Friday, April 2, 2010
IF IT'S GOOD FRIDAY, IT MUST BE BACALAO
This is Semana Santa, Holy Week, which precedes the joyous feast of Easter. In Catholic Spain, many people observe the Lenten period by abstaining from meat. In that sense, this holiday is a fast rather than a feast, but it, too, is celebrated with special foods, in particular, bacalao, salt cod. On the streets of cities and villages, Holy Week brings massive religious processions and fervent demonstrations of faith.
Many years ago I lived several miles from town in an old mill house that had no electricity and no running water. To get my hair washed and dried, I went weekly to the village beauty shop, run by María. This was one of my best sources for recipes because, along with local gossip, the talk amongst the village ladies was invariably of food--what to serve for the next meal. While I waited my turn, I gathered recipes.
On one occasion, a week before Semana Santa, the place was jammed with many women waiting for a perm and color. Holy Week marks one of the three occasions of the year when every woman in town and country must have a new hair-do and color job. (The other two are the village feria and Christmas, which also signal housewives to get busy white-washing their house facades). I sat down, fully prepared to wait at least two hours.
María rushed over to me, proudly displaying a wig. The color was dark chestnut, the color of choice for local women in those days (now, blond and copper are just as common), and the hair was curled in lovely long ringlets. A dozen women crowded around to ooh and ah. What was so special?
“De la Virgen de los Dolores,” María said. The wig had been removed from the church’s image of the Virgin of the Sorrows, the life-size statue of the grieving Mother of Christ, with her jeweled tear-drops, which would be borne in the processions on Good Friday, and taken to the local beauty shop for restyling. Obviously no Andalusian woman, holy or otherwise, would dare walk in the procession without having her hair done!
The transubstantiation of dry salt cod
It was in a tapa bar during village processions that I first tasted bacalao, dry salt cod. It was delicious cooked in several ways, in a sauce and also batter-fried.
In the days before refrigeration and rapid means of transportation, fresh fish rarely was available to people who lived far inland from fishing ports. So during the Lenten period, when the Church required abstinence from meat, bacalao became an important part of the diet. Even in my village, so close to the sea, where people ate fresh seafood every day, bacalao was the choice for viernes santo, Good Friday.
I think it must be the mystery of the transubstantiation of bacalao, from a texture like cardboard and a smell like dirty socks, into a soft, snowy-white fish, that makes it appropriate to the season.
Though I enjoy eating bacalao in tapa bars, I rarely cook it at home. Except today. If it’s Good Friday, it’s got to be bacalao.
Because I recently returned from a trip to Barcelona (more about that in future posts), this year I’ve selected a Catalan recipe, bacalao a la llauna. A llauna is a shallow oven pan in which the cod finishes cooking. The cod is often served with tiny white beans, called mongetes, similar to navy beans. I brought some of those back from Barcelona. Once cooked (ok, not being very abstinent, I threw a chunk of pancetta into the pot), I dressed them with Arbequina olive oil from DO Siurana in Catalonia and the sauce from the cod. The garnish is of crisp-fried leeks (slice them crosswise, separate into rings, toss with flour and fry in olive oil).
SALT COD, CATALAN STYLE
BACALAO A LA LLAUNA
Start this recipe at least 24 hours before you intend to serve it. Select thick, center-cut pieces of salt cod, about 6 ounces per person. Trim away any fins and bones, but leave the skin. Rinse in running water and place the pieces of cod in a bowl. Cover with fresh water. Cover and refrigerate. Soak the cod for 24 to 36 hours (longer time for thicker pieces), changing the water 3 or 4 times.
Drain the cod and squeeze out excess water. Pat dry on paper towels.Use a boning knife to cut away any fins and bones.
1 ½ pounds salt cod, cut in
4 to 8 pieces, soaked for 24 hours
flour for dusting the cod
1/3 cup olive oil, preferably Catalan
4 cloves garlic, sliced crosswise
2 ½ tablespoons pimentón (paprika)
½ cup white wine
salt and freshly ground black pepper
cooked beans (optional)
fried leeks (optional)
Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC).
Dredge pieces of cod in flour and pat off excess. Heat the oil in a skillet on medium heat. Fry the pieces of cod on all sides until lightly browned. Remove them and set aside.
Strain the oil into a clean skillet (in order to eliminate flour bits). Heat the oil and sauté the sliced garlic until very lightly golden. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the pimentón. Add the wine, salt and pepper. Return to the heat and simmer 3 minutes.
Lightly oil a shallow oven pan. Place the pieces of cod in it, skin-side down. Spoon the sauce over the top and sprinkle with parsley. Bake until the fish flakes easily, about 10 minutes.
Serve immediately, accompanied, if desired, by cooked beans and fried leeks.
Post tasting notes: I’m supposed to be the expert! But, my rendition of this recipe—tasted after I made the photograph—was not great. The bacalao was way too salty. The thick pieces needed another 24 hours soaking. Plus, I think I would cover the llauna oven pan with foil to keep the moisture in during baking. It really should be moist and flaky and mine wasn’t. But, maybe I need to cook bacalao more than once a year!