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Monday, 24 March 2008

Salt cod (bakaliaros) for 25 March (Μπακαλιάρος - βακαλάος για την 25η Μαρτίου)


(THIS POST HAS APPEARED IN about.com)

25 March - an important day in the history of Greece. First and foremost, it is the festival of the Annunciation: the Virgin Mary was told by an angel that she would bear Christ (and give birth to him exactly nine months later on 25 December - He wasn't premature). Then, in 1821, Greece decided that it had had enough of the Ottoman Empire, and on this day or thereabouts (the uprising against the Turks started a few days before that, according to my children's schoolbooks), Greece gained its independence after 400 years of tyrranical rule by pashas and the like. The day before the celebration, children go to school and celebrate the occasion with poem recitals and songs related to the bravery and courage of the Greek nation. On the day itself, there are parades in every town of Greece, with schoolchildren and army personnel marching down the high street bearing the flag, while the spectators lining the streets clap and wave smaller flags. Everyone proudly sings the national anthem standing up. How can a seasonal day such as this one go uncelebrated without an appropriate food dedicated to it?

Greek Independence Day poses a small problem for the religious food calendar. It always falls during the Great Lent, a time when the ultra-righteous Greek Orthodox will abstain from meat, fish and dairy products. But the fast may be broken on this day (due to its importance, and the fact that it is a double celebration). It is always celebrated with a fish meal (as is Palm Sunday), all kinds of fish being the food of the day. Thank goodness we're so seasonally minded here - the fish tavernas will be doing a booming trade. That's why my family will be staying at home and enjoying our home-cooked fishy meal; we can guarantee that the food will be served on time, and there'll be plenty of food to go round - on days like this, be prepared for some dishes running out if you don't get to the taverna early enough.

Salt cod (μπακαλιάρος - bakaliaros, βακαλάος - vakalaos, depending on which part of Greece you come from) became a very popular choice for fish during the war period. It's not a fish that's swimming near Greek waters, but must have caught on when Greeks started travelling and trading products with other cultures. Salt cod stores well, so people who don't have easy access to fish on a daily basis - people living in mountainside villages for instance - can buy it before it is going to be cooked, without the worry that it will go off. It's readily available in supermarkets, salted, filleted and boneless, to save time and cleaning up for the busy cook like myself.

Salt cod, when desalinated (in Greek, we call this 'sweetening'), is allowed to drain, then it is cut up into small pieces, floured (or battered) and deep fried in oil. It kind of reminds me of New Zealand fish and chips, and children like it very much because it is a very clean looking meaty fish, almost sweet to the taste. It's often (or should I say always) eaten with a beetroot salad (boiled beetroot, including the red-green leaves, dressed in oil, salt and vinegar) and skordalia, a traditional Greek garlic dip made from mashed stale bread (or boiled potatoes), garlic, oil and vinegar. I'm not really changing the tradition, just substituting it with locally grown, carbon footprint-reduced alternatives: we're having it with stamnagathi and guacamole. Boiled greens are always a marvellous accompaniment to any fried fish and the avocados come from my uncles' trees.

To desalinate salt cod, let it soak overnight in water. You can chop up the fish into the size you want for the meal you're cooking, or keep it whole; it's easier to work with when it's in smaller pieces. It also desalinates faster. Change the water 3-5 times, depending on how salty it is (you can taste the fish raw to test it). The one I bought hadn't been kept in so much salt, so it didn't need a lot of changes of water. If you are going to fry it, the fish needs to be drained. Lay it out on a flat surface (the draining board of your kitchen benchtop will do fine) and weigh it down with something heavy (like a jar full of pickled peppers, or a large pot filled with water). Then, it's ready for dredging in flour and frying in oil. Some people like to remove the silver skin and/or fry the fillets in batter, but that's a personal choice. Crispy fried bakaliaros can only be achieved by good desalination and draining of the salt cod once you've desalinated it; the less salt or water it retains, the crispier it will fry.

Unknown to many people, it is also fished in baby form, and is my personal favorite as a whole (gutted) fried fresh fish. It is labelled 'bakaliaraki', but it is actually a variety known as European hake. I did ask if it was the same fish as 'bakaliaros' (cod); the store owner told me it was. Believe what you may, but if you come to Greece, try this variety fried whole after being cleaned and gutted. It's delicious. Fresh fish is always better than preserved fish, so if you can get this small fish fresh, don't treat it as simply bait, as a New Zealand cousin of mine assumed of the array of fresh whitebait, picarel and other small fish sold at a typical Greek fresh fish shop!

We mustn't forget poor granny with her few good teeth and the need for soft lightly cooked food. She likes her salt cod poached (po-SE, she said to me, in a good French accent), with stewed leeks and onions, in a lemon sauce, thickened with a little flour. Fried fish is too heavy for older people's dietary needs.

POACHED SALT COD with LEEKS in a LEMON SAUCE

You need:
4 small pieces of salt cod, desalinated
1/4 cup olive oil
2 leeks (white parts only), chopped small
1 onion, finely chopped
the juice of a large lemon
1 teaspoon of flour
NO SALT - desalinated salt cod is salty enough!
pepper (optional - not for granny"!)

As this is a poached dish for invalids whose taste preferences are blander than the average person's, you need to stew (rather than saute) the leeks and onion, by heating the oil and adding the vegetables with 1/4 cup of water in the pot. Simmer over low heat with the pot covered. When the vegetables have softened considerably, add the fish pieces. Let them cook for about 15 minutes over low heat, again with the lid covered. Fish cooks very quickly; if overdone, it loses its shape. Mix the flour with the lemon juice so that it is not lumpy. When the fish is done, pour the mixture over it and shake the pot from side to side to even out the sauce.

I loved the sauce from this dish. It makes a marvellous soup base, and the whole meal is really stomach-warming on a cold day (which is what this year's Independence Day turned out for us). It goes well with plenty of crusty bread to mop up the delicious tangy sauce.

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MORE SEAFOOD RECIPES:
Mussels sauce
Psarosoupa
Shrimp in lemon
Squid stew
Squid fried
Taramasalata
Octopus stew

MORE FESTIVALS:
Christmas
New Year's cake
Clean Monday
Ash Thursday
Red eggs for Greek Easter
Fasting and Great Lent