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!
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
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.
For someone who tasted flavor only when in friends’ homes, I vividly recall many first tastes. Butter…Ann Avery’s house. That was beyond stellar. Tuna salad would be at Andrea’s house. Her mama mixed in a teaspoon of mustard that certainly made it the chicken of MY sea! Pork chop gravy at Dana’s house was seared into my flavor bank. I had never had ANY gravy before and her mama made it from scratch. Where has this stuff been hiding?!? I experienced a double first at my neighbor and classmate, Susy Tankard’s, house. We had come in from playing “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” outside, all hot and sweaty. Her mama and mine were very close but worlds apart when it came to cooking. Susy’s mom baked, cooked and liked it. My mama couldn’t give a fig what went on in the kitchen nor would she have recognized a fig if there had ever been one sitting on the counter. Anyway, that noteworthy day stands out because it is the day Susy offered me an English muffin with strawberry jam. I had no idea what either one of those things were. At first bite I was head over heels in love with both. But probably my favorite first was a double of potato chips and onion dip, both processed, filled with preservatives and loaded with salt. Holy smoke. Talk about a lifelong passion for that kind of bad. And I’m still a fool for chips and dip but now I prefer the real thing. Homemade onion dip is from another realm. Once you make homemade you will never go back to that powdered stuff in an envelope. After caramelizing naturally sweet onions, you’ll end up with a skillet brimming with the flavors of a savory jam, all thick and gooey. I add fresh thyme leaves and that brings out the earthiness and allows the dip to “pop”. The addition of cayenne pepper lightens each bite and keeps the onion dip from becoming too heavy. It’s always one of the first dishes to fly at a party; in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to stay out of it before you leave your house. Perfect for a beach or pool party, whether it’s game day or not, this kickin’ onion dip will become a life long favorite!
This recipe makes quite a bit which is great for a party but if you don’t need that much, it’s easily halved. It’s an incredibly flavorful appetizer so if you’re not a fan of heat, rest assured the cayenne pepper may be omitted and you’ll still have a fantastic dip. Take your time caramelizing the onions. You don’t want them to burn but to release their liquids and sugar. Give them a good stir every now and again, cook them uncovered letting all excess moisture evaporate and you’ll achieve the flavors and consistency you want. I tried a mess of chips to see which really brought out the flavor of the dip and this is my conclusion. The best potato chip turned out to be Kettle Chips. They were sturdy enough to stand up to the stiff dip both in structure and potato taste. But my number one chip pick wasn’t a potato chip but a plantain chip. Holy smoke! They really complemented each other, not to mention, the plantains were much better looking. In closing, I hope you’ll take the time to search out Vidalia onions as their sweetness truly stands out and makes a huge difference in this dish. Enjoy!
3 pounds Vidalia onions, about 3 large Vidalia onions
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1 heaping tablespoon fresh thyme leaves plus additional to garnish
1 teaspoon to 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
In a large, heavy bottom skillet melt the butter over medium heat.
Add the olive oil, chopped onions, one tablespoon of salt and stir well until the onions are thoroughly coated with the olive oil and butter.
Lower the heat to medium low and cook the onions uncovered until they are golden brown in color and all liquid from them has evaporated, anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour. Stir often to keep onions from browning or sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Remove onions from heat and allow to cool.
In a large bowl mix the cream cheese to loosen. Add the mayonnaise and whisk until completely smooth.
Add the sour cream, thyme, cayenne pepper and remaining teaspoon of salt. Mix until smooth.
Add cooled onions to cream cheese mixture and mix until thoroughly combined.
Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.