Many, many years ago, I imagine our great grandfather, Gaspare Becci, staring out over the baby blue Adriatic sea as he slowly made his way up the gentle hill to Scapezzano in Le Marche. Was he perhaps returning from a day of hard labor near the sea? Had my grandfather, who spent his days in America as a stonemason, carried on the tradition from his father in
Italy? I imagine Gaspare returning home, tired from the long day’s work, to find his wife, Filomena, preparing a simple meal on the fire, as she also tended to her children. Although life in rural Italy must have been difficult in the mid-1800s, perhaps they led a simple but happy life alongside the beautiful sea.
With a family trip to visit Le Marche just around the corner, we have been doing research on the cuisine of the region. Our mother cooked few Marchigiani recipes with the exception of passatelli, a household favorite, so we are anxious to learn about this relatively isolated yet magical region of Italy. Somehow in all my trips to Italy, I have never managed to visit the region although it is the Italian relatives from Scapezzano to which I am the closest. I so look forward to standing in the little village feeling the presence of generations past – generations of family bound by a silver thread that leads me back to the little village near the sea.
One regional preparation that I have discovered is dishes prepared ‘in potacchio’ – a simple preparation of tomatoes, garlic, onions and wine. The Marchigiani prepare everything from chicken to dried cod in this tasty manner. And with fresh wild cod beckoning me from the fishmonger’s case, I decided to prepare our dinner ‘in potacchio’ last eve.
Now, a quick sidebar about my feelings on cod – I used to hate the stuff. (Mom, sorry to say, it was entirely your fault.) Baccala (made from salt cured cod) was a staple on our Christmas Eve table. My mother would bring the smelly stuff home from the Italian market and for days in advance of our feast, she would rehydrate the stuff, draining and refilling the pot, leaving our kitchen smelling like an old sock. Although she was an amazing cook, her recipes for baccala were not one of her strong suits. I feigned tummy aches, loss of appetite, sore throats whenever I was near the stuff. I thought I would swear it off forever – until one tasty bite of an excellently prepared baccala dish in Sicily rocked my cod world forever. Over time, I have come to love the stuff and with cod being one of the few locally sustainable fish, I now cook it often. And yes, baccala now graces my Christmas Eve table as well.
As I prepared this dish last eve, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic – feeling the pull from a village so far away; wondering if my great grandmother had prepared a similar dish in the fading evening light; wondering what it was like to perhaps cook over a fire instead of today’s modern conveniences. Two women – so many generations apart – yet linked by the magical silver thread of family and of love. Buon appetito!
Fresh Cod in ‘Potacchio’
- 2 pounds of fresh cod, cut into large pieces
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 4 anchovy fillets, in olive oil, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, diced
- 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes (or 1 box POM diced tomatoes)
- 1 ‘glass’ dry white wine (about 1 cup)
- Small handful of parsley, diced (about ¼ cup)
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
In a pan or skillet large enough to accommodate the fish, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add in the anchovies and stir until soft and incorporated, about 1 minute. Add in the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add in the tomatoes and wine. Stir and allow to simmer until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes. Add the parsley and season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat to low. Season the cod with salt and pepper and nestle in the sauce. Simmer until the fish is cooked through and the sauce thickened, about 10 minutes. (Be careful if you have the urge to stir the pot as fresh cod will break up when cooked.)
Sprinkle with additional chopped fresh parsley and perhaps a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and serve with some crusty Italian bread. Buon appetito!