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Lillian's Christmas Bacallà

Lillian's Christmas Bacallà

Every year we have a traditional "Feast of the Seven Fishes" at our house on Christmas Eve. Our friends Donna and Pasquale introduced it to us about ten years ago in their kitchen in Tribeca.

I'll never forget my first taste of Donna's grandmother's bacallà, a savory stew made from salt-preserved cod which is always the centerpiece of the Seven Fishes menu at Donna and Pat's house on Christmas eve. Donna's grandmother, ninety-two-year-old Lillian -- "Big Nonna" to her extended family -- still makes it every Christmas at her home in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Baccalà is better known to a lot of New Englanders as salt cod -- a staple on the long sea voyages of whalers and traders in colonial days. It's also important in Portuguese and Puerto Rican cuisine (it's bacalao in Spanish), as mentioned in my recent post on Serenata de Bacalao.

Lillian Quadri's Baccalà

12 servings

Note: this dish takes some planning. The salt cod has to soak for two days before you make the soup, and the soup is best if you make one or two days before serving, so you need to start at least 4 days before you plan to serve it.

  • 2 pounds salt cod (baccalà or bacalao), cut in 1" pieces
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and cut in 1" chunks
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes, cut in 1" chunks, with juice
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 5 medium boiling potatoes, peeled, cut in 1" chunks
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

1. Cover fish with cold water and soak, refrigerated, for two days. Change the water at least twice a day. Drain well.

2. In a deep heavy pot, sauté the onions in the oil on medium heat, stirring occasionally, for five minutes or until tender and starting to brown.

3. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, potatoes, baking soda and the fish and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about twenty minutes. Do not adjust seasoning at this point.

4. Refrigerate for a day or two, stirring occasionally.

5. When ready to serve, reheat gently and then correct the seasoning.

Serve in shallow soup plates. Place several pieces of fish and potatoes in each plate and pour a ladleful of the beautiful red sauce over them. Garnish with the minced parsley and pass a pepper grinder.

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I just tagged you for the 10 Favorite Foods meme.

So what exactly IS salt cod? I've seen it a dozen times in the past couple of days. And do you just get it from the same fish man? Or somewhere else?

What a beautiful soup! I can't wait for the 7 fishes post.

I'm loving these bacalao recipes. Thank you!


Ah, salted cod. The only fish available in land-locked areas not near the shore until advances such as trucking and freezing. The fish of the poor until relatively recently, converted into the fish of the fairly well-to-do as the traditional dishes gained in pre$tige and fish stocks started to diminsh. Enjoy it while you can because things aren't looking well:
Fisheries Managers Say Atlantic Codfish Stocks Near State Of Collapse

In Spain, there's a traditional dish for Lent which is a stew made of chick pea, spinach, salted cod and boiled eggs. I've made it a couple of times and it's is delicious, a comfort food dish. Though the Spaniards are masters of bacalao, especially the Basque, the Portuguese are said to have the greatest variety of recipes. Salted cod is also served as a tapa, as is, too, in southeastern Spain, Murcia mostly.

For those who so desire, there's a good book on, yes, salted cod called Cod by Mark Kurlansky which covers the historical and social facets of this prime material.

Good stuff, Stephen. BTW, it's not just Puerto Rican, the Cubans (being the last Spanish colony) are great consumers. My mother makes a mean bacalao aporreado with hand threshed de-salted cod, red peppers, and garlic.

A wonderful holiday to all.

Yet another warning flag so enjoy the cod (and hake!) while you can:
"The latest Ices advice, released in October, was that "cod stocks in the North Sea, Irish Sea and west of Scotland remain well below minimum recommended levels and the advice for these stocks... is zero catch".

Ices made a similar recommendation for hake fleets off the coast of Spain and Portugal."
The ICES is the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

My Aunt makes bacalla every Christmas eve, however she puts big green olives in it and it is so delicious!!!

please, help me! i'm a cousin of pat and donna i'd like to know your email addresse

What is the purpose of 1/4 tsp baking soda to this recipe's broth?

Hi Nancy...

The recipe for Lillian's Bacalla soup is not, unlike most of the recipes on, an original recipe of mine. It was contributed by my friend Donna, who passed it on from her grandmother Lillian. I simply recorded the recipe as it was given to me so I don't know the answer to your question about the baking soda...Lillian is 97 now so the recipe has been around for a while and I assume the ingredients are traditional...

I do know, however, that baking soda is sometimes used in tomato sauces to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes so that might be an explanation, since the recipe includes a significant amount of tomatoes...

Best, Stephen

Good Day,

Oh well I have never tried eat any of the dishes you have there but I'm just so amaze reading your comments. I'm so fascinated that you guys were discussing the right recipe of my elders specialty...Now I'm curious if what is the real perfected taste for this dishes.

Mae Bacalla

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