How to Make Bakalar (Dried Cod Stew) a Croatian Christmas Eve Traditional Meal
Recipe for Cod Stew
Every Christmas Eve, the Croatian housewives prepare the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of Bakalar. Cod stew made with potatoes, bay leaves, lemon rind and white wine, it is a hearty and delicious traditional meal that is actually started a few days before.
Cod, or Bakalar as it is called here, is quite expensive. At the time of writing, a kilo (2.2 lbs) of cod costs the rough equivalent as two days' work. As dried cod doesn't weigh all that much, it looks more like a piece of driftwood than something edible, most consumers will get by paying a day to a day and a half's wages for the fish. Since it is long and skinny (if you are called "bakalar" as a nickname, that means you are slim!), most husbands have to help halve the dried cod with a hand saw so it can be soaked in water a few days before cooking.
Just before cooking
The bakalar needs to be well cleaned of leftover fish scales on its body and dried up innards that are stringy and may be coffee-colored. Using a knife, the outside cleans quickly. cut the fish open from the underside and pull out anything that doesn't look appetizing. Remember, the bones add flavor.
Go and pick some bay leaves if you are living in a California type climate. Make sure you have a lemon and honey, peppercorns, and potatoes. Get it all organized so that once you get started you won't have to stop and go hunting for missing ingredients.
The pot you use is ideally ceramic, but a large quality pot will do the job. I have a stainless steel one - large enough to serve a crowd. If it has a thick bottom, so much the better. Bakalar needs to be cooked just like fine wine is brewed. Remember the old commercial, "we will serve no wine before its time". Bakalar is like that, too. Let it cook slowly and tenderly. It will taste better later on!
Here is the recipe, as it has been handed down for generations. My father in law who was born in 1923 gave it to me from memory. It's one of those things that never, ever, change!
Sauté chopped parsley and garlic in a large pot coated with a layer of olive oil (moderate). Add the cleaned and sliced cod to the soft garlic and parsley and sauté, adding a half glass of water to prevent burning. Add one glass of white wine and gradually add small amounts of water as the fish gets softer and begins cooking. Add 2 T. powdered sweet red paprika for color, 4 to 6 smashed pepper corns (the wooden handle of a knife is a great technique for this), 2 T. honey and lemon rind from 1/2 lemon. Add 3 bay leaves (javora Yeah-vor-uh) and let it begin to simmer. Partially cover - do not cover completely - this will create condensation in the pot and weaken the flavor.
Clean and slice 5 to 8 medium potatoes - about a finger's thickness per slice. Add to the cooking pot, and add water to cover the ingredients. Cook uncovered or half covered on low for an hour or more, making sure that it cooks slowly but that the stew is on simmer mode (bubbles, fragrant aroma, etc.)
A note about the potatoes. They tend to cook faster than the fish, so wait awhile before adding them. The fish should be at least rubbery - insert with a fork to test - before the potatoes join the party. They need to be well cleaned, removing all eyes and light bruises. Golden potatoes are the best tasting. The main point is that they are all about the same thickness so they will be done at the same time. Since they are a root vegetable, they may need to be rinsed in water at least twice after being peeled and sliced. Nothing worse than a little dirt in your spoon (yech!)
Right before serving, it's OK to add another small batch of minced parsley and finely sliced garlic to give that extra get-up-and-go.
You may have noticed that I didn't include salt in the recipe. I always add it at the end. The cod fish is already salty in and of itself. Since most of the people in my life are watching their blood pressure, easier to add it than to take it away.
Cod and Potatoes Serving Suggestion
How to Serve Cod Stew
Bakalar - aka Fishermen's Cod Stew - is best served with plenty of french bread, wine and water. In Dalmatia, Christmas Eve is for fish, and Christmas Day is for meat. Eat well and celebrate. This is what memories are made of - so light the candle, go to Midnight Mass - and enjoy the season. After all, it only comes once a year!