes, onions and garlic.

Although salt cod is sold in many fish shops, hydrating it and cooking it can be a long process. If you do buy it, remember that it will double in size as you repeatedly soak and rinse it.

Fortunately there are many restaurants with salt cod on the menu. Two excellent ones, with very different approaches to this meaty but meatless dish are Carlos Ferreira, the extravagantly wonderful Portuguese restaurant at 1446 Peel (phone: 514-848-0988) and Panama, a Greek family-style rotisserie, at 789 Jean Talon West (phone: 514-276-5223).

© Barry Lazar 2002

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