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Bacalao a la Vizcaína: A Culinary Gem of Basque Cuisine

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Bacalao a la Vizcaína, or Basque-style cod, is a beloved dish that hails from the Basque Country in northern Spain. Known for its rich flavors and vibrant sauce, this traditional recipe showcases the region’s love for seafood and culinary artistry. Let’s explore the history, ingredients, and preparation of this exquisite Basque delicacy.

A Glimpse into Basque Culinary Tradition

The Basque Country, located along the northern coast of Spain and into southwestern France, boasts a rich culinary tradition deeply rooted in local ingredients and techniques. Bacalao, or salted cod, has been a staple in Basque cuisine for centuries due to its preservation method, which allowed it to be transported and stored without refrigeration.

Bacalao a la Vizcaína is distinguished by its signature Vizcaína sauce, a vibrant and savory concoction made from red bell peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. This sauce not only enhances the flavor of the cod but also pays homage to the region’s abundant produce.

Ingredients for Bacalao a la Vizcaína

To prepare Bacalao a la Vizcaína, you will need the following ingredients:

  • For the Cod:
    • 4 pieces of salted cod fillets (about 200g each)
    • Cold water (for soaking the cod)
  • For the Vizcaína Sauce:
    • 4 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and deseeded
    • 2 large onions, finely chopped
    • 4 cloves garlic, minced
    • 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 1 can of crushed tomatoes)
    • 100ml extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
    • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    • 1 bay leaf
    • 1 cup fish or vegetable broth
  • For Garnish (optional):
    • Fresh parsley, chopped
    • Sliced hard-boiled eggs

Instructions

Step 1: Desalinate the Cod
  1. Soak the Cod: Rinse the salted cod fillets under cold running water to remove excess salt. Place the fillets in a large bowl and cover them with cold water. Soak for 24-48 hours, changing the water every 8 hours to remove the salt gradually.
Step 2: Prepare the Vizcaína Sauce
  1. Roast the Peppers: Preheat your oven to 200°C (400°F). Roast the red bell peppers until their skins are charred and blistered, about 20-25 minutes. Transfer the peppers to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let them steam for 10 minutes. Peel off the skins, remove the seeds, and chop the peppers.
  2. Cook the Onions: In a large skillet or saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the finely chopped onions and cook until they are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add Garlic and Peppers: Stir in the minced garlic and chopped roasted peppers. Cook for another 5 minutes.
  4. Add Tomatoes and Paprika: Add the chopped tomatoes (or canned crushed tomatoes), sweet paprika, and tomato paste. Stir well to combine and cook for 10 minutes until the mixture thickens.
  5. Simmer the Sauce: Add the bay leaf and fish or vegetable broth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to low and let the sauce simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Step 3: Cook the Cod
  1. Prepare the Cod: After desalination, pat the cod fillets dry with paper towels. Heat a bit of olive oil in a separate skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. Sear the Cod: Add the cod fillets to the skillet and sear them on each side for about 2-3 minutes until golden brown. Remove the fillets from the skillet and set aside.
Step 4: Combine and Finish
  1. Combine Cod and Sauce: Gently place the seared cod fillets into the Vizcaína sauce, ensuring they are well-coated. Cover the skillet or saucepan and let the fish cook in the sauce for an additional 10-15 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld together.
  2. Garnish and Serve: Remove the bay leaf. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley and sliced hard-boiled eggs if desired. Serve the Bacalao a la Vizcaína hot, accompanied by crusty bread or steamed potatoes to soak up the delicious sauce.

Culinary Tips and Variations

  • Alternative Fish: If salted cod is unavailable, fresh cod or another firm white fish can be used, though it will lack the unique flavor of traditional salted cod.
  • Sauce Variations: Some variations of Vizcaína sauce include the addition of almonds or pimientos choriceros (dried red peppers), which add depth and complexity to the sauce.
  • Serving Suggestions: Bacalao a la Vizcaína pairs beautifully with a crisp white wine, such as a Spanish Albariño or a light red Rioja.

Nutritional Benefits

Bacalao a la Vizcaína is a nutritious dish rich in protein from the cod and vitamins from the vegetables. Cod is a lean source of protein, low in fat, and packed with essential nutrients like vitamin B12 and iodine. The red peppers and tomatoes in the sauce provide antioxidants, vitamins A and C, and fiber, making this dish both delicious and healthful.

Conclusion

Bacalao a la Vizcaína is a testament to the culinary ingenuity of the Basque region, blending simple ingredients into a dish of extraordinary flavor and depth. Whether you’re a seasoned chef or a home cook, preparing this traditional Basque-style cod will transport your taste buds to northern Spain, where the sea meets the land in a harmonious blend of tastes and textures. Enjoy this culinary gem and embrace the rich heritage it represents.

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Written by Robert Zelesky

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