Spanish Cod Fritters

As you know, I’m a thoroughbred Portagee (a nickname given unto my people, derogatory for sure). But I’ve embraced my inner pork chop—another needling dig—and have no qualms about who I am, what I’m called, and what I like. And one of the things I adore are bolinhos de bacalhau, or salt cod fritters. It would be considered cultural treason if I didn’t love these little fried nuggets of salt cod and potato goldenness. What’s not to love? We Portuguese have been marrying the two ingredients for centuries: Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (casserole of cod, sliced potatoes, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and olives), Bacalhau à Brás (scrambled eggs encasing shoestring potatoes and flakes of cod), Bacalhau Cozido com Todos (basically, boiled cod, potatoes, and vegetables), and—well, you get the idea.

So when The One and I recently went to Allium in Great Barrington, MA, and I took a look at the menu, for a moment everything around me went pleasantly fuzzy. Kind of like looking at the world through the wrong end of a smudgy telescope. There, at the top of the appetizer list, was bolinhos de bacalhau with harrisa aïoli. My countrymen were relying upon me, I told myself. So what if harrisa was a North African condiment? The real balls of the dish (pun intended) were the fritters. It was my national duty, being a citizen of Portugal, to order them.

When the waitress, a jejune little thing who was utterly clueless as to the fritters’ provenance, put down the plate, I knew something was off-kilter. These were clearly different than the ones I grew up eating. The tidy, carefully shaped golf balls and quenelles of my formative years were replaced here with irregularly shaped, asteroid-like fritters with spiky ends and, on some, little beards of shredded cod, fried crisp. I’m sure if I looked close enough I could probably see the face of Christ, or, at the very least, Mrs. Sullivan, my unkempt high-school librarian. (Okay, so the photo above shows well-coiffed bolinhos. Old habits die hard. I shaped these with a spoon. So sue me.) I popped one of Allium’s fritters in my mouth, and those fuzzy ends shattered. They were nothing like the soft bites I’ve snacked on for decades. Besides being frittery, they were light—so light you couldn’t eat just one. Or seven. Confession: The One got less than his fair share, as I took advantage of his need to wash his hands before dining to get a head start. But what intrigued me most was the potato didn’t act like Spackle, filling in gaps and holding together these boca bites. Instead, the potato balanced the dish. These were, in short, some of the best fritters I’d ever had.

After massaging the recipe out of the chef, Michael Pancheri, I instantly knew why these golden nuggets of deep-fried love were different. They weren’t Portuguese at all. They were, of all things, Spanish. Ack! Besides potato, this fritter called for a batter made from flour, water, and oil. Small distinction, I know, but it’s a colossal difference to a Portuguese. As I tried not to like them (I really, really did, but it was an utterly impossible task), I could feel a whole nation turning its collective shawl-covered back on me. Nothing comes between the Portuguese and their salt cod fritters. Especially anything espanhol. (The Portuguese have had an uneasy détente with Spain after centuries of Spanish one-upsmanship and better PR.) But I truly, madly, deeply loved these fritters. What’s a Portagee boy to do? What else? Master them.

This past Saturday in CT, as I was stealing yet another treasonous bite of my perfected Spanish booty before serving it to The One and Brazilian cookbook author Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, a friend e-mailed me a link to a post about Portuguese salt cod fritters penned by the talented food writer Francis Lam. Then I saw his Tweet: “COD FRITTERS good enough to make even the Portuguese happy.” Oh, poor Francis. Poor, misguided Francis. There has been a four-decade-long kitchen war in the Leite clan over a fritter that can make just us happy, let alone an entire nation of citizens certain each of their mothers makes the world’s best bolinhos. Such sweeping generalities can get a man in trouble, my dear Francis. And, I don’t know about you, but I have feeling there’s a fritter a throwdown in our future. You, me, salt cod, and lots and lots of oil.

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Spanish Salt Cod Fritters

I made a killer harissa aïoli and also a smoked paprika aïoli to serve alongside these cod fritters, but they don’t need no stinking dipping sauce. These beauties are fine just the way they are.–David Leite

LC Coalition For Non-Racist Cod Fritter Consumption Note

If the provenance and particulars of the cod fritters that you fancy matter dearly to you, we understand. As for the rest of us, we’ll be forming the Coalition for Non-Racist Cod Fritter Consumption and just popping one after another into our pieholes without another thought to their origins. Up to you.

Spanish Cod Fritters Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 45 M
  • 13 H, 15 M
  • Makes about 24 fritters

Ingredients

  • 10 ounces salt cod
  • 1 small onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 medium Yukon Gold potato (about 8 ounces), diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • Vegetable oil, for frying

Directions

  • Soak the salt cod
  • 1. Rinse the cod well under running water to remove surface salt. Place the fish in a large bowl and cover with cold water by 2 inches. Stretch plastic wrap over the top, and refrigerate, changing the water several times until the cod is sufficiently desalted for you. Take a nibble—it’s perfectly safe to eat. If it’s too salty, change the water again, and let it sit for a few more hours. The process can take anywhere from 12 to 48 hours, depending on the type and size of the fillet. Above all, bear this in mind: You can always add back salt, but you can’t remove it from a finished dish.
  • Prepare the filling
  • 2. Transfer the cod to a medium saucepan, add the onion and bay leaf, cover with fresh water by 2 inches, and bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Cook the salt cod until it flakes easily when poked with a fork, 10 to 12 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cod to a plate, leaving the onion and bay leaf in the pan, and set aside until the fish is cool enough to handle.
  • 3. Bring the water the salt cod was simmered in to a boil, drop in the potato, and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander. Toss the bay leaf, keep the onion.
  • 4. Dump the potato and onion into a bowl and mash them well. If the onion refuses to submit, really have at it, cutting it with a knife, if needed.
  • 5. Remove any skin, bones, and miscellaneous bits and bobs from the cooled cod, then shred it. My grandmother vovó Costa used to dump the cod on one half of a tea towel, fold over the other half, and massage it, rubbing the towel back and forth with the heel of her hand until it left nothing but little clouds of finely shredded fish. The food processor does the same thing in 10 seconds. Sorry, vovó. Stir the cod shreds, garlic, and parsley into the potato mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. It’s not a bad idea to over-season a bit here, as the batter will tame the flavor some. Set aside.
  • Make the batter
  • 6. Rinse the saucepan you’ve been using (a real one-pot meal), pour in the water and oil, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Shake in the flour slowly and stir with a wooden spoon to make a batter. It’ll be lumpy, but press on. A few more minutes and it’ll all work itself out.
  • 7. Remove the pan from the heat and continue beating the batter for 2 to 3 minutes to cool it. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating completely after each addition.
  • 8. Add the cod mixture to the pan and stir to combine. It should be the consistency of a nice thick-enough-to-stand-your-spoon-up-in-it oatmeal. Let the batter cool to room temperature. This is the best part: If you wish, you can keep it for several hours and fry off the fritters whenever guests arrive, or when you’re in a white-hot state of hunger.
  • Fry the fritters
  • 9. Heat 3 inches of the oil in a high-sided saucepan over medium-high heat until it reaches 350°F (175°C). Spoon out a rounded tablespoon or so of the batter, scrape it into the oil using another spoon—remember, irregular is better—and fry until golden brown and cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on a brown paper bag (vovó always said paper towels make fried foods soft) and serve hot, hot, hot. Don’t give these puppies time to cool down and lose their crunch.
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Comments
Comments
  1. Ling Teo says:

    Darn it, David – I ate way too many of these gems when I was in Brazil last year – now I have a violent hankering for them and I wouldn’t know for the life of me where to find salt cod in Singapore!! Muitas saudades para meus bolinhos!! Thanks for the recipe anyway… I have a mission now!

    Ling

  2. Anne Silvia-Kleinert says:

    Dear David,

    Mom bought me your cookbook for Xmas…but you didn’t autograph it! Can I send it to you and you can autograph it for me? I love your Protagee comment….my oldest daughter, Rachel calls herself that.

    Regards,

    Anne Silvia (Linda’s sister & Cora’s grandaughter)

  3. Donna Rose says:

    On top of a great sounding recipe, your hint about smoked paprika aioli got me fired up to make some for dinner tonight. Thanks for the flash of creativity.

  4. Dana says:

    What a beautiful, funny post! And those fritters…interesting, it’s like a Pate a Choux you finally fold all that goodness into in the end. Tantalizing. Must try this.

