A bounty of bacalao in Baltimore

Family recipe for cod fish traveled from Cuba to Mexico to Charm City

(Chiaki Kawajiri, For The…)
October 02, 2013|By Rafael Alvarez
For The Baltimore Sun

In a rowhouse kitchen near Patterson Park, a small pennant-shaped Cuban flag hangs from a cabinet above a pot of garlic and onions warming in wine, vinegar and water.

Smudged and worn, the fringed banner used to hang from the rearview mirror in the Chevy pickup of Octavio Norman, a Havana-born nurse who worked at Mercy Medical Center, lived most of his life in Baltimore, and died here not long after his 59th birthday in January of 2012.

Into the garlic and onions, his daughter, Elizabeth "Beth" Norman of South Collington Avenue, soon adds a simmering mix of green tomatoes, sweet red peppers, diced green bell peppers and herbs.

This sauce will later be spooned over the large fillet of cod that is now boiling on the stove. Before getting to this point, the salt cod soaked in tap water for a full 24 hours, with the water getting changed half a dozen times to reduce the saltiness.

As Norman keeps an eye on the pots, her second-floor apartment is perfumed with the scents of the Caribbean. She remembers the great appetite her father had for good food (particularly hot cross buns at Hoehn's on Conkling Street) and the camaraderie and simple pleasures of neighborhood barrooms like Roman's.

The 28-year-old Notre Dame Prep graduate is preparing one of her father's favorites: bacalao en salsa verde — salted cod in green sauce.

And once again, she is moved by the abruptness with which her father's proud Cuban heritage was uprooted (he told the story often — how his mother sewed jewelry into the linings of their suitcases and cash into the hems of her dresses) after Fidel and Che and the Communists came down from the mountains in 1959 to overthrow the Batista government.

Octavio was 6 when the family fled to the United States, and the recipe traveled with the Normans along a route from Havana to Mexico City to East Baltimore. It was recently chanced upon, written in Spanish on a stained and folded sheet of loose-leaf paper, mixed in with a bunch of recipes on index cards.

The family believes it is in the hand of Beth's grandfather, a long-deceased merchant mariner named Salvador Norman.

"It was like finding the holy covenant of recipes," said Norman's boyfriend of nine years, Glen Burnie native and Baltimore culinary school graduate Phil Faux.

Once found by Norman's stepmother (Betty Mott Norman of Parkville), it had to be translated into English. Beth Norman's Spanish was pretty good when she was younger — when she ice-skated in Patterson Park and sat on the front steps of Octavio's South Decker Avenue rowhouse — but she didn't trust it for her first pass at bacalao.

A Puerto Rican co-worker at a veterinarian's office in Bowie, where Norman works as a technician, did the translation.

"The hardest part of the recipe was convincing Phil that we had to use salted cod instead of fresh cod," said Norman, for whom following her father's palate to the letter was very important. It had to start with salt cod.

Drying is one of the oldest ways humans have used to preserve food, and for more than 500 years the process — with salt — has been applied to codfish in Scandinavia, Newfoundland, Iceland and the independent Faroe Islands some 180 miles from Scotland.

A staple of seafarers in the days before refrigeration, salt cod — traditionally dried by the wind and the sun — also became standard fare throughout the Roman Catholic world in the days when the faithful were prohibited from eating meat on Fridays.

You can get dried, salted cod throughout the Baltimore area. It goes for $8.99 a pound at Trinacria on North Paca Street downtown. At S. DiPaula & Sons seafood in Rosedale, salted cod fillets go for $9.25 a pound.

DiPasquale's Italian Market in Highlandtown (once an Italian-American stronghold with a strong taste for bacalao and now heavily Hispanic with an equally strong preference for the fish) gets its salt cod from Canada. It sells for $12.99 a pound, both regular and boneless.

"A lot of people try to pass off dried hake as cod because it's cheaper, but we sell the real thing," said owner Joe DiPasquale. "You can tell the difference. Salted cod changes [the quality] of everything."

Among the long-assimilated, not many American families have the time (or their children the heart) for soaking a smelly dried fish with which you could hit a tennis ball over the net. Old-school Baltimoreans know that the once ubiquitous "coddie" treat can be difficult to find.

The varieties of prepared salted cod offered at DiPasquale's include the fish marinated in parsley, garlic and hot peppers and olive oil.

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