Fresh Salt Cod Wrapped in Pancetta with Wilted Greens
Both fresh cod and salt cod are often paired with greens or pancetta in classic Italian recipes, but you rarely see the two served on the same plate. Early in my career. I came up with the idea of creating a pocket of salt cod inside a piece of fresh cod and then giving each portion a “belt” of crisp pancetta to hold it together. I come back to it again and again because of the contrasting textures and flavors, and because it makes me feel good. Serve it with polenta for a fabulous comfort meal.
This recipe asks you to slice partway through a fresh cod fillet, leaving it attached on one side. This creates a pocket for the salt cod. Obviously, the thicker the fillet, the easier it is to slice through it. But really hefty cod fillets—¾ inch thick or more—are difficult to come by in these days of diminishing cod stocks, especially since seafood wholesalers often reserve the thickest cuts for the restaurant trade. If you can’t find thick fillets, simply buy thin ones flexible enough to wrap around a piece of salt cod. Skip the instructions in Step 3 that call for you to slice the fresh fillets. Instead, season one side of the fillets with salt and pepper and thyme, as per the recipe, then wrap the fresh fillets around the salt cod. Continue with Step 4. When placing the bundles in the sauté pan, cook the side with the overlapping layers of pancetta first. The pancetta slices will bind together as they cook, holding the fillets in place.
Soak the salt cod for 12 hours.
Although pancetta is often called “Italian bacon,” that description is misleading. Pancetta is hung and cured in a process similar to that of prosciutto, arid it can be eaten in its uncooked state, an adventure most cooks would forgo when it comes to bacon. One of the most delicious samples of street food I’ve ever eaten was a grilled cheese, potato, and pancetta sandwich in Aix. A line of eager customers was snapping up the sandwiches as fast as the streetcorner vendor could pump then out with his old-fashioned hinged waffle iron. The potatoes were sliced thin and precooked. The pancetta was only heated long enough for the cheese to melt and the bread to crisp. It was still pink and soft, though warm, and incredibly good. Keep this in mind when sautéing the cod bundles—the pancetta wrapping should only be partially crisp, and still fairly pink, when finished. Don’t treat it like bacon—you’ll only sacrifice the pancetta’s rich texture, as well as overcook the fish.
Makes4 entree servings
Total Timea day or more
OccasionFormal Dinner Party
Recipe Coursemain course
Dietary Considerationmain course
Taste and Texturesalty, savory, tart
- ¼ pound skinless, boneless salt cod of even thickness, center cut
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Four 6-ounce cod fillets, approximately ¾ inch thick (see head note)
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
- 12 thin slices pancetta (5 to 6 ounces) (see box)
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 6 to 8 cups mixed greens (such as watercress, radicchio, mustard greens, and Belgian endive)
- ¼ cup water
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled
- 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
- 4 lemon wedges
Soak the salt cod for 12 hours in a large bowl of cold water, changing the water 3 or 4 times. When finished, the cod should not be completely salt-free, or it will have lost its distinctive flavor. It should taste about as salty as a fish that you’ve seasoned and cooked with salt. Drain the cod.
Place the salt cod in a small saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring just to a boil over moderate heat. Remove from the heat and let stand until the cod is barely cooked through, about 5 minutes. Drain and trim away any bones and membranes. Cut into quarters, cover. (Refrigerate if doing ahead.)
Using a chef’s knife, slice horizontally through each fresh cod fillet to within an inch of the opposite side, so that the two halves of the fillet can be opened (see head note if you’re using thin fillets of cod). Season the inside of the fillets with salt and pepper and sprinkle the inside of each with ½ teaspoon of the thyme. Put a piece of poached salt cod inside each fillet and close the two halves. Spread 3 overlapping slices of the pancetta side by side on a work surface and place a cod fillet in the center. Bring the pancetta up and over the cod, wrapping it snugly to form a neat package. Repeat with the remaining cod and pancetta to form 4 packages. (Before you proceed to the next step, read About Pancetta.)
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. As soon as the oil is hot, sear the cod bundles on one side until the pancetta is pink and slightly crispy, about 5 minutes. Carefully turn the cod over and cook until the fish is opaque, 3 to 4 more minutes. Transfer the cod to a platter and keep warm.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in the sauté pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and then add the greens. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until just wilted, about 1 minute. Transfer the greens to four warm plates.
Add the water and lemon juice to the sauté pan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Whisk in the capers and any juices that have accumulated on the fish platter, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Transfer the fish to the plates with the greens. Spoon the sauce over the fish, garnish with the lemon wedges, and serve immediately.
2002 Jody Adams and Ken Rivard