I’ve been thinking about making my own salt cod since joining charcutepalooza. One of my fondest childhood memories is eating a steaming bowl of bacalao with a side of white rice and some thinly sliced fried green plantains. You see, as a child, I hated all fish. I would only eat breaded and fried sea bass if forced to. But I would devour a bowl of bacalao in an instant. My favorite part was dipping the fried plantains, which we call tajadas fritas, in the piquant tomato sauce.
It is fairly easy to find bacalao (the name for salt cod and the dish of salt cod in tomato sauce) in Panama, only you never know whether it really is cod. It often is shark or other mystery fish. Here in DC I can either get the beautiful and clean-looking Norwegian or Canadian salt cod or the no-name version that looks like this:
Well, it does have a name, but I won’t get into that here. When salt cod at the store looks like this, skin on and side fins still attached, I would rather make it myself because removing that skin after cooking the salt cod is no easy task. The skin feathers and goes everywhere and I don’t want a bite of that. Also, source or origin is to be found nowhere on this package. It does list cod and salt as the two ingredients but, coming from a place where “cod” sometimes means shark or something else, I’m not sure I believe it.
In any case, thanks to our charcutepalooza bible, Charcuterie, I found out that making salt cod at home is easy. The only bad thing is that your refrigerator will smell like fish while you are drying the cod in it.
All you need is fresh cod, salt, and cheesecloth. It is so easy in fact that it’s a non recipe: Get a fresh, skinned, cod fillet. Run your fingers over it to ensure that there are no bones, if you find any then remove them with tweezers. Fill a container large enough to fit one fillet with about 1½ cup of kosher salt. Firmly press both sides of fish into salt. Wrap with 2 layers of cheesecloth. Lay on a rack placed over a container that will catch the liquid that the fish will release. Refrigerate for 24 hours. Rinse salt off and dry well. Wrap in cheesecloth again. Place on rack over a container. Refrigerate for a week until the fish is firm all over. Remove cheesecloth and store in a ziplock bag in the refrigerator until ready to use. For more specific instructions get a copy of Charcuterie or visit WrightFood who has step by step instructions with gorgeous photos.
Doesn’t it look infinitely better than the store-bought one?
Now, the whole point of salting and drying cod at home was to make this glorious dish. I learned how to make it from my grandmother. I called her one day while away in college and she walked me through it step by step, and I’ve been making it ever since. Last year I was back home for her birthday and this is what I made for her lunch celebration. I must note that she prefers her bacalao with no red peppers, I love them. It’s your choice. Now, don’t leave out the olives & capers. Grandma would not like that.
My Grandmother’s Recipe for Panamanian Style Bacalao
1 fillet salt cod
Big pinch of saffron (Or half an envelope of Sazon Goya with saffron, which I chose not to use because it contains msg)
1 cup hot water
1 lb Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, cut in half, and sliced into thick slices
1 large red bell pepper, sliced
6 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon cumin
2 small bay leaves
2 cups strained tomatoes
1 teaspoon Habanero hot sauce
Sliced Manzanilla olives and capers
1. Soak salt cod for 24 hours.
2. Add saffron to hot water and set aside.
3. Boil potatoes until cooked but still firm. Drain and leave on colander. They should be tender but not falling apart. Set aside.
4. Add olive oil to a large pot. Add onions and sauté for 5 minutes. Add red bell peppers and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add slice garlic, red pepper flakes, cumin, and bay leaves and cook for another 5 minutes.
5. Add tomatoes, water with saffron, hot sauce, and cod. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes or until the cod starts falling apart into chunks. Taste and add salt and pepper. Garnish with sliced olives and capers and serve with white rice.