Basque Salt Cod with Garlic and Roasted Peppers

Mountains of salt cod, or bacalao, priced by cut and quality, at Mercat Sant Josep, aka La Boquería, Barcelona.

Cod is pretty hum-drum as far as fish goes, but it dries and salts up into a miracle. The prosciutto of the sea? Maybe. Salting has been used to preserve the bountiful North Atlantic hauls for centuries. It became a been a heavily traded product in the 17th century and is still a staple throughout the old Atlantic trade routes. You’ll find bacalao, bakaiļao and bacallà in Spain and its regions, baccalà in Italy, and similar names throughout Europe, plus–leave it to French to be different–morue in France. All over Europe, the Carribbean and throughout the regions touched by the seafaring trade, are a multitude of preparations of the same humble salted fish, each reflecting local flavors. 

Salting of the cod harvest started in the North Atlantic, but it the product got its commercial start in the Basque region of northern Spain. Bacalao still an extremely common everyday food in Spain, and readily mapa-navarra-espac3b1aavailable. Bacalao Ajoarriero – Basque Salt Cod with Garlic and Roasted Peppers – hails from Navarra, in the Basque country. This dish is quite typical of the tomato and pepper laden cuisine of the region, with no hesitation on ample use of garlic. The slow cooking brings out mellow flavors, melded together meltingly with lots of olive oil.

The only difficult thing about working with salt cod is planning ahead. Salt cod is, well, salty, and you’ll need to start soaking a day or two ahead. Besides that, cooking with salt cod is a snap. Bacalao Ajoarriero combines flavorful onions, lots of big cloves of garlic, roasted peppers, a hint of smoky paprika, and crisply roasted potatoes.

Bacalao Ajoarriero – Basque Salt Cod with Garlic and Roasted Peppers


16 oz salt cod
2 russet potatoes
2 red bell peppers
1 med yellow onion
10 cloves garlic
1.5t pimentón de la Vera, dulce (spanish smoked paprika)
1t aleppo pepper
Sea Salt, to taste (depends on saltiness of cod)
Extra virgin olive oil

Rinse cod well to remove visible salt, then soak in fridge in fresh water for at least 24 hours, changing water several times.

Peel the potatoes and cut into the shape of stubby steak-fries, about 1/2″ x 1/2″ x 1.5″ long. Steam (do not boil) to just cooked. (Be careful not to overcook or the potatoes will crumble–but if you do, believe me, they will still taste good). Remove from steamer and pile onto a foil-lined sheet pan big enough to hold the potatoes uncrowded in one layer. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat all nicely. Spread potatoes evenly in pan. Set aside.

Drain cod. Bring a pot of water to boil, lower heat to medium/med-low, and add the cod. Cook the cod for about 30 minutes, then drain.

Roast red bell peppers under broiler, turning to toast skin on all sides. Remove from oven and peel. (tossing the hot peppers in a closed paper bag for about 10 minutes will make the charred skin easier to remove). Discard skin, stem and seeds. Cut the remaining flesh into strips about 1/2″ wide. Set aside.

Peel onions and chop off the ends. Slice into wedges about 1/2″ wide at widest part. Heat 3T olive oil on med-high in a large saute pan, and add the onions and peeled garlic. Cook to lightly brown and soften. Toss in a few tablespoons of water, cover, and lower heat to complete cooking, about 5 minutes.

Heat oven to 500F. Roast the steamed potatoes until golden and crispy. About 20 minutes.

While potatoes are cooking, flake the cod into the onion/garlic mixture. Add roasted peppers, aleppo, pimentón, salt. Taste, and adjust salt as necessary. Add 1/4 c water, cover and heat on med until heated through. Remove lid and allow water to cook off if necessary. Adjust salt.

Remove potatoes from the ovem, toss with sea salt.

For each serving, place 1/4 of the potatoes on each plate, and 1/4 of the cod mixture alongside. Sprinke with chopped parsley and serve.

About Salt Cod

Thankfully, salt cod is becoming more available now, but you may have the best luck sourcing it at a European specialty grocer or through a multitude of online options like this one.  Salt cod can be spendy–between its popularity and the strained cod fisheries, prices have gone up. I find the most reasonably priced, decent quality fish is a Canadian product sold in a little wooden box at our local grocery chain.

Good links and resources:

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (ISBN 9780140275018), “A witty romp through history uses the codfish as its main character, showing how cod became the reason Europeans set sail across the Atlantic, while also questioning how depleted codfish stocks might affect the world’s future, given their impact on the past. Reprint. Tour. – (Baker & Taylor)

Salt: A World History (ISBN 9780142001615). “Explores the role of salt in shaping history, discussing how one of the world’s most sought-after commodities has influenced economics, science, politics, religion, and eating customs”. – (Baker & Taylor)

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