An amazing Puerto Rican take on how to prepare our salty cod friend
Table of contents
Bacalao a la Vizcaina is one of those dishes that are surprisingly good. Salted cod is a little tricky to use due to the amount of salt the fish is packed in, but this dish could blow your tastebuds with proper care.
Bacalao is known by many different names in different parts of the world. Here are a few of its names; Bacalhau in Portuguese, baccalà in Italian, Bakalar in Croatia, klippfisk in Norway, saltfiskur in Iceland, and moure in France. So as you can see, salted fish or salted codfish is quite popular.
The word Bacalao derives from the Latin word bacalus, which means stick or staff. History tells that the Norwegians learned the process by an Italian shipwrecking close to a Norway coast. In Norway, the Italians learned to dry the fish on the wind to the point that it gets as hard as a stick. Next, salt is added to the fish to infuse flavor and to preserve the fish further. In addition, salt has great antibacterial properties that help keep the fish from spoiling. There are three methods of processing the fish; brining, salting, or pickling.
For more on the history of cod and how cod is prepared please click on the links.
What is Vizcaina
Tomatoes are used as a base for this sauce in Puerto Rico. But I didn't use tomato sauce. Instead, I used diced tomatoes for a more soupy consistency rather than a thick puree-like sauce. But Vizcaina sauce has had some controversy all on its own.
At the website, Basco Fine Foods, I learned the original Vizcaina sauce does not use tomatoes whatsoever. it is prepared with red onions and by scrapping the flesh of the Choricero pepper after they were dried and reconstituted. I wonder if the Choricero pepper is the pepper used to make chorizo, which might be why the sausage has quite a bite and a bright red color.
Those are the only two ingredients, red onions and reconstituted dried peppers. I am so curious about this recipe, and I want to try it, so I bought the peppers! There is such a debate because the sauce was created before the introduction of tomatoes to Europe; hence Vizcaina sauce should not have any tomatoes.
Is Vizcaina a Vizcaina if we were to call it by any other name?
The caveat on this version is that this is the sauce we make in Puerto Rico, the New World. I can imagine that, like many other recipes that got transformed by lack of ingredients, Vizcaina sauce was not an exception.
If you were to think of a sauce based on only peppers and onions, your memory tastebuds will paint a taste palate in the spicy side, maybe a bit smokey since the peppers were dried and reconstituted, a hint of sweetness from the red onions but not so much to offset the strong flavors of the peppers. The Caribbean version of this sauce, I think, plays on the ingredients available and, dare I say it, the weather. The coldest it gets is about 70 degrees. There is no winter.
The Vizcaina sauce you will find in Puerto Rico will most likely be light and complementing the fish. The tomatoes add a bit of acidity while dousing it with sweetness and juiciness. We also add lemons or vinegar. I prefer lemon because it brightens the dish. Olives are also added, I think, because we add olives in almost anything, but I digress.
This version of Bacalao a la Vizcaina is one that when I eat it, I am immediately transported to a seafood restaurant by the beach, enjoying the cool breeze and the sing-song of the waves as they come ashore. The sauce could easily be pureed in a blender for a softer texture, but I love bitting into the diced tomatoes, garlic, and onions, like small bursts of flavor in every bite. This sauce showcases the ingredients found in this particular new world while paying homage to the traditions of the well-rooted recipes of the Old World.
Let's Get Started
Soak codfish in water to cover for 4 hours to remove the excess salt. How long you soak the fish is something that I cannot find a straight answer. I have seen as little as 3 hours and up to 48 hours. Some recommend boiling the fish before cooking it, which makes no sense, so I skip that step. Drain well and rinse in running water.
Dry the fish. Using your fingers or forks, begin shredding the cod into a bowl. I do not use the filet intact. This is the way that I was served this dish by my grandmother. Maybe she would shred the fish so that it will be easier to eat, or maybe it will fall apart as it cooked. Regardless of the reason, this is the way I remember eating it and this is the way I make it.
In a saucepan, warm the oil and sautee the onions and the sliced garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add potatoes, cod, diced tomatoes, and lemon juice. Feel free to use vinegar or wine instead of lemon juice. Sometimes I use both. What I like about the lemon juice is the brightness that it brings to the dish. Bring to a boil. Cook over low heat, covered, for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender.
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Bacalao a la Vizcaina
- 1 pound of dried salted codfish fillets
- 1 pound potatoes thinly sliced
- 1 onion peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 can of diced tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 jar of pimientos chopped, optional
- ¼ cup of manzanilla olives
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 2 cloves of garlic peeled and sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- Soak codfish in water to cover for 4 hours to remove the excess salt. Drain well and rinse in running water.
- Dry the fish. Using your fingers or forks, begin shredding the cod into a bowl.
- In a saucepan, warm the oil and sautee the onions, the sliced garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes.
- Add potatoes, cod, diced tomatoes, and wine.
- Bring to a boil. Cook over low heat, covered, for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender.
- How long you soak the fish is something that I cannot find a straight answer to. I have seen as little as 3 hours and up to 48 hours. I also see the need to boil the fish before cooking it, making no sense, and I skip that step.
- I do not use the filet intact. This is the way that I was served this dish by my grandmother. Maybe she would shred the fish so that it will be easier to eat, or maybe it will fall apart as it cooked. Regardless of the reason, this is the way I remember eating it and this is the way I make it.
- For the acid feel free to use vinegar or wine instead of lemon juice. Sometimes I use both. What I like about the lemon juice is the brightness that it brings to the dish.