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Cucina Conversations: Baccala` con Peperoni Cruschi (Salt Cod with Crispy Peppers)

I’ve always battled between choosing a sweet or savoury dish at the best of times, and even once I have selected to eat something sweet, my palate immediately craves for something salty afterwards.  So when we decided that this month’s topic for the Cucina Conversations round table was inevitably going to be Carnevale (annual carnival celebration in Italy) and all that it represents, my immediate recipe selection was sweets of course.  Well, after 'toing and froing', the decision was made for me by my taste buds - a savoury dish.  I must admit though that throughout this carnivalesque period I have been frying and indulging in sweets like the light and crispy chiacchiere  that are a family favourite, recipe testing chiacchere ripiene  with jam, and of course the addictive castagnole di carnevale that I grew up eating and loving. 

While deciding on a recipe and researching the topic of Carnevale, I was drawn by Pieter Brueghel’s masterpiece titled: La Lotta tra Carnevale e Quaresima  (The Fight between Carnival and Lent) and thought how typical this painting was in my current state of mind or in this case ‘taste buds’.   To some degree the symbolism of the two scenes captured my thoughts and beliefs around the notion of Carnevale growing up.  The painting illustrates the two sides of human nature: pleasure and the spirit of excess and enjoyment of all sorts juxtaposed with a more moderate lifestyle of fasting and virtuous abstinence in keeping with the Catholic religion.  Growing up in Australia far away from my birth country and its traditions, I don’t ever recall celebrating Carnevale as they do in Italy, but recall those Church-imposed ‘lean days’.

What I have learnt is that Carnevale has connections with the inheritance of pagan practices from ancient Greece and Rome, and even earlier in time where primitive celebrations honoured the coming of spring.   Later when Christianity took over from a spiritual point of view, Carnevale became a period of transition – not only between the two seasons, but also representing one last moment of indulgence before the penitence of Lent, which leads to the celebrations of Easter.   The theory behind the name considered more realistic by the majority of experts is that the term ‘Carnevale’ originated from another Latin expression, carnem levare, meaning taking away meat which over time became carne vale (goodbye, meat). This became associated with Ash Wednesday – the day when Lent began and people stopped eating meat replacing it with fish during this period of time.

My fellow bloggers will share with you some regional Carnevale recipes that are typical of this period - some sweet and others savoury.   I on the other hand, will focus on a simple and moderate dish that moves us out of the Carnevale season after having indulged for the whole month. My recipe choice for this month is baccala fritto con peperoni cruschi (salt cod fish with sun dried peppers) cooked in a traditional way from the Basilicata region of Italy where my parents are from.

Basilicata is a hilly and mountainous region in the south of Italy,  bordering on Campania  to the west, Apulia (Puglia) to the north and east, and Calabria to the south. It also has two coastlines, one on the Tyrrhenian Sea between Campania and Calabria, and a longer coastline along the Gulf of Taranto  between Calabria and Apulia. The region is divided into two provinces, Potenza  (being the capital) and Matera This region is rich in history and agriculture but much of its cuisine is simple and very much influenced by its geographic location and ancient traditions. 

Carnevale in Basilicata is inaugurated by the rhythmic and hypnotic sound of bells to coincide with the feast of Saint Anthony, January 17.  I previously wrote about Carnevale in this region, with the recount of my mother’s small town of Montemurro, coinciding with the ‘pig festa’ and that rich sanguinacchio desert that is very typical of the south.  In this region during Carnevale, it is traditional to eat cavatelli or orecchiette (home-made pasta types) with a tomato sauce made with salsicce (sausages) or la cotica (pork skin).  Lard also replaces olive oil in the cooking, rendering it rich and fatty. 

Remember the left hand side of that above mentioned painting?  In the foreground there is a large figure of a man riding a beer barrel with a pork chop attached to its front end and he's wielding a long spit complete with a pig’s head representing (eating fat) ready to do battle with Lady Lent’s wagon containing fish, representing (eating lean) – such is allegory and symbolism in art!  Well anyway, I’m on Lady Lent’s side with this dish. 

