In the not too distant past, the waters of the North Atlantic were swarming with cod. Going back centuries, when the fish were first discovered off Canada, fisherman from Europe and especially the Portuguese would make the long trek in their sailing boats to harvest the cod. Of course they didn’t have refrigerators–refrigerators hadn’t been invented yet–so they needed a way to preserve the fish for the sail home. They salted and dried the cod, making it almost impervious to spoiling.
Salt cod traveled all over Europe as a valuable source of protein, especially in Portugal, Spain, Southern France and Italy, where eating salt cod is still a cherished tradition. But in the trade of that era, salt cod also went south–to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean–in exchange for sugar, molasses, rum. This week our “food appreciation” classes are in Jamaica as we continue our virtual world food tour. Here a popular finger food is a salt cod fritter popularly known as “Stamp and Go.”
Sadly, the great salt cod fisheries of the Atlantic have largely vanished–fished out. And outside ethnic communities, salt cod is not very well known. You can often find it in Latin groceries where it is sold in large, flat fillets that are tough as wood. Have the clerk cut it into pieces. Salt cod is also sold in neat little wooden boxes. And you can buy it with or without bones. I purchased ours at A&H Seafood in Bethesda, Md, which specializes in Portuguese and Spanish products. (They get fresh shipments each Thursday off a plane from Portugal.)
Once the salt cod is cut into manageable pieces, soak it in plenty of water for at least 24 hours, changing the water at least twice. You might be surprised how much the fish looks like an everyday fillet after this soaking. It is even edible as is–just cut off a small piece and try it.
To make the fritters, you will need a heavy pot or tall skillet with at least 1 inch of canola oil at the bottom. (Note: never fill the vessel more than half way for deep frying or it could boil over. If you have a deep-fat fryer, use that). Over moderate heat, bring the oil up to approximately 365 degrees, or a point where a bit of batter dropped into it will bubble vigorously but not burn.
Prepare the fish by bringing it to a boil in a pot of water. Remove the fillets from the pot and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl mix two scallions, finely chopped, 1/3 red bell pepper, finely chopped, and 1/2 habanero pepper, finely chopped. (Habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers are very popular in the Caribbean for their fruity heat. But they are very hot. Consider this optional, or use a less fiery pepper such as jalapeno.) To the vegetables add 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix everything well.
When the fish is cool enough to handle, flake it with two forks or with your fingers into small pieces, removing any bones, and stir it into the flour mix. Add a scant cup of water (or as much as needed) and mix to a thick batter. By this time the oil should be ready. Carefully drop spoonfuls of batter into the oil to form fritters about the size of golf balls. Turn as necessary until the fritters are golden brown and cooked all the way through. Remove to paper towels to drain.
Serve these warm with your favorite spicy dipping sauce or simply dress them with malt vinegar. Follow with heaping plates of jerk chicken.
Note: Hot oil is extremely dangerous. Be sure to keep it well out of the reach of children, and never leave it unattended. In our classes, we explain to the children why they cannot be near the hot oil. They make everything else up to the point where the batter goes into the oil. And of course they get to eat the finished fritters.