  5. E. Nassar says:

    Such a fun read and yet another proof that whoever invented pate choux is one hell of a genious. Or do we want to keep the French out of this discussion? Lol.
    I would love to try this soon.

  6. Beautiful photography!

  7. Deb Schneider says:

    Any chance on getting the recipe for the smoked paprika aioli?

    Also, any recommendations on where to get smoked paprika? I was wondering if there is much variation between brands. An online source would be great.

    What kind of vegetable oil do you use for frying…Canola? Peanut oil?

    I was thrilled to find salt cod at the local grocery (we live in the boonies, so it’s often hard to find “rare” items). Looking forward to trying these.

    • David Leite says:

      Hello, Deb. Simply add a teaspoon or so of smoked paprika to a batch of homemade aioli. If you want it a bit strong, add more. I use plain vegetable oil. Some people use olive oil, but the smoking point is lower. And you can find smoked paprika at any well-stocked supermarket. You can also find it online.

  8. Ana Vargas-Smith says:

    Dear David…

    Just thought I would share (as a fellow Portuguese and History buff) what the real root of the angst between Spain and Portugal is. It dates back to the centuries of multiple Spanish attempts at invasion and acquisition of Portugal. Portugal is the only piece of Iberia that has stayed independent and managed to avoid annexation by Spain. It makes for a history of uneasy bed fellows. Something like how the English and French still feel about each other.

    Poor Barcelona and the Basques have never managed to secure their freedom. They have their own beautiful languages which are not even similar to Spanish. I traveled thru Madrid and Barcelona last year and absolutely loved the country, its people and food. Must go back to explore more regions.

    Barcelona was my fave…they actually greeted me with a Bom Dia wherever I went. Apparently its a Catelonian greeting (their official language) not just a Portuguese greeting. I felt bad for my Catelonian speaking cousins whose mother never let them move out of the house. I guess the Portuguese are scrappy group and difficult to manage but I guess that was how we survived the many centuries as Spain’s only neighbor. :)

    Love what you bring to the Portuguese Table and culture.
    One of your biggest fans in California…
    Ana

    • David Leite says:

      Ana, you’re right about the conflict between Spain and Portugal. Thanks for the details.

  9. I made these once and they were so delicious! After reading this I might need to make them again!

  10. Nair says:

    Senhor David, I was born and raised in Brazil into a Portuguese family. I love your book! The recipe for “bolinhos de bacalhau” is great! Of course, my mom still prepares hers from leftover “bacalhoada,” always delicious. Thank you so much for your book, I have to tell you that it brought tears to my eyes when I opened it and saw all those things so close to my heart. I am getting ready to have dinner. Just prepared some “caldo verde” and “paezinhos de queijo.” My American husband and daughters, are completely in love with the Portuguese cuisine. Thank you again! (even though I am brazilian :))

  11. Sofia says:

    A great way also to desalt cod fish is to use cold milk instead of using water. Not only does it do the same as the water but actually will smooth the taste of the cod. A nice little trick especially for the non-Portuguese that are not used to the strong taste of bacalhau!

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Sofia. I sometimes simmer my cod in milk instead of water. It really gives the fish a lighter, somewhat sweeter taste.

  12. shirley reeds says:

    We are making this tomorrow. Couldnt find salt cod but we did get some nice looking cod fillets so will make do with these. Just too yummy to look at to not try.

    • David Leite says:

      Hi Shirley, the quality will be different, as salt cod has a distinctive texture and more body than fresh cod. But let me know how it turns out.

      • shirley reeds says:

        They turned out awesome. Better than the take out English style breaded fish that we love so much and have with french fries. We’re still going to try them with the salt cod but these were delectable. Our only regret was that we bought a small package of cod. No more take out for us.

  13. David Leite says:

    Brazilian or Continental Portuguese, we’re all Portuguese at heart. And thank you for the kind words. I’ve received such amazing support from the Portuguese communities around the world, Brazil included. I’m so happy you enjoy the recipes. Best wish to your husband and daughters.

  14. Jennifer says:

    Wow these sound great! I was just looking for a Salt Cod Fritter recipe, can’t wait to try them.

