What started as an unwanted order to help in the kitchen turned into a lifelong passion for Joe Picardi, who counts recipes learned from his grandfather all those years ago among his favorites today.
"I really hated it as a kid, but after a while I really started to appreciate it and like it," Picardi said of those long-ago sessions in the kitchen. "Cooking turned into an interest. I've since picked up some stuff on my own, but it's really based on stuff I learned from him. He really taught me how to cook."
These days, the 67-year-old retired nurse practitioner thinks of his grandfather whenever he serves bacala, dried salted cod that can be made into a pate and is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. Picardi had made some for the holidays, but he likes the pate so much, he makes it whenever possible.
"Most non-Italians won't even try anything made from bacala, neither will a lot of Italians for that matter, but those who have tried these dishes really love them and ask for them year-round, not just on Christmas Eve," said Picardi, who recently started his first term on the Brigantine Council.
Picardi grew up in Palisades Park with his parents, Joe and Jane. But Fridays after school were spent with his paternal grandfather.
Giuseppe Picardi had emigrated from Sicily, where he'd worked first as a cook and then as a shoemaker - a profession he continued to pursue after moving to this country, living in New York City and eventually settling in New Jersey.
Picardi recalls going to his grandfather's house after school for those Friday afternoon visits. It was when he was about 10 or 12 that his grandfather put him to work in the kitchen.
"He called me over to the stove and said 'Stir.' Back then, you didn't say no," Picardi recalls. "He could be stern. You didn't cross him. He ruled the house with an iron hand. He'd lost his wife and he raised five kids by himself."
From stirring, Picardi soon moved on to making different sauces and then helping with food for various Catholic feast days.
It was at this point Picardi learned how to make bacala. The recipe wasn't nearly as intimidating as dealing with the dried cod itself - which resembled nothing so much as "the bottom of a shoe," Picardi said.
"When you look at it, you want to run," he said.
The novice chef learned other tricks from his grandfather.
"A lot of people put sugar in pasta sauce. He would take a handful of dried raisins, chop it up and put it in the sauce to sweeten it," Picardi said. "They didn't have sugar in Sicily. They were poor. He never had a desire to go back."
Picardi still employs some of those cooking techniques, as well as others he has learned over the years.
A former priest, Picardi lived and worked in Bolivia for 10 years as a nurse and as a missionary in a clinic. While working there, he learned how to make saltenas, which are like a spicy stew wrapped up in a small pastry. Picardi got his saltenas recipe from the vendor he used to frequent.
"We were always going out to get them on the street, you would have a favorite person whose food you liked. I got the recipe from my favorite street vendor, she used to come to the clinic, so I prevailed upon her to share it," Picardi said. "When I got back here, I adapted it a bit."
These days, Picardi and his partner, Art Burlington, like them so much Picardi will make large batches and freeze them, so there are always some saltenas available should the mood strike.
"The saltenas are delicious," said Burlington. "It's like a little stew , but it's a pastry. It's a little spicy , but also a little sweet."
Picardi loves the saltenas too, but there's a soft spot in his heart for the bacala.
The recipe isn't easy - it involves soaking the salted cod and repeatedly draining the water to reduce the salt content, but Picardi said the effort is worth it.
"I like it - it tastes good. Art loves it too, this Irish guy loves the bacala," Picardi said. "I make it at Christmas, but I make it at other times, too. I use it like hors dourves. Most people are floored when they find out what it is."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Bacala Lercara Fridi Style
The quantities in these bacala recipes are approximations. You must make your judgments based upon taste and consistency of the pate. The finished product should not taste at all "fishy," but rather have a subtle creamy seafood quality to it. The pate stores well refrigerated. To store, cover its surface with clear plastic kitchen wrap to remove any air and then cover the container tightly.
•6 to 8 ounces dried bacala (Purchase the broken pieces of bacala instead of the whole filets. It's much less costly.)
•1 12-ounce can of evaporated milk plus 1 can of water or 2 1/2 cups whole milk
•1 cup mashed potatoes made with heavy cream and butter (leftovers are fine)
•2 tablespoons heavy cream
•Salt to taste
•White pepper to taste
Three days before you plan make the bacala pate, rinse the dried bacala under cold running water to remove the excess salt and place it in a large bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water and place it in the refrigerator. Drain the water and refill the bowl two to three times per day for the next three days.
When the bacala has been soaked for three days, remove it from the bowl and remove any bones, dark skin, loose pieces of the white/silver membrane and any brown bits of fish flesh. Rinse the fish under cold running water and place in a sauce pan. Add the evaporated milk and water or the whole milk. Bring the milk to a simmer and cook the fish until it flakes very easily with a fork, almost falling apart, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the fish using a colander.
Food processor preparation:
Place the prepared cooked fish in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process it until it looks "furry," scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the mashed potatoes and heavy cream and process until you have a thick and smooth pate, scrapping down the sides of the bowl as needed. If the pate is too loose add more mashed potatoes a little at a time. If it is too dry add heavy cream, a very little at a time.
Place the prepared cooked fish in a bowl with curved sides and using a table fork, mash the fish against the sides of the bowl until it is shredded into a thread-like consistency. Add the mashed potatoes and heavy cream and process until you have a thick and smooth pate. If the pate is too loose add more mashed potatoes a little at a time. If it is too dry add heavy cream, a 1/2 teaspoon at a time.
Season the finished pate to taste with salt and white pepper, adding both a little at a time.
Serve at room temperature. Traditionally served drizzled with a few drops extra virgin olive oil on warm toasted slices of Italian bread. It goes very well on small squares of puff pastry or in pastry puffs made from pate a choux.
Makes: About 2 3/4 cups of pate.
