Tag Archives: bacalao

Bacalaitos: Light and Luscious Puerto Rican Cod Fritters

27 Dec

One of the pleasures of visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico is heading straight from Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to a beach area about five minutes to the east. Piñones, a long stretch of relatively undeveloped coastline is where beach shacks under the shade of coconut palms serve up ice cold beer, whiskey con coco, and all manner of snacks or frituras, flour or banana dough shaped in seagrape leaves and dropped into hot fat in blackened cauldrons over coal fires by ladies in hair rollers. Oh my God, I am so glad to be back, you say, toes in the crystal water and tearing into a delicious and greasy and tropical hunk of something.

Break up the de-salted cod as much as you can

Break up the de-salted cod as much as you can

One of the iconic frituras is bacalaitos: fried cod fritters. Salt cod is well-known to Atlantic coastal areas and the Caribbean…the New England cod fisheries have for centuries supplied coastal people with an abundance of this oily fish that preserves really well (if you are interested in the history of cod, you must read Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World).

Sawtooth coriander or recao or culantro adds authentic flavor to this dish, but cilantro is a worthy substitute

Sawtooth coriander or recao or culantro adds authentic flavor to this dish, but cilantro is a worthy substitute

Its popularity has led to overstressed fisheries. While they are being managed, they are not recovering well or quickly enough for me to have them as anything but an occasional treat.

skewered fritters draining, even as the next batch goes in!

skewered fritters draining, even as the next batch goes in!

In Puerto Rico we use salt cod in rice dishes, vinaigrette-style with local tubers, with tomatoes like the Basque people…in any number of ways. Bacalaitos are a good entry-level bacalao dish if you are afraid salt cod is too fishy for your family’s taste. Here it is not overwhelming, but more of a condiment and I daresay that salt cod lends umami (that fifth sensation of rich meaty mouth-feel) to what would be just a fish fritter…like many salted fish it is high in glutamates.

Letting the batter rest gives time for the baking powder to activate. that will give you nice airiness in the fritters.

Letting the batter rest gives time for the baking powder to activate. that will give you nice airiness in the fritters.

Most of the credit for this recipe is shared between Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s classic recipe in Cocina Criolla* and my dad’s adaptations and execution. It makes a perfect light dinner or appetizer…I like it with cold, dry sparkling wine, but of course a cold beer (on the lighter side) is a classic match-up. Kids and adults alike love them; we’ll be doing them up for our New Year’s guests when they arrive. Read on for recipe! Continue reading

Bacalao a la Vizcaribe (A classic cod dish reconstructed)

18 Mar
Scoopable cod!

For all these years I thought I was making bacalao a la vizcaína (salt cod, biscayne or vizcayan style), when I was really making a sort-of bacalao guisado (stewed salt cod)! I only found out yesterday, as I started soaking the cod for another Lenten Friday of fish. “Let me see how Valldejuli and Cabanillas make it,” I thought, referring to two classic Puerto Rican cooks whose recipes I have lived by over the years.

I expected some inspiration for innovation, but what I got was comeuppance. I was so shocked by what I found that I checked Penelope Casas’ more Iberian, continental recipes for the dish. And it turns out that what I have been telling people is my “Bacalao a la vizcaína” is actually something else, but not quite.

So, I am a little embarrassed, but nevermind, my bacalao dish is really good and easier than pie. It makes my parents happy. And, apparently, it is my own. Thus, the silly name change.

I hope to try the real vizcaína later in Lent (it looks to be even easier than my version), but for now, this one is more than satisfactory and includes much of the same things: salt cod, onions, garlic, tomatoes, raisins, capers. It’s got salt, sweet and spice (if you like). It is rich without being heavy. This is a stew that goes well with rice, with potatoes (dressed with parsley and olive oil), with avocado and with hard-boiled eggs. It also goes well with Mark Kurlansky’s incredibly entertaining book Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world which will enlighten you about why so many peoples in this world will go through the trouble of desalinating and cooking such a strong-tasting, strong-smelling fish. If you come from a seafaring nation, particularly bordering the Atlantic/in the Caribbean, it is part of you and you just can’t help it.

