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Friday, April 8, 2011

Postcard from Vieques- Bacalao

We're not sure of the origins of Bacalao- Salt Cod- but we tend to associate it most strongly with the Iberian peninsula countries of Spain and Portugal. We first sampled it in Barcelona where it was served in a tomato sauce. A perfect combination of mild saltiness and slight sweetness, it was a revelation.

To us, the very name sounds Portuguese, so it came as no surprise to encounter it in Brazil. This time it presented itself as small deep-fried croquettes served alongside Chopp, the icy cold draft beer much loved in that country. Move over chicken wings! We've found the world's best bar snack!

And we knew that the fortunes of Canada's most eastern province, Newfoundland, were once dependent on the harvesting and salt- curing of codfish, from where it would be sent back to the old world and, we presume, to the southern islands. Indeed, we were aware from having seen it in abundance in the West Indian food shops of Toronto that salt cod is a Caribbean staple. Why the heck, then, had we never tried to cook with it?
Well, truthfully, we had- once- and it was here in Vieques (where we are currently vacationing) where we failed so miserably in that task. The Puerto Rican cookbook we had brought down with us advised to soak the fish for 3- 4 hours before preparing the dish. Sounded easy enough! We immersed the hard plank of a filet for the afternoon, dutifully changing the water several times. We followed the recipe's preparation instructions and sat down expectantly to feast on our labours. We bit in and...YEOWW!!! Searing, excruciating salt! Tongues on fire! Gulping water! Dumping dinner down the toilet!

Having been once burned (literally!) by this humble foodstuff, it would take us a few years to muster the courage to try again. Of course we came to realize shortly after that first disaster that in fact one needs to soak salt cod for several DAYS, not hours. So this year we finally determined to give it another shot and this time we made sure we got an early start.

We bought the fish on Monday and immediately started the soaking. We changed the water about three times a day until we finally were ready to cook with it on Thursday. Since we often make crabcakes at home, we had decided to adapt our usual approach and make bacalao cakes. When we removed the fish from the water we realized that it had expanded somewhat and that there would be enough for another dish as well, so we opted to also prepare a tomato sauce- based fish stew.
Here are the rough recipes (sorry, measurements are imprecise!). All ingredients including the wines are easily available at supermarkets on Vieques. Each recipe serves 2- 4, depending on your appetite!

Basic Preparation of Salt Cod:
Soak the salt cod in ample water for 3 days, changing the water three times per day. Store the cod, covered, in the fridge throughout the soaking process.
In a saucepan large enough to hold the cod in a single layer, cover the fish with milk and poach very gently for about 5 minutes. Test for done-ness by flaking the fish at the thickest point- it should separate easily and the exposed flesh should look slightly under cooked- and if ready, remove and cool for future use. (don't overcook, or the fish will become tough) Reserve a little of the poaching milk for use in the cakes recipe.

Vieques Bacalao Cakes:
6- 8 oz. poached salt cod
1 medium potato
1/2 medium onion
1 cubanelle pepper
1 clove garlic
bread crumbs
1 egg (optional)
ground cumin
olive oil
black pepper
salt (optional)

1. Cut the potatoes into chunks, boil then mash, adding a little of the reserved poaching milk. Set aside to cool.
2. Finely chop the onion, pepper, and garlic. Sautee in olive oil to make a soft sofrito. Stir in ground cumin to taste. Set aside to cool.
3. In a large bowl, break the cod into small pieces, being careful to remove any bones. Using two forks, flake the cod as finely as possible.
4. Add cooked potatoes and sofrito to the flaked cod and mix together thoroughly.
5. Taste and add a little salt if necessary (we had soaked our cod so well that this was necessary.)
6. Our mixture was quite moist and held together well when formed into a test patty, but if yours is a little dry, add the optional egg and thoroughly re-mix.
7. Chill until ready to use
8. When ready to cook, heat the olive oil in a large sautee pan, form the cod mixture into 4 cakes about 1" thick, dredge the cakes in the breadcrumbs, and gently place each cake into the hot oil. (Don't overcrowd them)
9. When the bottoms have become golden, carefully flip the cakes & continue cooking till gold on the 2nd side. Remove from the pan & drain briefly on paper towels.
10. Serve immediately with a few dollops of tartar sauce (see below) on each cake. We served ours with a crisp green salad and hearty Spanish vino tinto

Tartar Sauce
6 green olives, drained, pitted and finely chopped
1 Tbsp drained capers, finely chopped
1/4 cup of mayonnaise
1/2 tsp of sugar
1 Tbsp sherry vinegar (or acid of your choice)

Whisk the sugar into the vinegar to dissolve. Blend the sweetened vinegar, olives, capers into the mayo, making a smooth and fairly thick sauce.


Vieques Bacalao Stew:
6- 8 oz poached salt cod, broken into small chunks
1/2 medium onion
1 cubanelle pepper

1 medium carrot
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 small can pimentos (two whole sweet red peppers in brine)
1 28 oz can of stewed tomatoes
4- 6 green olives, drained, pitted and halved
1 1/2 Tbsp capers, drained
1 tsp ground cumin (or to taste)
olive oil
2 cups cooked rice prepared according to package directions, and timed to coincide with completion of stew

1. Chop the onion, carrot and pepper coarsely into 1/2" dice.
2. Over medium heat, warm about 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a wide sautee pan. Add the onion, carrot, and pepper, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook gently till the carrots have softened but are not completely cooked through.
3. Cut the pimentos into 1/2" chunks and add to the sofrito.
4. Add tomatoes, cumin and garlic and stir to incorporate, then simmer gently for about 10 minutes.
5. Gently fold in the cod, olives, and capers and simmer another 6- 8 minutes, till the fish has warmed through but has not overcooked.
6. Divide the rice into serving bowls and ladle the stew into the bowls. Serve immediately. We had a nice Spanish Tempranillo with this.

Buen Provecho!!

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