A Roundabout Route to Baccalà Mantecato

My local Vallarta Mexican grocery store never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

First of all, it’s just darned cool to have a market that actually feels — smells, sounds, visuals — like you are in Mexico. And in that regard, I have yet to need a Mexican cooking ingredient that I can’t find there.

Secondly, I find countless ingredients I need for other cuisines — the fine tripe they have, for example, that I need (yes, need) for trippa alla Romana, and a dazzling variety of fresh herbs.

Newfoundland salt cod illustration from the 1700s

A recent happy discovery was baccalà, also known as bacalao, also known as salt cod — not something I ever associated with Mexican cooking. In the past, I’ve had to travel to a Spanish purveyor in Harbor City (a heck of a drive to non-Angelenos) or wait until I’m in San Francisco to visit North Beach’s famous deli, Molinari, to get some. Not only does Vallarta have beautiful European baccala, but it’s considerably less expensive than at either of those other places.

One of my favorites among many delicious salt cod preparations is the Venetian puree called “baccalà mantecato,” one of that city’s signature cicchetti, or small tasty plates you get at wine bars. It’s a rich, silky puree of cod, garlic and olive oil that is spread on crusty bread. It’s so good that even my wife, who generally dislikes salted fishy-tasting things, craves it.

Topanga baccalà mantecato from the 2017s

I made a batch recently for an appetizer I was asked to bring to a dinner party, and saved a little to stuff inside black cuttlefish-ink ravioli served with gooey marscapone-filled fried zucchini blossoms for a dinner party I was hosting at our house the following evening. For the away party, as a variation on the theme, I had an inspiration to try a little scoop on top of homemade potato chips rather than bread. Both the chips and the ravioli were divine and the subject of much praise and discussion.

There’s not reason for you to wait until you’re invited to a dinner party, or throwing one yourself, to make this. I’m pretty sure even your picky children, bless their little hearts, will like it — especially if you refocus their attention on the little bit of potato in the dish.

Typically, salt cod is soaked in several changes of water over the course of a day or two. But if you have a thinner piece of cod, only half a day is necessary. Or overnight for a thick piece. I find a little salt left in the cod makes for a tastier mantecato.


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Baccalà Mantecato
serves 4-6 as an appetizer

1/2 lb. salt cod
1 small potato, 3-4 oz., peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
4 large garlic cloves
fresh ground black pepper
1 loaf crusty ciabatta-type bread

Soak the salt cod as described above, half a day to overnight depending on thickness. Cook the potato in boiling water until soft, and let cool. (This can be done ahead of time.)

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil, and cook the salt cod 3-5 minutes, until firm and cooked through. Remove from water and let cool.

Place a small piece of foil in a toaster oven or regular oven at 420 degrees, and roast three of the garlic cloves (unpeeled) until soft and golden, 8-10 minutes. Remove skins and set aside. Peel other garlic clove and crush.

In a food processor, place the salt cod, potato and both roasted and raw garlic and puree until smooth. Drizzle in the olive oil as the machine runs until the mantecato is smooth and creamy. Remove from the processor, and stir in ground pepper to taste.

Slice bread thickly and either grill or toast. Spread with baccala and serve.


Eating Oaxaca

Oaxaca, they say, is the culinary capital of Mexico. I was eager to put this to the test.

I am still digesting Mexico City tacos when we arrive and check into our hotel. But my pal Mike rouses me from a brief respite on my bed that could’ve easily turned into an evening in, and we are soon walking the beautiful historic streets of the old center of Oaxaca city. More

Into the Maguey Mountains

I’m partial to Del Maguey single village mezcal. And not simply because my pal, Michael, is a partner in the company. (Though he has winced on the rare occasion he has discovered one of his competitor’s products in my liquor cabinet.) The mezcals are complex and delicious, I like the backstory, the commitment to preserving tradition, and the Ken Price labels. But I would become an even greater advocate upon traveling deep into Oaxaca with Mike, visiting two of Del Maguey’s palenques (where the mezcals are made), and meeting the men who make them.

Wild tobala agave at the Del Maguey bodega

It was a bright southern Mexico morning when the car picked up Mike and me, freshly filled up on breakfast mole and huevos, to head south out of the city and into the agave countryside. The day breaks open like an egg, the light harsh and silver as the swords of the espadin, elevation halfway to the sun and soon you are shielding your eyes. The landscape is dusty and weedy and cactusy, not the way I pictured Oaxaca, punctuated with the bursting spikes of the agave that will define our day. More

24 Hours in Mexico City

I am in Mexico City, suddenly, at the invitation of my pal Michael, partner in Del Maguey single village mezcal, who has come on business. My business, as a chef, food blogger and brand consultant, is to learn all I can about his business — and as a Del Maguey advocate, to experience a golden-ticket immersion in artisanal mezcal production. We are on our way to Oaxaca to experience mezcal at its source. But first, there is the business of Mexico City.

Popocatepétl from the airplane window

Del Maguey recently commenced a partnership with the world’s second-largest spirits company, the French firm Pernod-Ricard, Mike is here to meet the Mexico City team, discuss efficiencies and processes. In other words, he’s taking a lot of meetings. I, on the other hand, am taking a lot of walks. More

The Sean Dog

Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. But could that really be true of a hot dog? Is there such a thing as necessity when it comes to a hot dog.

Sit back, friends, and let me tell my tale.

The Sean Dog

It all begins at our local Ralph’s supermarket (Krogers to you folks on the East Coast). I’ve become obsessed with the hunt for their “Woohoo” deals — items throughout the store which, due mostly to rapidly approaching “sell by” dates, have had their prices precipitously cut and have been flagged with a little yellow-and-red “Woohoo!” sticker. It has the same appeal as mushroom hunting or garage sale-ing: sometimes you find something, sometimes you don’t. More often than not, I make staggering discoveries — $14 Italian La Tur cheeses for $4; $20 dry-aged ribeyes for $6. More

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