Bacalao — if you are not a fan — is an insulting thing to call someone; to the bacalao-averse it is a smelly, salty, fibrous fish; it is yucky and you can’t stomach it or even smell it cooking in the house.
Bacalao — if you are a fan — is the magical, durable, sustaining food of seafarers and coastal folks from far flung places; a protein source that won’t go off without refrigeration; a salty treat that tastes great with rice, in fritters, in any number of ways, the flavor of Lenten Fridays and Christmas buffets.
Bacalao is dried salt cod (called saltfish on many of the Caribbean Islands) and if you don’t like it, you may want to stop reading now.
If you do like it, I hope you will try it as serenata, a dish very popular in Puerto Rico, that I am told doesn’t come from Spain, but was developed in the Caribbean. It may have been the dish traditionally served to a successful suitor after he serenaded his intended under the window on a warm, tropical palm-swaying kind of evening.
Then again, maybe not. Since salt cod must be desalinated ahead of time, the intended must have known when her suitor was coming and what her answer would be, well in advance of the event. Hardly a romantic surprise. But I love me an apocryphal story as much as the next person!
If I were waiting for a suitor to turn up in order to eat serenata, it would be a long time before I had it again. But me being me, I don’t wait.
We eat serenata during Lent on Fridays, but I like it any time. It combines a strong salty fish with bland tubers (which we in Puerto Rico call viandas); I like to mush it up all together on my plate with abundant oil for a a dense and salty mashed potato-type of experience.
My dad found a breadfruit somewhere the other day (I suspect he shook someone down for it, but whatever you have to do in New York to get a tropical breadfruit seems justifiable to me. I asked no questions). Breadfruit is one of my absolute favorite things to eat in this whole blessed world. Set the dense creaminess of breadfruit against the power of bacalao and I am in heaven. So I started soaking my fish immediately. Chowing down was like mainlining the memories of so many amazing days and adventures…I felt almost drunk on the event!
Notes: Atlantic cod is on the naughty list of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (for more info, click here) but I got Alaskan Pollock, which seems to be okay for the moment, although wild-caught Alaskan is the most recommended. I try.
For a delightful read on the fascinating history of cod, get Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world, by one of my favorite food researchers and writers, Mark Kurlansky!
Full disclosure: My son will not touch bacalao, hates the smell and — every time he smells a funky smell somewhere, he calls it bacalao. He’ll grow into it.
For a variation on Bacalao a la vizcaina (with tomato sauce), click here
- Bacalao: 1lb. dried salt cod, desalinated and rehydrated according to the following directions: To desalinate: Place cod in abundant cold water in the evening or in the morning. Before going to bed or to work, change the water. Upon waking or returning from work, change the water again. When ready to cook, place bacalao in a pot with abundant water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium, simmer for 3-5 minutes, drain and allow to cool.
- Stodge: 1-2 lbs potatoes/yautía/yuca/breadfruit/malanga (taro) or other tuberous root vegetable. Peeled and boiled until fully cooked through (from 15-30 minutes, depending on density of tuber) and kept warm
- Dressing — 4 Tbs olive oil;1 tsp capers; 10 pimiento-stuffed olives, sliced; ½ cup red onion, chopped; 10 grape tomatoes, quartered (Plus additional olive oil for drizzling and salt to taste).
4. Optional: avocado slices, hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
Flake cooled bacalao in to a bowl. Add all the ingredients in C. Mix well and serve with tubers, additional oil and optional avocado and eggs.