It isn’t hard to see the cultural connections between Catalonia and France, given the obvious geographic proximity. Recipes, Roman ruins, and modern wine-making techniques have all trickled over the border. Even the Catalan language stems in part from the medieval langue d’oc, echoes of which are still heard today in modern Provençal.
Samfaina is a dish that truly embodies the simplicity of Mediterranean cooking; a preparation remarkably similar to the famous, humble ratatouille of Provence. However, Samfaina foregoes the powerful herbs of its neighbor to the north, instead relying more on the subtle qualities of local produce, delicate olive oil, and the pan fond of the sautéed salt cod in the case of this classic recipe, Bacallà amb Samfaina.
Bacalao, in Spanish (bacallà in Catalan and bacalhau in Portuguese), is a term that is admittedly a bit confusing in Spain. The word can be used for both fresh cod fish, as well as the crusty, salty, dried cod fillets that have fed and fueled European trade for centuries. Treasured in northern Europe and throughout the reaches of the Mediterranean, as well as across the ocean in the Caribbean islands, salt cod as a product arose through necessity, poverty, and convenience. However, even after modern technology eliminated the need to preserve foods in a such a manner, the taste for the uniquely flavored and textured fish has endured (as has the taste for cured ham, aged cheese, pickled anchovies, and numerous other long-living Iberian delicacies).
Salt cod (heretofore referred to simply as bacalao) is easy to utilize; it just simply requires some foresight (or a qualified vendor, in which Barcelona there are many). To use the bacalao it must first be soaked in cold water for many hours—the water changed several times—to remove all of the salinity before it is to be consumed. At the antique shops and market stalls that have run Barcelona’s bacalao business for generations, the fish is sold in all stages—from full sides of cod still crusted in coarse salt, to meaty, desalinated fillets, perfectly portioned and pleasantly boneless. The more prime the cut and the more labor that has gone into the pre-sale preparation, the higher the prices. But, if you don’t have the luxury or advanced planning to allocate two-plus days to this recipe, finding a vendor that sells pre-soaked bacalao is a lifesaver.
When buying salt cod, it should never be rock-hard and very dry. Good bacalao is still pliable and somewhat soft.
Times and techniques for desalination vary, but essentially, the process takes around 36 hours, during which you should change out the water at least four times, at even intervals. A very thick piece of bacalao may take longer, while a thin piece (less than 5cm) could require slightly less. It is said that the current generation prefers the bacalao less salty than their parents did, so now it is common to soak the salt cod for up to three days, when a generation ago, two days would have sufficed.
Bacalao with Samfaina
4 fillets of salt cod, 7oz each, (desalinated, pin bones removed)
1 medium-large eggplant (diced)
1 large zucchini (diced)
2 cups flour
2 medium onions (diced)
1 medium red pepper (diced)
1 medium green pepper (diced)
3 cloves garlic (minced)
1/2 cup Vino Rancio (an oxidized, semi-dry wine. An amontillado sherry will do)
4 cups whole, peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)
NOTE: To begin this recipe you must have ample time to desalt your bacalao. Place the bacalao in a large container, cover it with cold water, and place it in your refrigerator. The water must be changed every 9 hours for 36 hours (in other word, four times in total). If you don’t have time to do this, look for desalted bacalao. In the case of neither being possible, fresh cod can be used as well, just be sure not to overcook the fresh fish.
Start to prepare the dish by patting dry the desalted bacalao fillets with a paper towel, then dredging them in plain white flour (this will help the fish brown and not stick when sautéed). Tap off all of the extra flour and brown each side of the fillet well in a very hot skillet (don’t use non-stick) that you have coated with a thin sheen of olive oil. How to know when the pan is hot enough: when the oil is almost smoking, drag the fish lightly across the pan to see if it sticks. If it doesn’t stick, add the fillets to the pan. The less you move the fish, the better it will brown and the more likely that it will stay intact. You want golden bits that stick to the pan. These give you flavor. If they start to get too browned, scrape the fond with a wooden spoon and a couple drops of water. Once all the fish is golden brown, set it aside on a paper towel.
To make the sauce we will cook the vegetables separately to maintain texture. Season all the vegetables with salt, but tread lightly, as the bacalao will lend saltiness as well.
Add another splash of oil to the same pan, and once hot, add the diced eggplant. Stir the eggplant occasionally, brown it evenly on all sides quickly without it getting soggy. Once browned but still firm, remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon and reserve. Next, cook the zucchini in the exact same manner, removing it too once nicely colored. The onions, you add over low heat, along with the peppers, cooking until them both until tender but not brown (about 20 minutes).
After 20 minutes, turn the heat up to high and add the minced garlic. Stir continuously, cooking the garlic for about 30 seconds (until fragrant). Then, remove the pan from the heat for a moment (to avoid flare-ups) and add the wine. Return the pan to the flame, scrapping the pan with a wooden spoon and simmer. Once the wine is almost completely evaporated, add the whole, peeled tomatoes and crush them gently with your wooden spoon. Continue to simmer the sauce until it is thickened (about 20 minutes), then add the eggplant and zucchini.
Taste the sauce and adjust for seasoning with salt and black pepper (and if it’s too acidic, add a pinch of sugar). Cook for another five minutes, then add the bacalao right on top of the sauce. Cover the pan, reduce the heat, and simmer for five more minutes or until the fish is hot in the center. To serve, place each fillet in a ceramic or earthenware cazuela (or just a wide bowl) and ladle your samfaina over the top. Garnish with a drizzle of aromatic, extra-virgin olive oil and serve with white rice, roasted potatoes, or warm, crusty bread.