Salt cod, also known as bacalao, is having its moment in NYC. While the meaty fish is popping up on menus all over town, its popularity goes back many centuries. It was traditionally made aboard ships or on the shore as fresh fish were caught, split, skinned, salted, and dried, in one of history’s oldest preservation techniques. The salted fish was inedible unless soaked to remove much of the preserving salt, then cooked in a way that its continued salinity wouldn’t be considered a defect. Once overfished, the salt cod population has at least partly rebounded these days, and much salt cod is made with pollack, haddock, and other fish similar in taste and texture.
Salt cod is a foodstuff with a long history. European fishing fleets took long voyages to get it, and because it could be readily preserved, the cod became a kind of international currency. It made long sea voyages possible and became the staple food of the enslaved people who’d been brought to the New World to work on sugar plantations. Today it remains an indelible reminder of slavery.
Still, salt cod became incorporated into many cuisines on both sides of the Atlantic. And today it remains a staple in the Caribbean and in Central and South America, but also in many parts of Europe. And it is undergoing a revival on New York menus at places like Ernesto’s, Oscar’s Kitchen, and Victor, every salty bite redolent of history. Here are some places around town to taste it.
Ernesto’s – Bacalao en Salsa Verde
This restaurant on a bucolic, tree-shaded Lower East Side corner offers a Spanish menu that doesn’t pull its punches, including blood sausage, tripe, pork collar, and octopus. The menu changes frequently, and early on there was a breaded and deep-fried dish called bacalao rebozado. Currently, a big chunk of salt cod is being served in an herby salsa verde with littleneck clams, a culinary pairing of fish and shellfish often found on the Iberian peninsula, resulting in a deep and complex oceanic flavor.
Oscar’s Kitchen and Rum Bar – Stamp and Go
“Stamp and go” is one of those lively nicknames Jamaicans have conferred on their food, designating the kind of salt cod fritters found all over the Caribbean. Here, the preserved fish are mashed with plantains, then breaded and fried. At this new Lower East Side Jamaican restaurant, a spicy pink aioli is served on the side for dipping. Match the fritters with a rum cocktail, since rum was an important product of the sugar cane plantations.
Victor – Baccalau
This restaurant, steps from the Gowanus Canal, makes much use of its black-domed, wood-burning oven, and the baccalau (that’s the Portuguese spelling) served here rests atop a piece of toast in a rich broth dotted with gigante beans, which are yellow and pleasantly smooshy. Segments of mandarin orange sweeten this baccalau, and every bite is smoky and salty, with the salt cod the indisputable star of the show, and not a bite of the soaked toast underneath goes uneaten.
Buvette – Brandade de Morue
One of the jewels in the crown of Provençale and Basque cuisine is brandade de morue (the French word for salt cod). This dip of morue and mashed potatoes, mixed together into a garlicky paste further enriched with fruity olive oil, begs to be scooped up with bread as you drink your glass of rosé, making an altogether wonderful snack.
Bello Deli Food – Salt Cod and Eggs
This Inwood bodega with an exemplary prepared foods selection excels at empanadas, pressed sandwiches, rice and beans with roast chicken or pork, and perhaps best of all, egg breakfasts. The one shown here, salt cod and eggs seasoned with plenty of onions and chopped green peppers, made a splendid repast while a friend and I took a late-morning hike in hilly Inwood Hill Park.
Miss Lily’s 7A Cafe – Cod Fish Fritters
The fritters at this local mini-chain of Jamaican eateries are rounder and spongier than those served at Omar’s, flecked with scallions and served with a creamy, green, and curried dipping sauce. A very agreeable bar snack to go with one of the Jamaican rum punches on the drinks menu, at this spot right off the southwest corner of Tompkins Square Park.
Rinconcito – Baccalo
Since 1994, Rinconcito has been serving belt-busting meals of Dominican and Puerto Rican standards to East Villagers; in fact, it’s one of the few Latin-Caribbean restaurants left on this part of the Lower East Side. The salt cod is prepared in the traditional way, as a casserole with potatoes and onions that’s colored a brilliant red with annatto. There’s nothing better than a meal of baccalo with rice, beans, and plantains.
A&A Bake and Doubles – Saltfish Bake
A bake is a round browned roll with a spongy texture used to make sandwiches, mainly for breakfast or as a snack. The filling is usually some kind of preserved fish, and saltfish — the Trinidadian term for salt cod — is one of the most popular. Sometimes the cod is mashed with boiled eggs. The sandwich makes a delightful way to enjoy the salt cod, especially if you put the Scotch bonnet hot sauce known as pepper on it, and a squirt of tamarind sauce, too.
Tomino – Empanada Gallega
It was the Galicians in northwestern Spain, a seafaring lot, who invented the empanada. Originally, it was a giant pie with a crust top and bottom that morphed into a hand pie as it made its way throughout Spain and around the world. One of the most frequent stuffings at Tomino for this delightful pastry is shredded salt cod mixed with caramelized onions.