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Salt Cod: An Affinity for the Elemental

March 18, 1993|STEVEN RAICHLEN

Salt cod is not the most fashionable ingredient today, but in the age before refrigeration, it was one of the world's most popular forms of fish. The Portuguese are so fond of it, they have a saying that a woman is not ready to marry until she can prepare salt cod 365 different ways. The august French cooking encyclopedia "Larousse Gastronomique" devotes three pages to cod recipes. New Englanders affectionately refer to it as "Cape Cod turkey."

In these days of refrigeration, salt cod might seem less appealing. It's no convenience food, because it needs long soaking before you can cook it. When you buy it, it's as stiff as a board and smells like a locker room. It's not even much of a bargain any longer; it costs just as much as fresh cod, or even more.

Still, salt cod is the main ingredient in French brandade de morue (a creamy salt cod and garlic puree) and in Jamaican stamp-and-go (spicy salt cod fritters). Without it, Italians wouldn't have baccala alla Livornese (salt cod in tomato sauce) and Yankees would lack codfish balls, a New England Sunday-morning tradition. Salt cod has an affinity for such elemental foods as onions, potatoes, tomatoes, olive oil and cream.

There are many ways to salt cod. The oldest is a method called salt kenching: Fresh cod fillets are layered with salt to draw out the moisture. Depending on when and where the fish is caught, 100 pounds might be cured with as much as 40 or as little as 15 pounds of salt. The average is 17% to 20% salt by weight, which is Portugal's traditional cura nacional (national cure). As a general rule, the stiffer and whiter the fish, the more salt.

When buying salt cod, look for thick pieces cut from the center of the fish, because the tail pieces remain tough and stringy, even with prolonged soaking. Choose slightly flexible pieces over stiff ones and slightly yellowish pieces over white--they contain less salt. New Englanders favor Canadian salt cod, which comes in a wooden box.

Look for salt cod in the fish department of a supermarket or in grocery stores catering to a Latin American, Italian or Caribbean clientele. Salt cod will keep almost indefinitely refrigerated or at room temperature. You may want to wrap it in several plastic food bags to control the smell.

Salt cod must be soaked overnight before cooking to remove the salt. Place it in a bowl with cold water to cover and soak for 24 hours, changing the water three or four times.

If you're in a hurry, try the quick-soak method. Rinse the cod under cold running water for 15 minutes. Place it in a pan with cold water to cover and gradually bring to a boil. Drain the fish and rinse in cold water. Repeat the boiling and rinsing process two or three times.

The next step is to gently boil the cod for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Once the cod is cooked, run your fingers over the fish, feeling for bones. Remove any you find with needle-nose pliers or tweezer.

Many nations have a version of salt cod fritters. The lightest I ever tasted were Brazilian Bolinhos De Bacalhao. This recipe comes from Belita Castro, a cooking teacher from Belo Horizonte in Brazil.

BOLINHOS DE BACALHAO (Brazilian Salt Cod Fritters) 1 pound salt cod 1 pound potatoes 1 medium onion, minced 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 teaspoon minced malegueta chiles or 1/2 teaspoon minced pickled jalapeno chile 1/4 teaspoon malegueta chile juice or hot pepper sauce 2 eggs, beaten 3 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley 3 cups oil for frying, preferably olive oil 1 cup flour, about

Day before, place salt cod in cold water to cover. Soak 24 hours, changing water 2 to 3 times. Next day, place cod in saucepan with cold water to cover. Gradually bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Drain and cool. Pick through fish, removing any bones. Puree in food processor.

Peel potatoes and boil until tender. Drain and cool. Mash potatoes with potato masher or pass through ricer. (Or pulse in food processor, but codfish balls won't be as light. Process as little as possible.)

Combine cod and potatoes in large mixing bowl and stir in onion, pepper, malegueta chiles and juice, eggs, 3 tablespoons olive oil and parsley. Knead mixture until smooth. Let stand 20 minutes. Pinch off 1-inch pieces cod mixture and roll into balls. Cover and refrigerate, if not using right away. (Can be prepared 48 hours ahead to this stage.)

Just before serving, heat at least 2 inches oil in electric skillet to 375 degrees. Dust codfish balls with flour, shaking off excess. Fry balls, working in batches, 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and serve at once. Makes 40 pieces.

Note : Malagueta chiles are small, fiery Brazilian chiles, usually sold pickled in vinegar at Latin American markets. If unavailable, use pickled jalapeno chiles.

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