Bacalao a la Vizcaiña

A. was born in Cuba. Recently, she mentioned one of her favorite dishes – Bacalao a la Vizcaiña – which I met with a blank stare and multiple requests to repeat it (I meet lots of things that way). I swear, I think Mandarin is easier than Spanish… – embarrassing, with my Spanish roots and all.

Curious, I set about figuring out what bacalao actually was. Salt cod it turns out. Bacalao a la Vizcaiña is a dish originally from the Basque Country of Spain, but that has variations all over the world, including Portugal Mexico and Cuba. Fully braced with this information (and this information only), I had to locate a source for bacalao (good to know lots of food people on Twitter). Turns out I’m probably the only person in Atlanta that didn’t know what bacalao was – embarrassing, with my Spanish roots and all.

A trip to BHFM procurred a pound of salt fish, which led me to the next task – finding a recipe. It appears that recipes for Bacalao a la Vizcaiña are like recipes for pot roast – everyone gets their recipe from their mother, and that recipe is supposed to be better than any other – even though they are nothing alike.

Some called for bell pepper, others pimento – which only added to the confusion. In Portuguese, “pimento” is the same as bell pepper, but since no one on the Internet knows how to spell, I didn’t know if they meant “pimento” or “pimiento”, which in Spanish is a cherry pepper (spicier)… Some recipes didn’t mention peppers at all. Some called for vinegar (important!), others did not. Some boiled the cod, others fried it. Some layered it with potatoes and baked the dish, others simmered the sauce on a stove top and served it with rice. All of the recipes used capers, but in varying amounts.

Oh, while we’re on the subject of no one on the Internet knowing how to spell, most of them don’t know how to write a recipe either. “Cook the fish” is not exactly frickin’ helpful as far as instructions go. But, as usual, I digress. One thing all of the recipes have in common (and which is really just common sense) is that you have to soak the fish in water – for a long time. 24 hours at least. Remember that salting is a form of preservation. The salt draws water from the fish and inhibits the growth of bacteria. The heavy salting renders the cod pretty much into a form of fish leather. The soaking (and occasional water changes) not only gets rid of most of the salt, but reconstitutes the fish as well.

After soaking, the bacalao actually resembles fish again, albeit a very firm fish – not at all like the tender, oily cod I prefer for fish and chips. (Note: I reserved the last change of water. The small amount of salt remaining and very slight fish flavor works well for cooking the potatoes.)

Frustrated and impatient, I decided to take what I decided were the best parts of several recipes hoping it would somehow approximate my A’s memory of the dish.

What follows is a blending of Mark Bittman’s recipe (bland) with a few additions and variations.

Bacalao a la Vizcaiña

  • 1 pound salt cod
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 14oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 fresh tomato, diced
  • 1 bell pepper (I used 1/2 red and 1/2 yellow)
  • ~3/4 cup water (white wine will work better – I was out)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons capers
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Bay leaf
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 1-1/2 lbs new potatoes, sliced

After soaking the cod, pick out any remaining bones and skin and cut into small pieces.  Heat  a heavy pan over medium-high heat and cover the bottom with olive oil. Dredge the fish in flour and fry about 5 minutes, until lightly browned. If frying in batches be careful about excess flour burning in the oil. I had to change the oil part way through… Set the fish aside and wipe out the pan.

Return the pan to medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add garlic and onion and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes, until garlic is soft. Add tomatoes, water (or wine), capers, bay, cayenne.

Bring the mixture to a steady simmer, add the cod and cook uncovered for about 45 minutes. Add water if the sauce gets too thick.  When the fish is tender, sprinkle with the red wine vinegar and season with salt and pepper as necessary.

While the fish is cooking, bring the reserved water to a boil (add more water if necessary) and add the potatoes. Cook 10-15 minutes, until potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife. One more note – keep an eye on the water when you’re bringing it to a boil – it may have a tendency to foam up and boil over (protein scum from the fish – I know, it sounds nice, right?). Just move the pot off the heat, and ladle out any foam – problem solved.

Serve over the potatoes.

So, was it “right”? It definitely wasn’t what A. expected from her mom, but it was pretty good. Most of the recipes suggested it was better the next day, and this definitely turned out to be true.

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