One of my all-time favorite Italian restaurants, The Daily Catch, on Hanover Street in Boston's North End, has a dish -- Monkfish Marsala -- that stands tall in memory long after the meal is done. Slices of monkfish, cooked, in the manner of Piccate al Marsala (Veal Scaloppine Marsala), in a sauce of butter, marsala wine and garlic. Over the years I've tried it in my kitchen, with some success.
At the end of the year, with Christmas coming on, I was thinking of salt cod, since every year I make the wonderful bacallà stew that my friend Donna introduced to me. And since I had a little more than I needed for the stew, I made Serenata de Bacalao (salt cod salad), drawing on a Puerto Rican recipe my friend Carmen gave me, and a couple of other Puerto Rican dishes to go with it.
Now I'm hooked on salt cod and want to do some exploration of what it can do. The flesh is sweet and salty at the same time. It's firm, holding together nicely without being at all tough, and there's no hint of "reconstituted" about it. No wonder that this lowly dried fish has been so important in so many European, Caribbean, North and South American cuisines for centuries.
Bacallà Marsalla seemed to me to be an obvious place to start my exploration, and the result was very satisfying. Just as at the Daily Catch, the combination of the fish, wine, garlic and butter works very well, and with salt cod instead of monkfish, the counterpoint of the slightly salty fish and the sweetness of the wine sauce was particularly nice. Although we almost always have the monkfish at the Daily Catch with linquine, I served the bacallà with a simple Risotto Milanese (made with chicken stock and saffron and garnished with a few chopped oil-cured black olives) and some crusty bread.
1 lb salt cod
flour for dredging
2 T olive oil
3 T + 2 T butter
1/4 C Marsala
2 T chicken stock
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 T parsley, minced
1 T lemon juice, or to taste
salt, hot sauce to taste
Soak the salt cod for two days in water, refrigerated, changing the water at least twice a day.
Rinse and dry the cod well, and cut in strips about 1 to 1-1/2" wide by 3 or 4" long. Dredge in flour and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes before cooking.
Place the olive oil and 3 tablespoons of the butter in a heavy skillet on high heat. When the oil and butter are very hot but not yet smoking, add the fish and brown quickly on all sides. Turn the heat down to medium-high, add the marsala and the stock and stir gently, taking care not to break up the fish. Let the sauce bubble for a minute or two until it's syrupy, then add the garlic, parsley, lemon juice and the remaining two tablespoons of butter, cut in small chunks. Stir gently until the butter is melted and well distributed in the sauce. Correct seasoning and turn the fish in the sauce. Serve immediately, scraping any remaining sauce onto the fish after plating. (At the Daily Catch, the Monkfish Marsala is served family style from the sauté pan in which it was cooked.)
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