There’s really no practical reason for baccala anymore. They have this thing called “refrigeration” now and you can freeze fish for months. The original concept — drying out flanks of Atlantic cod and salting them to preserve them — goes back centuries and remains a thing only because there’s a market for the resulting Old World flavor. Baccala (the Spanish word is bacalao) survives for taste and tradition.
I grew up in a Portuguese-Italian family. Both sides were into cod. My father was born Jose Rodrigues on Madeira Island (he once caught a 36-pound cod while deep sea fishing off New England); my mother, the late and former Rose Popolo, was first-generation Italian-American (she made a codfish bake and codfish cakes from my father’s 36-pound cod). In my family, when it came to baccala, there was one big difference between the Portuguese and the Italians: The Portuguese kept bacalhau (pronounced bucc-a-yow) in their diet all year; the Italians used it almost exclusively in their annual Christmas Eve feast of the Seven Fishes.
The Italian version I grew up with was essentially a casserole. My mother would buy a large flank of baccala at an Italian deli, cut it into chunks, then soak it in water in the refrigerator for at least two days, draining the water and refilling the soaking pot every 12 hours or so. She did not soak it too long because, if you do, you can rinse the unique taste right out of the flesh. Her Christmas Eve baccala included potatoes, onions, lots of garlic, diced tomatoes and parsley. Some kids hated this dish because of the unusual flavor of the reconstituted fish. I always liked it, and I cook baccala each year at Christmas to keep the tradition.
I last purchased mine from Harbor Seafood in Lexington Market, Baltimore. I also found it (not as good) at Hazlo International Food in the Highlandtown neighborhood. There are many Portuguese recipes for bacalhau. This year, I’m making something like a Portuguese bacalhau salad I saw at a market in New Bedford a few years ago — diced potatoes, red peppers, onions, artichoke hearts and capers with shards of bacalhau and herbs, olive oil, a little lemon.
My Portuguese grandmother, Justina Gomes Rodrigues, baked the bacalhau in a casserole, similar to my mother’s Italian version, but with a touch of vinegar and black olives. She also baked the bacalhau with slices of potato, egg and ham. She made a tomato-based stew with it. There is a famous version of bacalhau and potatoes called bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, named after the son of 19th Century cod merchant who developed the recipe. (Hey, if you’re going to harvest tons of cod and salt tons of cod, you’ve got to get people to buy tons of cod and eat it, and not only at Christmas.)