Monday, February 22, 2016

Anna's baccala & potatoes

Rarely are there surprises when I sit down to a meal with my family. Not when it comes to the food that's served. I live several hours away from them, you see, and so when I visit their inclination is to prepare my favorite foods, not experiment with new ones. (For the record, I am totally down with this strategy. It is exactly how I want it to be.)

Every once in a while, though, Aunt Anna likes to throw a curve. Take this salt cod dish. Baccala is a staple in our family. On Christmas Eve Anna always prepares it two different ways: one baked with cherry peppers, another shredded and tossed with garlic and olive oil and herbs and served as a cold salad. It has been this way for decades now. And so when a new version with tomatoes and potatoes turned up a couple Christmas Eves back I wasn't the only person at the table to take notice.

"What's this?" asked cousin Josephine as the serving bowl touched the bright red holiday table, positioned amidst the many traditional seafood dishes we all expect to be present.

Jo, I should mention, is Anna's daughter. Christmas Eve is her birthday. She and I often sit next to each other at this holiday's dinner table. Jo and Anna, who lost her husband at a very young age, lived in the apartment above mine when we were growing up and so Jo has always been more of a sister to me than a cousin. This is probably more information than you need or care about, I'll admit. But my point is this: If Josephine wasn't expecting this new baccala dish on our traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes menu then that was really saying something. After all, she and her mother have cooked and baked and eaten together for a lot of years. How could such a thing happen?

Long story short, and as often is the case with my dearest aunt, the answer remains a mystery.

"Do me a favor," Anna said after I and several others echoed cousin Jo's query about the new dish. "Just shut up and eat before it gets cold."

Saute an onion, a couple garlic cloves and around a quarter pound of pancetta in olive oil until the onions have softened.

Add a large potato that's been sliced like so ...

... some salt cod that's been properly soaked to reduce its salt content ...

... and a can of tomatoes. Then simmer at medium heat for around an hour or so, longer if you wish.

Don't thank me, thank my aunt.

Just don't ask too many questions.