This recipe is from Viola Buitoni, the daughter of cattleman Paolo Buitoni. It is a typical dish of the Lake Trasimeno region of her childhood. Prunes are sometimes substituted for raisins.
Until recently, salt cod, or baccalà, was difficult to find outside of ethnic markets in the United States. Now it is widely available in supermarkets, but unfortunately the refrigerated salt cod neatly resting on Styrofoam trays and covered with plastic wrap does not have the flavor or texture of salt cod preserved in the traditional manner. You may still find the more traditional product in Italian markets, and it is best to seek it out.
When buying baccala, select meaty, white pieces rather than thin, dark ones. Stick with the skinless fillets, which cost a little more but eliminate the need for the tedious work of removing skin and small bones. The baccala sold under refrigeration is preserved with less salt than the traditional method, and the flesh of the dehydrated fish is still somewhat soft. This reduces the soaking time substantially, usually cutting it in half. If you are using this type of salt cod, adjust the directions in the method below accordingly.
- 2 pounds salt cod fillets
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 onions, chopped
- 6 celery stalks, chopped
- 1 bunch Swiss chard, leaves cut into julienne and stalks chopped
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 1 can (32 ounces) plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 1/3 cup raisins, soaked in vinegar (any kind) for 1 hour
- 1/3 cup pine nuts
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- About ½ cup unbleached flour
- Corn oil or safflower oil for frying
Place the salt cod in a large bowl and cover with plenty of cold water. Soak for 48 hours in the refrigerator, keeping the bowl covered. Change the water once or twice a day during the soaking, always replacing it with fresh cold water and replacing the cover. Drain the salt cod and rinse it in fresh cool water. Remove any errant skin and bones and cut the cod into 2-inch chunks, working carefully as it may crumble. Refrigerate until needed.
In an ample, heavy-bottomed skillet, warm the oil over medium-low heat. Add the carrots, onions, celery, and chopped Swiss chard stalks and sauté until the onions are translucent and the vegetables thoroughly softened, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the wine, using a wooden spoon to coat the soffritto evenly and to deglaze the pan. Add the tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, cover partially, and simmer for a very long time until what is called sugo finto results, that is, a tomato sauce that is quite thick and has no water left. This should take about 1¼ hours. You will notice a layer of oxidized olive oil on top.
When the sauce is ready, drain the raisins, discarding the vinegar, and stir them into the sauce along with the pine nuts and julienned Swiss chard leaves. Mix well and simmer to heat through, about 5 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F. Dry the salt cod well with paper towels. Place the flour in a shallow bowl or spread it out on a piece of waxed paper. Pour the corn or safflower oil to a depth of 1 inch into a deep skillet and heat over medium heat. The oil is ready when a small bit of bread dropped into the pan sizzles instantly. Have ready a platter lined with a double layer of paper towels. Just before you are ready to fry, coat the salt cod pieces in the flour, shaking off any excess.
In batches, slip the fish pieces into the oil and fry evenly on all sides until golden, about 8 minutes. Don’t crowd the pan, or the fish will not fry properly and the temperature of the oil will drop. Using tongs or a slotted spatula, lift out the pieces, shaking off any excess oil back into the skillet, and transfer to paper towels to drain.
Select a baking pan and pour the sauce into it. Lay the cooked salt cod in the sauce. Slide the pan into the oven and bake until heated through, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately.