Nonnina's Baccala Salad Is What Your Seven Fishes Dinner Is Missing

This is the one recipe you need to level up your Seven Fishes dinner from good to Nonnina's house.

Grandma's Baccala Salad
Photo: Getty Images

If you've spent time around Italian-Americans, you've probably heard of Festa dei sette pesci or — The Feast of the Seven Fishes. This is the traditional meal of Christmas Eve, when observant Catholics abstain from eating meat for the day. One thing almost all Italian-Americans can agree on is that a non-negotiable pillar of the meal is baccala. And while colloquially, it can mean "a fool" or "a slap," the term literally refers to salt-dried fillets of cod. It's a food reserved for celebrations and is most often eaten at The Feast of the Seven Fishes or during the season of Lent.

Baccala is inherently shelf-stable and helps stretch one fish even further. In southern Italy, where The Feast of the Seven Fishes hails from, it's part of what's known as cucina povera, or "peasant cooking" — and before refrigeration, it was often the only way for people who couldn't always afford fresh-caught seafood to have fish.

When you buy baccala, it's stiff and covered in salt. To turn it back into juicy, delicious fillets, you have to first soak it in water. Depending on the size of the pieces and how dry it is, the baccala will need to be soaked in water for anywhere between 12 hours and two days; check it by pinching the fish to see if it's softened. It's incredibly important to remember to change the soaking water at least twice a day. (I have so many childhood memories of being told to go down to the basement laundry room in my grandparents' house to change the baccala water during the days leading up to Christmas Eve.)

Like many Italians celebrating The Feast of the Seven Fishes, my family fries pretty much every type of fish, including baccala. And while everyone loves fried white fish, the underdog gem of the Christmas Eve table for my family is always the baccala salad. During Lent, we usually keep it simple with just oil, garlic, and parsley but for Christmas Eve, we dress it up a little more and use the signature recipe from my great-grandmother, my Nonnina. Beyond the parsley and garlic, we usually use pickled hot cherry peppers (grown, preserved, and canned by my grandfather), along with a few other pantry staples. Some other versions of this dish that I have eaten over the years use chili flake in lieu of the cherry peppers and have the addition of capers or oil-cured olives. While these are fine (and delicious!) additions, to me, the best iteration utilizes pickled cherry peppers as the shining star.

When I was a kid, I loved to be a part of the ceremonial fuss of preparing the baccala, but I never really liked to eat it until I got a bit older. Part of why I was so enthusiastic to help make the staple dish is because it was my grandfather's (who I called Nonno) absolute favorite. Because we generally only ate it a few times a year, with Christmas Eve being the best version of the dish, he was always so excited for it. His mother made baccala salad for him growing up in Italy, and as an adult, he would always make a big deal out of going to buy the baccala, getting it into the water, and checking it constantly in the days leading up to Christmas Eve.

While my grandmother and aunts buzzed around the house making fresh pasta, all the other types of fish, and opulent meat centerpieces for Christmas day, the thing my grandfather waited for all year was a simple dried fish salad that reminded him of home. My Nonno was my favorite person in the whole world, and since he's passed, continuing the tradition of making baccala salad helps me feel closer to him during the time of year I miss him the most. So without further adieu, here is my Nonno's favorite baccala recipe, adapted from his mother's original method.

Nonnina's Baccala Salad

  • 1 (12-oz) piece baccala
  • 3-4 large pickled hot cherry peppers, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (enough to coat generously, about ¼ cup)
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 8-10 celery leaves, torn
  • Handful of Italian parsley, roughly chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Put baccala in a pan of cold water; bring to a boil and cook for about 4 to 5 minutes (longer if the fish is a thicker piece); taste to make sure it's cooked through. Remove the fish, drain well, and cool. Break the baccala into bite-sized chunks.

2. Scatter the flaked fish onto your largest serving plate or platter. Sprinkle the cherry peppers and garlic over the fish, then drizzle with oil and vinegar. Finally, top with celery and parsley leaves. Season with salt and pepper, based on how salty the fish tasted when you pulled it out of the water.

3. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to two days — although there probably won't be any!

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