Fragrant Italian salt-cod stew with potatoes (baccalà in umido)

Layers of flavour: the salt-cod is layered with potatoes, chilli and garlic in this delicious stew.

Much later in life, I discovered salted fish. A further revelation of preservation and one that, if one can possibly say this, eclipsed my love of this way with poultry and meat, but it remains a very close call. For anyone who adores salt cod as much as I do, then it may well have been either Portugal, Spain (particularly in Barcelona) or northern Italy (especially in the Veneto), where this Nirvana first took place.

For this enthusiast, it was in the Douro valley behind Porto, where a simple piece of grilled salt cod (bacalhau) and potatoes (also grilled) sent me to that very paradise. Once doused with local olive oil of rare pungency and eaten together with pitchers of very cold local white wine, the promised land was given.

Fragrant Italian salt-cod stew with potatoes (serves 4)

120ml–130ml extra-virgin olive oil
750g–800g medium-size waxy-ish potatoes (red-skinned desirée would be my choice), peeled and thickly sliced
1kg salt cod, soaked overnight, skin and any stray bones removed, cut into 4cm–5cm- size pieces
1tspn chilli flakes, or less, to taste
4 cloves garlic, crushed and roughly chopped
250ml dry white wine
Flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped—about 4 heaped tbspn

Pre-heat the oven to 170 ̊C/ 325 ̊F/gas mark 3. Take a large, lidded casserole (a Le Creuset would be ideal, here) and pour into it 2tbspn of the given olive oil. Place a single layer of the potatoes in the base of the pot, then a randomly placed layer of the salt cod. Sprinkle with some of the chilli flakes and a little of the garlic.

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Repeat these layers three times (depending on the width of the pot), finishing with a final layer of potatoes; the finished dish doesn’t necessarily need to have a ‘layered’ look to it, but the layering does, however, assure even cooking throughout. And, anyway, the layers will be well disturbed before serving, as the final addition of the parsley is stirred in. Now, pour in the white wine and the rest of the olive oil. Warm the pot over a low flame for about 5 minutes until the wine and oil are quietly bubbling away beneath the fish and potatoes.

Cut out a circle of either greaseproof paper or foil (slightly larger than the circumference of the pot) and place it over the top layer of potatoes, tucking it in around the edges to make a reasonable seal.

Finally, pop on the lid, place in the pre-heated oven and cook for about 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender when poked with a sharp knife.

Remove from the oven, take off the lid and discard the paper/ foil. Add the parsley and carefully stir it into the assembly, making sure that it is as fully distributed as possible. Return the pot to the oven without its lid, turn up the heat a little and continue cooking the stew for a further 15 minutes or so; if the potatoes lightly gild during this final cooking, so much the better, but this isn’t essential. What is essential, however, is the heat of the dish: it must be served piping hot!

Two final notes: depending upon the salinity of the soaked cod, a little extra salt may need to be added to the dish, so taste a small piece of the fish to make sure.

Also, it may at first seem alarming to witness quite so much oil floating on the surface of the dish. Don’t flinch from this, as, once the stew is carefully stirred, then served onto (hot!) plates (or shallow soup plates, even better), it will naturally distribute itself and is, after all, part of the charm and an authentic feature of this extraordinarily delicious and rich recipe; the potatoes are particularly wonderful when crushed among the fish.