Bacala Lercara Fridi Style with Olive Oil
•6 to 8 ounces dried bacala
•1 12-ounce can of evaporated milk plus1 can of water or 2 1/2 cups whole milk
•1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
•Cold water, as needed
•Salt to taste
•White pepper to taste
Soak bacala as described above. Rinse the fish under cold running water and put it into a sauce pan. Add the evaporated milk and water or the whole milk. Bring the milk to a simmer and cook the fish until it flakes very easily with a fork, almost falling apart, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain the fish using a colander.
Food Processor Preparation:
Place the prepared cooked fish in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process it until it looks "furry," scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Remove about a quarter cup and reserve it. With the food processor running, drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil until you have a thick and smooth pate, scrapping down the sides of the bowl as needed. If the pate is too loose add some of the reserved pate as needed to thicken it. If it is too dry add cold water, a very little at a time until you have the right consistency.
Place the prepared cooked fish in a bowl with curved sides and using a table fork, mash the fish against the sides of the bowl until it is shredded into a thread-like consistency. Remove about a quarter cup and reserve it. Add the extra virgin olive oil little by little, mixing well after each addition until you have a thick and smooth pate. If the pate is too loose add some of the reserved pate as needed to thicken it. If it is too dry add cold water, a very little at a time. Mix thoroughly after each addition.
Season the finished pate to taste with salt and white pepper, adding both a little at a time.
Serve at room temperature.
•2 1/2 cups diced beef, pork, lamb or chicken
•2 cups water
•1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
•1 cup olive oil (regular, not extra virgin)
•1/2 cup chili powder or other hot pepper
•1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
•1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
•1/2 teaspoon salt
•1 large white or yellow onion chopped fine
•1 tablespoon sugar
•1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
•1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley or 2 tablespoons dried parsley
•1 cup peeled potato cut into small dice and cooked just shy of done
•1/2 cup frozen peas
•1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
•2 cups kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half
•1 cup seedless raisins
•6 hard boiled eggs, sliced
•6 cups all-purpose flour
•3/4 cup regular olive oil, heated
•1/4 cup sugar
•1 cup warm water
•1 teaspoon salt
•1/2 cup yellow ancho chile paste or other hot pepper paste or 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
For the Filling (to be made the day before baking the Saltenas)
Place the diced meat in a sauce pan, add 2 cups of water, a good pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper, bring to a boil, then simmer until just barely cooked through. Drain the water from the meat, saving the water. Set the meat aside in a bowl.
Heat the oil and chili powder or other hot spice in a good size saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, for 5 to 6 minutes, then add the cumin, oregano and salt. Cook, stirring, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the onions and cook until they are translucent. Remove the pan from the heat and add the sugar, vinegar, parsley, potatoes and frozen peas. Stir to combine.
Over medium heat, heat 1 1/2 cups of the reserved cooking water from the meat (add plain water if needed to get 1 1/2 cups of liquid). When the liquid is hot add the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Bring the water to a boil, turn off the heat, add the meat, stir well and add the contents of the pan to the potato mixture. Add the olives, raisins and sliced eggs and stir well. Cover, let stand and cool for a while and then refrigerate overnight.
For the Dough
Combine the flour and hot oil by hand with a wooden spoon or in a stand mixer using the dough hook. When well combined, set aside to cool for about 10 minutes.
Add the eggs, sugar, warm water, salt, ancho paste or turmeric and mix and knead until well combined and the color is uniform. Cover the dough with a cloth and set aside to rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
If rolling by hand divide the dough into golf ball size pieces and roll each piece into a disc about 6 inches in diameter and 1/8 inch thick. Flour both sides well and stack each one between sheets of waxed paper, when you have five or six stacked, place them in the refrigerator until all are completed.
If you have a pasta machine, divide the dough into 8 to 10 pieces and run them through the machine four to five times, as you would pasta dough, flouring the sheet of dough well after each run-through and folding it in half before putting it through again. Use the setting on the machine that gives you the proper thickness of dough. You may have to hand roll each length of dough a bit in order to get it about 6 inches wide for cutting it into rounds. Flour, stack and refrigerate as noted above.
Fill each round of dough with 1/4 cup of the filling. Moisten the edge of the dough with a finger tip moisten with water. Fold the dough over the filling to form a half circle and seal the edges together by pinching and rolling the edges together. Gently roll the filled saltena so the seam faces up and runs lengthwise down the center of the completed saltena, which is now shaped like a flatted football.
A 6 1/4-inch dumpling press is the best device to cut, fill and seal the saltenas. Remove the filled and sealed saltena from the press and pinch and roll the seam and then gently roll as noted above.
Set the completed saltenas on a parchment paper covered baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart, brush each with olive oil. Bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven about 10 to 15 minutes or until well browned. Cool on a rack 10 to 15 minutes before serving so they are still very warm, but not too hot to handle.
Makes about 2 dozen saltenas.
A simpler and less spicy alternative is to use store-bought, precut wheat dough discs used to make empanadas. Thaw the discs completely before filling them. Seal them as you would the homemade dough and brush with oil before baking.
A 6 1/4-inch plastic dumpling press is available at amazon.com for about $7.
Both the filling and the dough freeze well, so you don't have to make an entire batch at once.
If you are going to freeze the filling, wait until it has been in the fridge overnight.
Saltenas freeze well. Freeze before baking them. Place them on a slightly oiled baking sheet and freeze overnight, then wrap well individually in clear plastic kitchen wrap and store frozen or vacuum seal and store frozen. To bake place frozen saltenas on a parchment paper covered baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart, brush each with olive oil. Bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven until well browned, about 25 to 30 minutes or so. Cool as noted above.