Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bacalao a la Vizcaina

So yesterday we had a dinner party. It was another sign of our cooking and entertaining fanaticism that we pulled off a pull-out-the-stops dinner on a Tuesday where I got home from work at 8pm. I was a crabby, stressy mess before the guests got here rolling my pre-boiled chard leaves over scoops of my pre-prepared salt cod and bechamel and thinking, "Why am I putting myself through this?. Once the guests arrived, though, all thoughts of, "how am I going to get my classes organized for tomorrow?" And "How much sleep will I actually get" melted when our friends arrived. Being with friends (o.k. and having a before-dinner drink) is a tonic for stress. The evening was a lot of fun.

Gabriel made a delicious Greek lemon chicken which could be part of this blog if Gabriel would agree to write his recipe down. You all can petition if you like. I made the first course: a pretty, restaurant-y take on the traditional Basque Spanish dish, "Bacalao a la Vizcaina" that's salt cod in Biscayne (medium hot pepper/tomato) sauce, except that rather than the traditional pieces of salt cod smothered in sauce, I made a "creme" with the fish and wrapped it in swiss chard and layed that over a bed of ruddy, terra-cotta colored sauce. It was really pretty if I do say so myself.

Here's the recipe: Serves 6
Bacalao packets:
1 lb salt cod that has already been soaked in water for 2 days in the fridge with the water being changed several times.
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp (or more) flour
salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
12 large swiss chard leaves

Boil the pieces of cod for 5-10 minutes, depending on their thickness, until they flake. Drain, cool and remove any skin and bones. Place in a food processor and process into tiny flakes, reserve. In a 2 quart stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat, add flour and cook stirring constantly for 1 minute. You should have something between a thick cream consistency to an almost solid paste (your choice here but I prefer to add more flour and get the paste). Add 2 cups of milk and whisk like hell until all the lumps have disappeared. Continue stirring and cooking until you have a thick paste. Add the salt cod, salt, pepper and nutmeg and take off the heat. Let cool. Blanch (boil very briefly) the swiss chard leaves in boiling water just until they are pliable, less than 1 minute. Reserve** These steps can be made the day before you serve; the fish ain't fresh anyway.

Biscayne sauce:

I adapted this recipe from "The Basque Table" by Teresa Barrenechea
5 ancho chili peppers soaked in the fridge over night then simmered for 10 minutes in their soaking liquid.
1 cup of said soaking liquid
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion diced
1 large red onion diced
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 cup canned tomatoes or fresh if they are in season
salt to taste

Cut off chili pepper stems and extract seeds. No need to be meticulous here since you will strain the sauce later. Roughly chop the peppers, reserve.
Add the oil to a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onions and fry for 5 minutes until they are soft. Add the chopped garlic and cook for another minute. Add the peppers and the soaking liquid and cook for approximately 20 minutes until you have a thick, chunky sauce. Place the cold canned tomatoes in a food processor then add the hot onion/pepper sauce. Process until you have a smooth, uniform sauce, 1-2 minures. Strain the sauce through a medium mesh strainer. Taste and adjust for salt. **These steps can also be done up to 3 days ahead.

Showtime dinner presentation:

Lay out the swiss chard leaves flat and add about 5 tablespoons of the salt cod mixture to each. Roll like a burrito and place seam down on a Chinese bamboo steamer. Steam for 5 minutes. Reheat the sauce then pour about 5 tablespoons of sauce onto 6 small salad plates. Swirl the plates to spread the sauce. Gently take the bacalao packets out of the steamer and place 2 on each plate. Serve with extra sauce in a separate bowl.


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