Friday, January 30, 2009

KIds Make Salt Cod Fritters

It's a little known fact that people all over the Caribbean love salt cod. And why would that be?

In the not too distant past, the waters of the North Atlantic were swarming with cod. Going back centuries, when the fish were first discovered off Canada, fisherman from Europe and especially the Portuguese would make the long trek in their sailing boats to harvest the cod. Of course they didn't have refrigerators--refrigerators hadn't been invented yet--so they needed a way to preserve the fish for the sail home. They salted and dried the cod, making it almost impervious to spoiling.

Salt cod traveled all over Europe as a valuable source of protein, especially in Portugal, Spain, Southern France and Italy, where eating salt cod is still a cherished tradition. But in the trade of that era, salt cod also went south--to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean--in exchange for sugar, molasses, rum. This week our "food appreciation" classes are in Jamaica as we continue our virtual world food tour. Here a popular finger food is a salt cod fritter popularly known as "Stamp and Go."

Sadly, the great salt cod fisheries of the Atlantic have largely vanished--fished out. And outside ethnic communities, salt cod is not very well known. You can often find it in Latin groceries where it is sold in large, flat fillets that are tough as wood. Have the clerk cut it into pieces. Salt cod is also sold in neat little wooden boxes. And you can buy it with or without bones. I purchased ours at A&H Seafood in Bethesda, Md, which specializes in Portuguese and Spanish products. (They get fresh shipments each Thursday off a plane from Portugal.)

Once the salt cod is cut into manageable pieces, soak it in plenty of water for at least 24 hours, changing the water at least twice. You might be surprised how much the fish looks like an everyday fillet after this soaking. It is even edible as is--just cut off a small piece and try it.

To make the fritters, you will need a heavy pot or tall skillet with at least 1 inch of canola oil at the bottom. (Note: never fill the vessel more than half way for deep frying or it could boil over. If you have a deep-fat fryer, use that). Over moderate heat, bring the oil up to approximately 365 degrees, or a point where a bit of batter dropped into it will bubble vigorously but not burn.

Prepare the fish by bringing it to a boil in a pot of water. Remove the fillets from the pot and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl mix two scallions, finely chopped, 1/3 red bell pepper, finely chopped, and 1/2 habanero pepper, finely chopped. (Habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers are very popular in the Caribbean for their fruity heat. But they are very hot. Consider this optional, or use a less fiery pepper such as jalapeno.) To the vegetables add 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix everything well.

When the fish is cool enough to handle, flake it with two forks or with your fingers into small pieces, removing any bones, and stir it into the flour mix. Add a scant cup of water (or as much as needed) and mix to a thick batter. By this time the oil should be ready. Carefully drop spoonfuls of batter into the oil to form fritters about the size of golf balls. Turn as necessary until the fritters are golden brown and cooked all the way through. Remove to paper towels to drain.

Serve these warm with your favorite spicy dipping sauce or simply dress them with malt vinegar. Follow with heaping plates of jerk chicken.

Note: Hot oil is extremely dangerous. Be sure to keep it well out of the reach of children, and never leave it unattended. In our classes, we explain to the children why they cannot be near the hot oil. They make everything else up to the point where the batter goes into the oil. And of course they get to eat the finished fritters.


Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

I love salt cod, it was part of my childhood when we had in on a regular basis: fritter, curries, with potatoes, with rice etc. It not only went to the Caribbeans but to all the sugar-producing islands that belonged to European nations in the 17th & 18th century where it remains - to this day - part of the culinary traditions. You are right, it's not always easy to find. Many supermarkets, that don't otherwise carry salt cod the rest of the year, carry it for Lent and Easter. At least the Giant I go does.


Sarah O. said...

My father grew up on Nova Scotian salt cod dishes. As a result, salt cod never darkened the door of our house.

I decided I wanted to explore my culinary roots this year, so I bought some at the grocery store. I made fishcakes with it, but instead of the rather bland potato-salt cod-salt and pepper variety, I added parsely, ground coriander, some cumin and chili powder. They were delicious.

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, you have the most interesting background. It sounds like you've tried just about everything. I didn't know you could find salt cod at the Giant.

Sarah, great idea using salt cod to make fish cakes. Next up, I'll be using the rest of our salt cod to make an incredible casserole with potatoes and bechamel sauce.

Leila said...

When I lived in NYC a quarter century ago, the poor neighborhoods I could afford were served by "bodegas", small Dominican-owned markets that sold cigarettes, beer, newspapers, junk food, and Caribbean staples. They often sold bacalao - salt cod - and I can still remember the smell of it piled on the floor by the sweet potatoes.

I never bothered to try cooking it myself in those days.
A decade ago and more, a hopeful culinary couple opened a high-end cafe in downtown Oakland, CA where I live, devoted to salt cod, Provencal-style. Wood burning oven, salt cod dishes all over the menu. I tried it once or twice, thought it was terrifically tasty, but the restaurant closed.

Thanks for the info, Ed.
But I'm wondering - if the North Atlantic is fished out, where does today's cod come from? You say it arrives from Portugal - they dry it there, but do they catch it there?