Christmas Bacalao a la Vizcaína
The best salty, oily Christmas fish dish you will ever try
I know that might not the most appetising tagline for a Christmas meal, but it is, in fact, a delicious Mediterranean dish that dates back to the importation of tomatoes from the New World. Fair warning, this recipe takes a few days up to a week. Active cook time is around 3 hours, but waiting for the fish to soak and for the flavors to integrate takes days.
The type of Bacalao my mother makes for our family is the Basque-style Bacalao a la Vizcaina dating back to the 16th century Europe, which went on to became very popular in Mexico, where she grew up. Maruca inherited this dish from her mother and her mother’s mother, and we have been eating it every year on Christmas day all my life. The main ingredients are a combination of dried and salted Cod, a much relied upon food preservation technique before refrigeration. Cod has been preserved in this manner for over 500 years in Northern Europe: Newfoundland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway. Salt Cod has a shelf life of a few years, making it ideal for trading over land or boat. More recently, this method has been used to preserve many white fish types, and all are called Bacalao. Bacalao also goes by the names Salted Cod, Saltfish, and Bacalà. This dish tempers the saltiness of the fish with tomatoes from the New World and olive oil from Southern Europe, making it a dish of many lands.
Salted Cod is also essential to West African and Caribbean cuisine, but we have yet to taste their methods of cooking it.
On to the dish! Because the Bacalao is salted, it is necessary to soak it in freshwater before cooking. The length of time depends on how salty you want the final dish to be. We love this dish- the leftovers are always better than the first day. So, we make double or triple amounts for our family, so we can eat it in the days between Christmas and New Years.
Feeds10 with potential leftovers (halve or quarter the recipe as needed)
5lbs (2.6kg) of Bacalao
2 Cans (765g or 26.9 US fl oz) Peeled Whole Tomatoes
3 White Onions
9 Cloves of Garlic
4 Medium sized Fresh tomatoes
2 Jars (280g) Bell Peppers
2 Jars (320g) Pitted Olives (garlic stuffed olives are suggested)
2 Bunches of Fresh Parsley
Step One: Rinse the Bacalao with fresh water in the sink, then leave to soak in a large bowl of cold water for 12 to 15 hours (the length depends on how salty you wish the final dish to be). Replace the water every 2 hours for as long as is convenient (no need to wake up in the middle of the night to change water).
This step is crucial as it makes the fish safe for consumption. However, it is possible to over-soak your fish! Sometimes, we have needed to add the salt back in, and the result is not as tasty as the original salt would have been. To avoid this, don't soak past the 15 hours mark.
Step Two: Remove all bones and skin from the fish. This is a time-consuming process and may be very cold on your hands, but it’s worth it, I promise. As a bonus, you can keep the bones and skin to make a homemade fish stock to use in another dish, such as salmon soup.
Step Three: The fish pieces should now have a slimy texture, and be in chunks, a couple of cm long. Now that the fish has been deboned and skinned, start to shred the fish between your fingers into a separate bowl. As you rub, the fish dries out and develops a light, fluffy texture similar to cotton. It is essential to do this by hand to catch any of the bones you may have missed, and to give it the right texture, a blender or food processor would turn it into a paste.
Step Four: Sauté your roughly chopped onions and garlic in a large saucepan in plenty of olive oil for about 15 minutes until the onions become transparent. You can add the onions and garlic simultaneously because the oil will prevent the garlic from burning. The fish will absorb the oil in a later step, so don’t skimp, or it will get dried out.
*Optional: Add two jalapeños or serrano peppers chopped to the hot saucepan, and leave for about a minute. One pepper if you are spice- sensitive.
Step Five: Then add fish to the sautéd onions over medium heat and brown the Bacalao.
Step Six: Roughly chop fresh and canned tomatoes and peppers. Add all the chopped tomatoes and peppers (along with the liquid from the cans) and the olives to the pan with fish.
Step Seven: Finely chop both bunches of parsley and add to the pan.
Step Eight: Let cook at medium-high heat for an hour, letting all the ingredients combine.
Step Nine: Refrigerate for a minimum of 3 days; 7 days is ideal
You can serve as an appetizer on little toasts, but we like to serve it as the main event on Christmas Eve dinner. We garnish with fresh parsley and scoop up the oily deliciousness with warm fresh French baguette, and a White Tempranillo Wine.