Tag Archives: salt cod

Serenata (a Lenten favorite that is a hot weather favorite too)

2 Jul

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

Serenata (desalination begins the night before or morning before cooking. The rest of the prep is only 15 minutes)

  1. 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.
  2.  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
  3. 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.

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!)

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