Eau de Philly: Sweet Bacalao
The rising spring sun played tag with a retreating winter wind on the stony streets of a South Philadelphia morning. Our cab driver was taking us from the genteel hum of a Four Seasons Hotel to the airport for our return to Miami. He seemed to be taking a shortcut not many would know. We were meandering through the narrow streets of a residential section. I spoke up over the squawk of his radio, “Hey, my friend. What part of town is this?!” The cabbie, a smiling Haitian man said, “Yes. This is the Italian Market area.”
It was all out on the streets and it was all for sale, there in the ‘City of Brotherly Love.' Vegetable stalls, all manner of clothing on portable racks, small and large electrical appliances and shops with windows so close you could see inside. One shop had hanging, fur-still-on-‘em critters: pheasants, rabbits, ducks and geese. And over and over again I was hit with the penetrating, musty, funky, one-of-a-kind smell that is bacalao.
As many here in South Florida know, bacalao is the preserved, salt-cured sides of codfish you can see to the right.
My mother was a fan of bacalao, also known as ‘salt cod.’ It was pretty much an unnoticed commodity by the vast majority of shoppers in the midwestern town where I grew up. So called ‘ethnic goods’ were primarily Polish, German and Czech provisions until the Mexican immigration came along in the late 60’s. None of those populations had a significant food history with bacalao but Mama. She was a one-woman United Nations of curiosity and experiences, hailing, as she did, from New York City.
She met my father during an unplanned ‘pit stop’ in Chicago on her way to a wedding in Los Angeles. She was headed there by train when the bride-to-be wired my mom to-be and announced the wedding had been abruptly called off. Mom made a life-changing decision for both of us in the long run. She took an apartment, got a job and met a man. Her New York City experiences never left her and forever informed her hunger for flavors routinely more exotic than the good citizens of rural Northern Illinois were used to.
Mama didn’t have a lot of dishes in her culinary repertoire but one I came to love and love still is her Bacalao Fritters.
One of my favorite markets in South Florida is “Palacio de Los Jugos.” The original is located at 57th and Flagler Streets. They sell arepas, black beans, yuca, seafood dishes, fried rice, cowboy hats and belts, tamales, queso fresco, fruits of magnificent quality, pan con lechon AND bacalao.
A cooking note if you are among the uninitiated: you’ll need to plan ahead. You’ll probably figure that out when you buy it. Bacalao is almost its own warning, looking and smelling rather primeval!
The salt that preserves it must be removed through a process of rinsing and soaking. Allow at least 24 hours. But this is all actually very easy and kind of fascinating when you realize you are following a historical practice that goes back millennia. When you have done that, you just need to cook the fish in a simple court bouillon, a French term meaning a kind of jazzed up water made with some vegetables, lemon, herbs, spices, and being French, usually a good measure of wine.
Cook the fish until tender and then flake it, removing any skin and bones.
Your kitchen will have all of the perfume of a South Philly Morning.
RECIPE FOR BACALAO FRITTERS
Yields about one hundred 1-inch fritters
Bacalao is the Spanish word for salt cod. The first time I had these fritters was as a teenager, when my mother made them for my sisters and me. I don’t know who taught her the recipe; being the fair daughter of Scotch-Irish stock, it was not likely that she learned it at her mother’s stove. Then again, I cannot think of a much simpler introduction to salt cod than this recipe. These days you will find bacalao in better seafood markets, often stored in little wooden boxes. Its aroma is admittedly powerful, but once you soak out the preservative salt and then poach the cod, the fish’s sweet, lean, natural qualities reveal themselves.
1 recipe Simple Court Bouillon or enough water to cover
1 pound salt cod, soaked in 3 or 4 changes of water for a minimum of 24 hours
3 Cups peeled, boiled, drained, and mashed Idaho potatoes
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
3 jalapeños, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 Scotch bonnet, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1/2 Tablespoon freshly toasted and ground black pepper
3 Tablespoons minced Italian parsley
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves
Kosher salt to taste
1/2 Cup all-purpose flour
2 Cups white breadcrumbs
1 Tablespoon water
Canola or peanut oil for deep frying (enough to submerge the fritters)
Cook the soaked cod in Simple Court Bouillon for 20 minutes. Drain the fish. Discard the bouillon. Crumble the fish into a bowl. Stir in the potatoes, garlic, jalapeño, Scotch bonnet, black pepper, and half of the herbs. (Reserve the other half for the crumb mixture.) Season with kosher salt to taste, but note that the bacalao can affect the salt level very dramatically. Mix well and chill for 30 minutes.
When the mix is cool, mold it into balls about 1 inch in diameter.
In a small bowl beat the two eggs with the tablespoon of water. In another bowl, add other half of the chopped herbs to the breadcrumbs. Fill a third bowl with the flour. Roll the cod balls in the flour and then dip them in the beaten eggs. Then roll the balls in breadcrumbs. (You can do all of this up until 12 hours before you are ready to serve the fritters. Or, you can freeze the balls at this point for later use.)
In a fryer or deep pot, heat the canola oil to 350 degrees. Cook the fritters for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes per batch, until crisp and golden. Remove and drain on paper towels, then serve. Bacalao fritters are very good with a Chipotle-Lime Crema.