In Puerto Rico cod fritters, or bacalaitos, are a quintessential party food. Wildly popular, these fritters are even sold at the beach. Right on the sand are wooden shacks with tin roofs, some with a few tables, some only serving take out. Typically salsa is blasting at full volume while a stiff ocean breeze tempts bathers with the perfume of garlic and culantro. If you spy a cook working behind her bubbling pot still in her house coat with pink foam curlers in her hair, hips swaying in tune with the music, I strongly suggest you stop there to eat! I promise you won’t be disappointed. When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, summers and holidays, these fritters were not often served. In those days my family was suspicious of any street food and would have been horrified if we had even asked for a bite. My grandparents felt anything worth ingesting was just as good or better at home. And that would have been fine except we never had bacalaitos at home. Why, I don’t know… because they’re bad for you? (They ARE fried!) Nevertheless, on outings with uncles, aunts and cousins, we were often rewarded for good behavior at the end of day with a little fried something.
Big doin’s for me when the treat happened to be cod fritters. I don’t know why they’re called “fritters” as they’re not the shape of, say, apple fritters or conch fritters… they’re not rounded in shape but flat…like a cookie. Crispy on the outside but tender and chewy on the inside, these “frituras” were served hot out of the fat and wrapped in a paper napkin. Sometimes, if we happen to be in a really upscale shack, the fritters were loosely wrapped in a napkin then tucked into a small, brown paper bag. We tossed the napkins and let the paper bag soak up the excess oil while savoring every salty nugget of bacalao, cod, studded throughout the fritter. Tanned, barefooted and covered with beach sand is how I like to remember enjoying this street food!
Puerto Rican Cod Fritters
- 1 pound salt cod, deboned and soaked in cold water 8-12 hours, changing the water several time to get rid of the salt
- 10 garlic cloves
- 10-12 whole black peppercorns
- 1 bunch culantro (approximately .75 ounces) or 20 leaves, ripped into 2″ pieces
- 2 3/4 cups broth from the cod. You’ll be boiling the fish briefly so don’t throw the broth out!
- 3 cups all-purpose flour plus additional if needed
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- vegetable oil
- Discard the water the cod has soaked in and place the fish in a pot covered with 1″ of fresh, cold water. Bring the water to a boil and cook the fish for 10-15 minutes.
- Remove the fish from the broth and set aside to cool. Reserve the broth for later in the recipe.
- While the cod is cooling, add the garlic, peppercorns and culantro to a food processor or blender and process until you almost have a paste. If the ingredients stick and won’t process, add a tablespoon or two of the fish broth and continue processing.
- When the cod is cool enough to handle, gently pull the fish apart with your hands. You want it chunks in your fritters as opposed to a feathery mess.
- In a separate large bowl combine the flour and baking powder.
- Mix the broth into the flour by hand. The batter should be the consistency of pancake batter. If too thin, add a bit more flour. If too thin, add a little more broth but, in either case, not too much.
- To the flour/broth mixture add the flaked cod and the garlic/culantro mixture and mix well by hand.
- Allow to sit for 5 minutes or so to let the baking powder do its job.
- In a heavy-bottomed frying pan or pot, pour in vegetable oil until it reaches 1″ on the sides. Heat the oil on high.
- When the oil is hot and “shimmers” spoon 1/4 cup into the pan making 3-4 fritters, depending on the size of your pan. You don”t want to crowd them. If the fritters are browning too fast drop the heat down to medium-high.
- Fry each fritter 3-4 minutes or until golden, turning only once.
- Drain the fritters on a paper bag or paper towels. If you want to be truly authentic, thread each fritter through the middle with a metal skewer and hang across a large pot allowing the oil to drain to the bottom of the pot.
- Serve immediately or keep warm in a very low oven.