Last week I wrote about emulating the baccalà mantecato that Jackie and I enjoyed so much on a recent trip to Italy. We’d eaten that cod spread before, but another dish, while not unusual, was new to us: rigatoni pasta with baccalà, which we were served at the excellent Venetian restaurant Al Covo, about which you can read a few words on HuffPost. It tasted gently but truly of baccalà without being fishy in the negative sense, and the morsels of cod retained a texture that was chewable but not chewy: a lovely dish that I was eager to add to our home repertory in some form.
We served it as a light first course, and the quantities I give here will work for four starter or two main course portions. Note that the amount of pasta is small: Rigatoni are big tubular things that take up a lot of space on the plate, and they give the illusion that you’re eating more than you actually are.
I used 6 oz (160 g) of rigatoni; you could also count them out, figuring eight per starter portion and 15 or 16 as a main course. If you opt for a smaller tubular pasta like penne or ziti, you could, if you liked, increase the total quantity by an ounce (25 g) or two.
To start the sauce, I sweated a medium-large shallot, halved or quartered then sliced, and a small clove of garlic, sliced, in a generous two tablespoonsful of olive oil, along with a sprinkle of salt and just a little black pepper, using a pan big enough to hold the pasta eventually. If you make this when warm-weather produce has appeared in the market, you could also add a handful of fennel bulb sliced into little strips. I cooked it over low heat until it was tender and aromatic, a good seven minutes.
Meanwhile, I took a piece of salt cod that had soaked for 36 hours in several changes of water in the fridge and cut about 3 ounces (85 g) of it lengthwise into 1/4-inch (7 mm) slices, which I then tore/shredded by hand into rough fragments. I added these to the shallots and garlic and cooked for two minutes before dousing with 1/2 cup (120 ml) of white wine (use more if you’re cooking in a wide pan like a skillet). Simmer for 5 minutes, partly covered, and check that the fish is tender but not without chew.
Next I added 4 or 5 black olives, pitted and cut into quarters or roughly chopped and a scant teaspoonful of capers rinsed and roughly chopped, then half a minute later stirred in two canned plum tomatoes torn apart, with their liquid. Later in the summer I’ll use fresh cherry tomatoes, quartered, or one very ripe medium tomato, peeled and chopped. Check for salt (the olives and capers will have added some) and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, pending completion of the pasta: it will hold for quite some time and could be made an hour or so in advance, especially as it will be freshened with parsley at serving time.
Once this mixture was cooked, I boiled the rigatoni in salted water, and when they were just shy of done stirred them into the sauce (which I’d brought up to the simmer), adding cooking water as needed to moisten and coat the pasta. After a minute, I tasted once more for salt and made sure that the pasta was as I like it, then stirred in a big handful of roughly chopped parsley before serving, drizzled with the best extra virgin olive oil I had.
If you think the dish needs an element of crunch, you could add roughly chopped or slivered pistachios, so long as they are fresh and crisp. I had these at the ready, but felt they’d be more of a distraction than an enhancement.
As with last week’s baccalà mantecato, remember that the soaked salt cod is no longer salty, and that you need to season carefully.