Recipe: Florencio's Bacalao

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This is a classic bacalao al pil-pil with a tomato sauce added at the last minute. With all due respect to great-grandfather Florencio, I prefer the pil-pil without tomato: you decide which you like best.

For the bacalao al pil-pil:
    • 6 fillets of salt cod, fully desalted
    • 2 full heads of garlic, sliced
    • 2 dried Choricero peppers, seeds removed and sliced (you can substitute Guajillo peppers, available at most Mexican markets)
    • 3 yellow onions, diced
    • a large handful of parsley, chopped
    • ½ cup olive oil
    • flour (just enough to cover the fish)

For the tomato sauce:
    • 500 grams canned tomatoes, chopped
    • 1 green pepper (the long Italian type), chopped
    • 1 yellow onion, diced
    • ½ cup olive oil
    • salt to taste

Desalt the cod:
Soak the whole cod in a tub with cold water. After a few hours it should be soft enough to cut: select the parts which are white and meaty on one side, with dark skin on the other. Cut away the darker meat (this is great for use in croquetas). Wash the tub out, add fresh cold water, and soak the selected parts for another few hours. Then change the water again. The cod should soak a total of about 12 hours, with at least four changes of water, or you can just buy it desalted. Fresh cod which has not been salted has a totally different texture: I'm not sure if this recipe would work or if the fish would fall apart. If anyone does the experiment, let me know.

Make the pil-pil:
Heat the olive oil in a large pan and add the onions and half of the garlic. Cover the pan and allow them to cook over a low flame. Meanwhile, dry the cod fillets well with a towel and cover them in flour. When the onions are totally tender and transparent add the cod, skin side down. Shake the pan back and forth to settle the fish among the onions. Cover the pan again, leaving the flame low.

It is important to move the pan back and forth as much as possible so the cod does not stick. Do not stir or turn the pieces of fish over, just let them simmer in the juices they release. After 15 to 20 minutes, the cod, depending upon how thick the pieces are, will be mostly cooked. At this point add the remaining garlic, peppers and parsley. Cover and allow to cook until these last ingredients have wilted into the sauce, still shaking the pan frequently.

Remove from flame and allow to sit for a while—ideally overnight—before serving.

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For Florencio's version:

While the pil-pil recipe above is under way, in a separate pan sauté the onion and green pepper until soft, then add the canned (or fresh—peeled, seeded, and finely chopped) tomatoes. Allow to simmer over a low flame, adding water if necessary, while the cod cooks. Add a little salt, but less than you might normally put in tomato sauce, as the cod is often still slightly salty.

Just before removing the cod from the flame, pour the tomato sauce over the pil-pil and cook together for another few minutes. Again, allow to sit before serving.

To read Maggie's story about the family that invented this dish, or to view a slide show of the dish being prepared, click here.

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at gazakitchens.wordpress.com.

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