Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bacalao: Salted Cod Fish

     I saw something incredibly interesting in the grocery store this week: salted cod, known as Bacalao here in Mexico and many other places across the world.  It was labeled “Noruego” which means Norwegian, and could be bought whole (entero), or in pieces already packaged and weighed.  If you have lived in Mexico for any amount of time, you are probably familiar with Bacalao a la Vizcaína as a very traditional dish served on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena).  This tradition started with Spanish settlers, named after Vizcaya (or “Biscay” in English), a province in Spain.  But what many people don’t realize is that salted cod is also an extremely traditional American dish, which has many culinary possibilities!

Bacalao in Mexican Grocery Store
Preserved foods were a necessity to the early settlers of the New World.  Not only was their journey long and arduous, negating their ability to bring fresh foods from their homeland, but the winters, particularly in present-day Canada and New England, prohibited them from being able to produce much for many months out of the year.  Some of the first settlers to the New World were the Vikings, and their fondness for using salt to preserve fish (as early as 975 A.D.) started a culinary legacy that lasted until the European settlements of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and beyond.  These settlers spent their summers preserving and storing food for the winter, so foods like salt pork, cod, and corned beef as well as preserved fruits and vegetables became staples of the colonial diet.

Today, salted cod is still a traditional food in many countries and can also be readily found in the United States. However, I believe (since I once felt this way) that it is widely misunderstood in the States.  Before I went to culinary school, I could not understand why on earth someone would want to eat something that was so salty.  ButI learned quickly that the use of salt was just a preservation method, and you soak all of the salt away before using the fish.  I also was introduced to an incredibly delicious recipe using salt cod, and I was hooked for life.  I hope you are, too!  Here are two recipes, one American and one Mexican, so that you can take advantage of this incredibly unique ingredient.

Old Fashioned Salt Cod Cakes with Bacon, Remoulade Sauce and Coleslaw
This recipe is delicious accompanied by french fries. Check out my favorite method here.
Serves 4, yielding two cod cakes per person 

Photo by Daniel Castro
Salt Cod Cakes:
·        ¾ lb (about .35 kg) salt cod filets (bacalao)
·        Water (as needed)
·        3 C milk
·        1 lb (about .5 kg) potatoes, peeled
·        ½ oz (1 Tbsp) whole butter
·        ¼ lb minced onions
·        2 cloves garlic
·        1 egg, lightly beaten
·        2 tsp prepared brown mustard
·        2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce (labeled “salsa inglesa” in Mexico)
·        ½ tsp Tabasco Sauce or other hot sauce
·        2 Tbsp fresh, flat-leaf parsley, chopped
·        Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper, to taste
·        1-2 lb sliced bacon
·        3¼ oz (scant 1 C) dried bread crumbs
·        3-4 C vegetable oil for pan-frying
·        1 tsp Old Bay Seasoning (can substitute crab boil or pickling spice, or make your own using the recipe below)
·        toothpicks
1.      Rinse the salt cod in several changes of water.  Soak the salt cod in a glass or ceramic dish for 24 hours in a large amount of water, changing the water every four hours or so
2.      Remove the salt cod from the water.  If it is not already cut up, cut it into large chunks.  Simmer in the milk for 15 minutes.
3.      Discard the milk and rinse the salt cod under cold water.  Dry on paper towels for 10 minutes to remove any excess moisture. Remove any bones and skin, then break into smaller chunks and chill.
4.      Melt butter in small sauce pan over medium-low heat.  Sweat the onions and garlic (which means cook without browning) until translucent, about 6 minutes.  Lower the heat if necessary to avoid browning.  Move to a bowl and chill.
5.      Cut the potatoes into sixths and simmer in water until they are tender.  Drain and allow to dry for 3 minutes.  (An oven on very low heat works great for drying boiled potatoes.)
6.      Thoroughly mash your potatoes, or send them through a food mill or ricer.  Combine them with your salt cod.  There should still be small flakes of cod visible in your potatoes.
7.      Add the egg, Worcestershire, Tabasco, Old Bay, parsley, mustard, onions and garlic, salt and pepper.  Check seasoning and chill for about 15 minutes before using.
8.      Portion the cod cakes into 2½ oz portions each.  Bread lightly in the dried breadcrumbs and then wrap a piece of bacon around the outside of the cod cake.  Secure the bacon with a toothpick and chill until ready to pan-fry.  Preheat your oven to 350°F/175°C.
9.      Heat about a cup of oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Pan-fry cod cakes in batches, flipping half-way through, until golden brown on each side.  Avoid over-crowding your pan so you don’t steam your cod cakes.
10.  Finish the cod cakes in the oven on a baking sheet until they reach an internal temperature of 145°F/62°C, which is enough to fully cook the eggs. Serve hot with remoulade sauce and desired side dishes.
·        ½ to ¾ C mayonnaise, depending on your preference
·        ½ oz (about 1 ½ Tbsp) capers, chopped
·        ½ oz (about 1 ½ Tbsp) cornichons (or other dill pickle), chopped
·        ½ Tbsp fresh chives, chopped (plus more for garnish, if desired)
·        ½ Tbsp fresh chervil or tarragon (or a combination), chopped (substitute with fresh herb of your choice if you can’t find these; do not use dried herbs)
·        1 tsp Dijon mustard
·        ¼ tsp Anchovy paste (you can omit this if you like, but it adds a wonderful flavor and does not taste fishy; anchovy filets are easy to find here in Mexico and you can just chop and turn them into a paste yourself, or order the paste online)
·        Kosher Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
·        Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, to taste
1.      Combine all ingredients and mix well.
2.      Refrigerate and adjust seasoning just before serving, if necessary.

