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Bacalao a la Vizcaina is a delicious Spanish salt cod dish from the Basque region of Spain that’s also very popular in Mexico, Guatemala and throughout Latin America. Although this bacalao seco (dry salt cod fish) dish is most popular on Christmas Eve and at Easter, you can enjoy it any time of the year.
This Basque-stye dish has its roots in northern Spain. A top spot to enjoy this traditional dish at its source is Bilbao, the Basque Country’s biggest city and one of the top cities to visit in Spain for food fans.
For an unforgettable experience, head to Bilboa’s historic city centre to sample pintxos and bowls of steaming bowls of this authentic local stew featuring the region’s signature Espelette pepper.
Spanish Bacalao is Also a Popular Dish in Latin America
Throughout Latin America, bacalao Spanish-style is especially popular for Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Semana Santa, the week leading up to Easter Sunday. It’s a must-eat during Lent when Guatemalans purchase the thin slabs of pescado seco (dried cod) in the mercados around Antigua and other towns in Guatemala.
In parts of Latin America, Bacalao a la Vizcaina is also known as pescado a la vizcaina but whatever you choose to call it, it’s a delicious way to enjoy fresh or dried cod fish.
It’s one of the top dishes my Guatemalan mother-in-law makes before her pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Christ at the Basilica in the town of Esquipulas Guatemala each Easter.
Travel Tip: Check out our complete guide to the Best Festivals and Celebrations in Guatemala and sample this dish in Guatemala during Semana Santa.
Buying and Soaking Salt Cod for Bacalao Guisado
The key to success in using bacalao is soaking it long enough to remove the salt. The first time I made bacalao fish, I didn’t start the process of soaking the salt cod early enough and the dish was too salty.
When I visited the fish market in Punta Delgada in the Azores, I learned that it’s best to begin the process four days in advance.
The key is choosing salt cod is to purchase a piece of fish that isn’t too thin. You don’t want to buy only the tail. Instead, look for a middle piece of the filet.
This means you need to do your salt cod shopping early. The ideal sizes disappear quickly and you may be left with filets of salt cod as large as yoga mats.
Begin the process of soaking the salt cod four days before you want to prepare the dish. Place the salt cod in a rectangular glass Pyrex dish and cover it with cool water. Place it in the refrigerator and allow it to soak in the water for 24 hours.
Drain off the salty water, add more fresh cool water and return to the refrigerator. repeat this process every day until you are ready to prepare the dish.
How to Make a Pescado a la Vizcaina Version
The process of drying and salting cod both preserves and intensifies the flavour of cod. But if you can’t find salt cod, or don’t have time to soak and drain the salt cod multiple times, you can make it with fresh fish. This variation is known as Pescado a la Vizcaina and is very popular in Guatemala.
In the Guatemalan version of the classic Basque dish, you substitute a firm, white fish for the salt cod. Be sure to select a fish that is firm enough to be battered.
Haddock is a good option as it is thick and will hold its shape well. Sole, tilapia and basa are all too thin and soft to make Pescado a la Vizcaina Guatemalteco.
Ingredients for this Bacalao Recipe
Although the original recipe calls for fresh tomatoes, it’s possible to substitute canned tomatoes. Look for San Marzano plum tomatoes as they are the sweetest. But any good quality brand of canned tomatoes will work well.
If you don’t have the traditional Espelette pepper, you can substitute cayenne, Aleppo pepper or hot (unsmoked) paprika.
How to Make Bacalao a la Vizcaina
1. After soaking the salt cod and draining it, dry it thoroughly between layers of paper towels or tea towels.
2. Prepare the batter, then dip each piece of salt cod in the batter and fry it until the batter is nicely browned.
3. While the fish is browning, dice the potatoes and cook them in boiling water until soft but not mushy.
4. Fry the battered salt cod until browned in vegetable oil over medium-high heat.
5. Then prepare the tomato sauce by chopping the peeled Roma tomatoes (or use canned tomatoes) into pieces.
6. Puree the onion, garlic, tomatoes and water in a food processor until it reaches a fine consistency.
7 Then saute the tomato mixture in a frying pan along with the bay leaf, thyme, Espelette pepper and achiote, bringing the mixture to a low boil.