Bacalao al la vizcaribe

1-1.5 lbs salt cod, soaked overnight in cool water and then some more the next day, with at least two changes of water*

3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely diced (yellow or big, fat, sweet are recommended)

1 green cooking pepper (cubanelle, Italian), finely diced

1 red pepper, finely diced (and a tsp of red pepper flakes, if you are so inclined)

4-5 cloves garlic, minced

1 24oz can peeled, diced or pureed tomatoes, chopped if necessary

¼ cup raisins

1 heaping Tbs capers, drained indifferently

15 green pimiento-stuffed olives, drained indifferently

Accompaniments: (choose one or more, mix and match) four hard-boiled eggs, sliced in half; avocado slices; boiled potatoes dressed with parsley and olive oil; rice; crusty bread toasted)

Heat olive oil in a pot on high and add onion. Stir to coat, then lower heat to medium and sauté until wilted. Add peppers and garlic and sauté another five minutes or more, until translucent.  Add the tomato and bring to a boil. Add cod (no need to break it up; it will fall apart in the cooking and stirring), raisins, capers and olives, lower heat and simmer (covered if it is not very liquid; uncovered if it seems very watery) for at least 20 minutes at a gentle bubble, stirring occasionally. Serve with you choice of accompaniments.

*Many people are afraid of salt cod or bacalao because of the salt. I find that an overnight soak with several changes of water does the trick. But if you forget to soak it the night before, boil a pot of water, drop the bacalao in for five minutes, drain and rinse thoroughly and you should be fine.   I actually add salt sometimes in the end!)


Oh. My. Cod. Fresh Filets with Onions and Capers

20 Jan

As a Caribbean person, I often forget the existence of fresh cod.

In my world, cod is called bacalao, usually comes in salt-crusted bricks or paddles, much as it was when it arrived in the New World, masterminded by intrepid Basques and other seafaring peoples, to make an important (and tasty) protein source last and last and last. It has to be soaked for ages with many changes of water and, if you don’t like fishy-fish, you are probably not going to like bacalao.

I promise that I will get to the fresh (non-fishy, non-salty) version in a second and give you a killer recipe that is all flair and no hard work and can be used with any firm-fleshed white fish, but  indulge me for a moment as I take my tastebuds for a saunter down a Puerto Rican Cuisine Memory Lane.

Think batter-fried bacalaitos (best-eaten from a battered pot full of dubious grease bubbling over coals at a palm-roofed beachfront kiosk marshalled by an old lady in rollers and washed down with an ice-cold Medalla beer), or shredded into rice (arroz con bacalao) for the holidays, or dressed with vinaigrette and served with boiled tubers (serenata) on a Lenten Friday, or in a reddish sauce with hard-boiled eggs (bacalao a la vizcaína) any old time.

I am dabbing nostalgic tears from my eyes and nostalgic water from the corners of my mouth right now, overwhelmed by food memory.

Fortunately, my present latitude offers some solace.

As a Caribbean person adapting to living in the cruel Northeastern winter, frozen fish has taken the place of salted fish (and fresh too, to be honest). And so, I recently discovered the wonder of some vacuum-packed slablets of frozen fresh cod (a phrase which only makes sense in contextual comparison to salted fish) at, you guessed it, Costco Warehouse. As it is “Wild Alaskan”, it is also a good choice from a non-polluted environment and in terms of sustainability (visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch site if you are concerned about that sort of thing http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_recommendations.aspx). I sauteed a couple experimentally just for me and the result was a quick yet good-looking plate of big flakes of fish just sliding apart and yet another way to incorporate capers into a dish.

This one I would definitely serve on date night.

Sauteed Fresh Cod Dressed with Onions and Capers

(tilapia or any firm white fish would work well here)

1 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

1 Tbs butter

2 small slabs fresh cod filet (5-8 oz each)

Salt and pepper

½ medium onion, peeled and sliced thin

1-2 tsp capers, mostly drained

Heat oil and butter together in a heavy skillet at relatively high heat.

Using about ¼ tsp salt, sprinkle fish on all sides. Do the same with the pepper, preferably fresh cracked.

When the foaming of the butter subsides, cook fish on each side at high heat until just white. Then lower heat and cook on each side from 4-6 minutes each (I prefer my fish somewhat undercooked; if you are just learning to cook fish, simply use a fork or knife in the center to check for done-ness: no more translucence).

Remove cod and set on a plate (preferably warm). In the same skillet, sauté the onions in the oil and butter at medium high until wilted and somewhat tender. Add the capers to warm them up. Then spoon the onions and capers over the fish and serve.

This fish would be great over wilted greens, polenta or couscous or with Snap and Go Asparagus. I ate my second slice cold over salad and it was yummy!

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