·        2½ fl oz (about ¼ C) sour cream
·        2½ fl oz (about ¼ C) mayonnaise
·        1 fl oz (2 Tbsp) cider vinegar
·        ½ Tbsp dry mustard
·        ¾ oz (about 5 tsp) sugar
·        1 tsp prepared horseradish
·        ½ tsp celery seed
·        ½ tsp Tabasco sauce
·        Kosher Salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
·        ¾ lb green cabbage, cored and sliced thinly
·        2½ oz (about ¾ C) carrots, grated
1.      Mix first eight ingredients together in a large bowl until smooth.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
2.      Add cabbage and carrots to the dressing and toss until evenly coated.  Refrigerate until serving.

Homemade Old Bay Seasoning
(Adapted from

Yields 1Cup
·        2 tsp celery seed
·        4 Tbsp black peppercorns
·        16 dried bay leaves
·        4 tsp cardamom seed
·        4 tsp mustard seeds
·        2 tsp whole cloves
·        4 tsp paprika (or you can use Spanish pimentón; I wouldrecommend the “picante” variety)
·        1 tsp mace or 1 tsp nutmeg
·        4 tsp kosher salt
1.      Mix all ingredients together. Grind using mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.
2.      Store in an airtight container.

Bacalao a la Vizcaína
Serves 6
·        2 lbs (about 1 kg) salt cod (bacalao)
·        Water (as needed)
·        6 C milk
·        1½ C extra virgin olive oil
·        1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
·        1½ large onion, peeled and finely chopped
·        1½ pounds tomatoes, canned or fresh, roasted in the oven or on a dry griddle/comal
·        ½ bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
·        ½ lb (about .25 kg) small, new potatoes (yellow or red), boiled and peeled
·        ¾ C pimiento stuffed olives (preferably Spanish)
·        about ¼ C pickled jalapeño or güero chiles, depending on your preference
1.      Rinse the salt cod in several changes of water.  Soak the salt cod in a glass or ceramic dish for 24 hours in a large amount of water, changing the water every four hours or so.
2.      Remove the salt cod from the water and squeeze out extra water.  Soak in milk for another two hours. Squeeze out excess milk and remove the bones and skin from the fish.  Shred it finely and set aside.
3.      Heat the olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat.  Add onions and cook until they soften and begin to turn golden. Add half of the garlic cloves and continue to cook until they begin to get soft.
4.      Puree the roasted tomatoes and the remaining garlic in a blender or food processor.  Strain through a large-mesh sieve and add to the pot. Cover and cook over low heat until a thick sauce forms and all juice from the tomatoes has evaporated.  This should take at least an hour.
5.     Add the shredded fish, parsley, potatoes, olives and chiles with some pickling juice to taste and simmer another 30 minutes.  Add salt if desired.  Allow dish to stand before reheating and serving; can be made a day ahead and refrigerated before reheating slowly, if desired.