Salt Cod, Potato and String Bean Salad is family fare (April 1, 2011)

When Lidia Bastianich cooks every Sunday on PBS, it seems as though the big, train station clock that once had pride of place in my grandfather’s Newark barbershop turns back to the 1950s.

Watching Lidia’s graceful and warmly familiar approach to food, I am transported back to Sundays in my grandmother’s kitchen in the heart of the city. I remember how Grandma’s generous hands moved easily from ingredient to ingredient on the wide counter as she composed the astonishing bounty of pasta, pork and pastry that lured us weekly from the culinary wilderness of Ocean County to the spicy fragrance of the old neighborhood.

My foodie friends, non-Italians included, say Bastianich, the star of the 52-part television series, Lidia’s Italian American Kitchen, and the 39-part PBS show, Lidia’s Italian Table, evokes the same response in them.

Clearly Bastianich’s renowned reputation as an acclaimed chef, restaurateur and author doesn’t get in the way of the family-style allure that won America’s hearts and palates in the first place.

In the introduction to her grand cookbook, Lidia’s Italian American Kitchen, (Knopf, $35, the companion to her 52-part series), Bastianch writes about the family approach to cooking that sauces her shows. She credits her grandparents – who ran a trattoria, grew most of the food they sold and ate, produced their own olive oil and wine, distilled their own grappa and cured their own meats – with inspiring her own fascination with food.

“My grandma dried beans, figs and raisins as well as herbs and all members of the onion family, for the winter,” she wrote. “I still remember going with her to the communal mill to grind the wheat into flour for pasta and bread. This ‘from the earth’ understanding and respect for food has given me a definite advantage as a cook. Those pristine, unadulterated flavors remain with me and have become my reference library throughout my professional life.”

Her mother, father and husband all worked together to open what would become her first restaurant, a little, 30-seat place called Buonavia — Italian for on the good road — the cornerstone of what has since become a culinary empire.

Bastianich notes that her “infectious passion” for food touched both her children and has now spread to the next generation.

When contacted for The Monitor’s Lenten Food Series, she selected a number of meatless dishes including Insalata Di Baccala, Patate e Fagiolini-Salt Cod, Potato and String Bean Salad and Escarole and White Bean Soup.

As all lovers of salt cod know, preparation time is definitely involved. The effort is well worth it because the dish is simply wonderful. Served together, the soup and salad make a delightful lunch or light Lenten dinner.

Salt Cod, Potato, String Bean Salad

Makes 4 luncheon servings

  • 1 lb salt cod, soaked
  • 2 medium Idaho or Yukon Gold potatoes(about 1¼ pounds)
  • ½ pound young string beans, both ends trimmed
  • ½ cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 1 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • fresh Italian parsley sprigs, optional

To soak the baccala, put the fillets in a container large enough to hold them comfortably. Place in a deep sink and fill the container with cold water. Position the container under the faucet and make sure the drain is clear and allow the faucet to drip very slowly, continuously replenishing the salty water with fresh. Allow the cod to soak this way for one day. When it is fully soaked, it should be quite moist and pliable and the water running over it will have little or no salt flavor.

Once the cod is soaked, bring a large saucepan of water to the simmer and drop in the fish. Cook until the salt cod starts to ‘open up” and flake, about 8 minutes. Remove the salt cod from the water with a slotted spoon or skimmer and let cool to room temperature. With your fingers, flake the cod into pieces about 1½ inches long, removing any bones and skin as you go.

Boil the potatoes about 35 minutes until they are tender, not mushy, and remove them from the water before their jackets split. Let the potatoes stand until they are cool enough to peel.

Meanwhile, cook the string beans in boiling, salted water about 6 to 8 minutes, until they are tender but firm, then drain and rinse under cold water, then split them in half.

Assemble the salad while the potatoes are still warm. Peel the potatoes, slice them about ½-inch thick and place in a large bowl. Add the string beans, red onion, parsley and salt cod. You may add all the salt cod at this point or set aside some of the larger pieces to decorate the top of the finished salad. Drizzle all but three tablespoons of the oil over the salad and toss gently to coat the ingredients while keeping the pieces of salt cod as large as possible. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Beat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper. Arrange the salad in the center of a large platter or divide it among plates. Drizzle some of the vinaigrette around the salad and decorate with the reserved salt cod and parsley sprigs.

Escarole and White Bean Soup

Makes 6 servings

  • 1½ cups cannellini, Great Northern, baby lima or other small, dried white beans
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 6 cups coarsely shredded escarole leaves (preferably the tough outer leaves) washed and drained
  • salt to taste
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling over the finished soup
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
  • 4 to 6 whole dried peperoncini (hot red peppers)

Cold-soak or quick-soak the beans according to package directions. Drain and transfer to a 5 or 6 quart pot. Pour in 2 quarts of water, toss in bay leaves and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to simmering and pour in the first quarter cup of olive oil and cook until the beans are tender, 1 to 1½ hours. By the time the beans are tender, they should be covered by about 1 inch of cooking liquid. Season the beans to taste with the salt, stir in the escarole and cook, stirring occasionally, until the escarole is quite tender, about 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and set aside.

Heat the second quarter cup of olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, shaking the pan until lightly browned. Add the whole peperoncini and cook, shaking the pan, just until the peppers change color, about 1 minute or less. Remove from the heat carefully because it will sputter quite a bit, and pour one ladleful of soup into the skillet. Swirl the pan to blend the two, then stir the panful of seasoned soup back into the large pot. Check the seasoning, correct if needed and let the soup rest off the heat, covered 10 to 15 minutes. Serve with garlic bread and baccala salad.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, may our Lenten fasting turn us toward all our brothers and sisters who are in need. Bless this table, our good food, and us. Send us through Lent with good cheer, and bring us to the fullness of your Passover. Amen.

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