6. Cover and allow the tomato sauce to simmer. It’s also possible to prepare the tomato sauce in advance. If you’ve prepared it in advance, just pour it into a deep frying pan and bring to a low simmer.
7. Once you’ve finished frying the battered cod, add the cooked potatoes, olives and salt cod in batter to the tomato sauce. Heat thoroughly for 10 minutes.
8. Sprinkle the finished dish with chopped fresh parsley.
Serve Bacalao a la Vizcaina immediately so the batter doesn’t soak up too much of the sauce and get soggy.
Tips for Making Pescado Seco Envuelto en Huevo – Salt Cod in Batter
- This version of Bacalao a la Vizcaina features battered salt cod known as pescado seco envuelto en huevo. There is another variation of this bacalao recipe popular in Mexico, where the salt cod isn’t battered but is cooked in the sauce and then shredded.
- For best results, cut the salt cod into pieces about the size of the palm of your hand or smaller.
- The batter for pescado seco envuelto en huevo for this recipe is the same one used to make chile rellenos ( stuffed peppers) so it’s worth learning.
- Once you’ve made the batter, use it immediately. If you allow it to sit, it begins to separate and loses its volume.
- Enjoy as part of a Christmas or New Year’s Eve Menu with ponche de frutas, a hot holiday fruit punch. It also goes well with Arroz Verde, a light and fluffy spinach rice pilaf
Bacalao a la Vizcaina - Spanish-style Salt Cod in Batter
- 1 large piece dried salt cod
- 2 eggs
- 4 Tablespoons white flour
- 1/8 teaspoon achiote
- 5 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 potatoes chopped into pieces and cooked until soft but not soggy
- 1/2 cup green pitted olives
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 raw onion chopped
- 1 clove peeled garlic
- 2 cups fresh Roma tomatoes peeled or canned tomatoes
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 tsp achiote
- 1/8 tsp thyme
- 1/8 tsp Espelette pepper or cayenne, Aleppo or hot paprika
- handful chopped parsley
- Begin soaking the whole piece of salt cod in water three days prior to the day you want to prepare the dish
- Replace the water daily and be sure to cover the salt cod completely. Place it into the refrigerator while it's soaking
- Puree the onion, garlic, tomato and water in a food processor until a fine consistency
- Pour a tablespoon of oil into a large frying pan and add the tomato sauce, herbs, Espelette pepper and achiote.
- Simmer the sauce while preparing and cooking the cod
- Drain, rinse, pat dry and then cut the salt cod into pieces about 3 x 3 inches square. The sizes of the pieces will vary based on the shape of the fish
- Sprinkle the fish with two tablespoons of flour and pepper
- Separate egg whites and beat until stiff
- Beat egg yolks until creamy
- Combine egg whites, egg yolks, two tablespoons of flour, achiote and pepper, beating for a minute or two until batter is creamy
- Heat five tablespoons of oil in a frying pan until it reaches a medium high temperature
- Dip each piece of salt cod in batter and fry in oil until browned (3 minutes), then remove and allow it to drain on paper towels.
- Repeat until all the fish is cooked. Try to work quickly so the batter doesn't begin to separate.
- Place the fish in the tomato sauce and add the potatoes and olives
- Cover and heat thoroughly at a medium temperature (5-10 minutes)
- Sprinkle with parsley and serve
- You can speed up the soaking of the salt cod by using slightly warmer water.
- Once you've made the batter, use it immediately so it doesn't lose volume.
- The tomato sauce can be prepared in advance and reheated when you're ready to add the fish and olives.
Although this dish is most popular at Easter and Christmas, you can enjoy salt cod at any time of the year.
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Dividing her time between Canada, Guatemala and Mexico (or the nearest tropical beach), Michele Peterson is the founder of A Taste for Travel. Her award-winning travel and food writing has appeared in Lonely Planet’s cookbook Mexico: From the Source, National Geographic Traveler, Fodor’s and 100+ other publications.
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