Il baccala` with a garnish of crisp peppers and olives is a simple traditional recipe and one that is very representative of the Basilicata region, perfect to be prepared for the last day of Carnevale and leading into the leaner months ahead.  It’s a very tasty preparation characterized by the contrast between the crisp sweet garnish of the sun-dried Senise peppers – a typical product of a small village called Senise located in the province of Potenza, and the soft and savoury cod fish.  For the peperoni cruschi, you will need sun-dried sweet Italian peppers.  I used the bull horn variety that my parents grow and have dried themselves.  If you are looking to buy already dried peppers, let me dissuade you as they are so easy to dry yourself and far tastier.  Simply follow a YouTube clip.  

Baccala Fritto con Peperoni Cruschi (Salt Cod with Crispy Peppers)
This is papa’s recipe that I have adapted by adding mamma’s black sun dried olives.  
NB: Papa` would ensure that one of the peppers used is hot.  Alternatively he would add a small chilli when frying the peppers.  Serves 4

700 g of salt cod already soaked in water for 3 days to remove the excess salt
300 g of sun-dried peppers 
½ cup olive oil for shallow frying (add more if /when needed)
1 spicy chilli (optional)
salt to taste
all-purpose flour to dust cod

1 cup black sun dried olives (prepared in advance by mamma) You can purchase these from your local delicatessen.

Preparing the salt cod fish:
In order for the salt cod to be totally desalinised, it requires to be soaked in a bowl of cold water for 2 to 3 days – changing the water every day.   Drain the water and pat dry the cod using a clean tea-towel and carefully remove the skin by peeling it off.  Cut into pieces of desired length and dust with flour ensuring all pieces are coated all over.

Preparing the peperoni cruschi & frying the cod fish:
To make the sweet and smoky flavoured peperoni cruschi, you need to first remove the seeds and stems from the dried peppers and cut in half length ways. Place the cut peppers with half a cup of olive oil in a fry pan.  Toss to coat with the olive oil and place the pan over medium heat.  Keep stirring them with a fork as the oil in the pan warms up.  As soon as they puff up and become crispy you should remove them from the heat; be careful not to burn them.  Add a sprinkle of salt and move onto frying the olives in the same oil until warmed.  Remove them from the pan and fry the cod fish in the same infused olive oil until golden on all sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to remove the excess oil.  Plate all 3 cooked ingredients and garnish with some crushed peppers. Serve with some crusty bread.  

This is a typical lean dish from the Basilicata region classified as cucina povera (humble cuisine), but the locals along with my father would argue that it's fit for a king!  I have a few other family recipes using baccala` as the main ingredient that I will be adding to my recipe list soon, so stay tuned. 

Meanwhile remember to also read more about the Carnevale traditions around Italy via my fellow bloggers Cucina Conversations posts.  Their recipes include:

Fagioli Grassi  at turinmamma
Polpette di Carne at marmellatadicipolle
Crostoli di Nutella at italiankiwilisa
Fritole Veneziane at flavias_flavors
Castagnole di Ricotta at pancakesandbiscotti
Bomboloni at la_danigourmet


  1. Lovely post Carmen! History and context are really important to me when writing about dishes and you've done so beautifully here. I have a sweet tooth too so I can definitely relate to the conflicted feelings about choosing between sweet or savoury. I'm personally looking forward to eating savoury and lighter, vegetarian and fish-based dishes (baccala and stoccafisso will definitely be on the menu) next month too Hmmm, must have a closer loo at Breughel's painting again...

  2. Thank you Rosemary, I had so much fun writing this post. I agree with you on the point of connecting food with its history. Every dish has a story whether epic or small.

  3. I've often eyed salt cod in the supermarket, but I never had the courage to buy it as I couldn't figure out quite what to do with it. Now I know! This recipe sounds terrific! That's an interesting art lesson too. I'm always very curious to find out what the symbolism in the paintings is all about.

    1. I've only cooked it a few times myself as my family aren't too keen and mamma normally gives me a cooked portion. This time round I decided that I would try a few recipes and made another dish with the amount I bought. I will post that recipe as well soon. Yes art history is always fascinating. :)

  4. Wonderful post Carmen! I love that you chose a recipe to transition us away from all the castagnole, frappe, crostoli, etc, and I love that its a family recipe using ingredients from your family. Brava.

  5. Thank you Francesca. It was important for me to explore my family's traditions in this post even if it meant giving up sweets for Lent a few weeks earlier. ;)


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