  15. Sandra Mota says:

    Hi. I just thought it’s my duty as a Portuguese to tell David about “Spanish” cod fritter, what we call “pastéis de bacalhau” or “bolinhos de bacalhau,” very much part of our traditional food. They’re just like “pataniscas de bacalhau,” basically the same but calls for flour, them you make a batter. That’s what you think it’s Spanish, but it’s very Portuguese, and I grew up having it with “tomato runny rice”
    Regards to all and enjoy your cooking!

    • David Leite says:

      Sandra, I appreciate your waving the Portuguese flag. The Portuguese and Spanish share so many recipes—each conuntry and region putting its own spin on it. Pastéis de bacalhau (all potato) and pataniscas (all flour), both of which I feature in my cookbook, are different from this recipe. This Spanish fritter contains both potato and flour. And the batter is similar to a French pâte á choux—something not usually called for in patinascas. Last, unlike our perfectly shaped bolinhos or pastéis, these are so irregularly shaped, they have more crunch. But all of them are delicious!

  16. Janet Mendel says:

    David, now you must try Málaga codfish balls/fritters. They are crisply fried and served drizzled with molasses. Brilliant, the salty and sweet.

    • David Leite says:

      Janet, now you must share the recipe here. They sound wonderful. I know of them but never partook when I was in Málaga 28 years ago—I was in my youthful (read: foolish) refutation of everything Portuguese period.

      • Janet Mendel says:

        No potatoes, not choux batter. Add shredded bacalao to batter (flour, egg yolk, parsley, garlic, saffron, baking powder), consistency of pancake batter. Fold in stiff-beaten egg white. Drop by spoonfuls into hot OLIVE oil, turning to brown. Serve hot drizzled with molasses. You don’t need much of the sweet stuff. Molasses a by-product of now almost disappeared sugar cane refineries in Málaga. Yep, 28 years ago sugar cane grew next to the runways of Málaga airport.

        • David Leite says:

          Janet, how much of each ingredient? Because of the chemical reaction of the baking powder, we need a sense of proportion—especially for readers who’ve never made these before!

          • Janet Mendel says:

            Tortillitas de Bacalao con Miel de Caña
            Cod Fritters with Molasses
            Excerpted from Tapas: A Bite of Spain (Santana Books, Spain)
            by Janet Mendel
            Makes about 12 fritters

            4 ounces dry salt cod, soaked 24 hours
            1 teaspoon chopped parsley
            1 garlic clove, finely chopped
            Pinch of crushed saffron
            1 egg, separated
            100 grams (3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon) flour
            1 teaspoon baking powder
            Olive oil, for frying
            2 tablespoon molasses, to serve

            1. Put the cod in enough water to cover and bring to a simmer over low heat and cook until it flakes lightly with a fork, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain—saving the cooking liquid—and let both the cod and liquid cool a bit. When the fish is cool enough to handle, flake it.

            2. Combine the parsley, garlic, saffron, and egg yolk in a medium bowl. Beat in 1 cup of the reserved cooking liquid. Combine the flour and baking powder in another bowl. Stir the egg yolk mixture into the flour mixture until smooth. Add flaked cod. The batter should be consistency of pancake batter. Let rest 1 hour.

            3. Beat the egg white stiff and fold it into the batter.

            4. Add the oil to a skillet to a depth of 1 inch and heat until shimmering. Drop the batter by the tablespoons, turning to brown on both sides. Drain the fritters on paper towels. Serve them hot drizzled with molasses.

            © Janet Mendel. All rights reserved.

  17. Roberta says:

    David,

    Seu site e maravilhoso! Quantas receitas boas para experimentar! Gostaria de saber se o senhor poderia me indicar um site de confianca onde poderia comprar bacalhau seco (o lombo, nao aqueles fininhos que se acham por ai). Como neta de Portugues (de Soire, Coimbra), mesmo sendo Brasileira, cresci comendo muita comida Portuguesa. Agora, morando nos EUA, simplesmente nao acho bons salted cods. Infelizmente, na regiao que eu moro (Atlanta, GA) nao existe nenhum mercado onde eu possa encontrar bacalhau salgado. Obrigada e parabens por compartilhar esse maravilhoso dom culinario conosco!

  18. omer says:

    hello David, they are great eating, my mother use to make them they where real good, but now my wife does them as good. she is portuguese american.–omer

  19. omer says:

    we have a Leite family in town ludlow, mass. any relation?

    • David Leite says:

      Omer, not that I know of. But how many times have I gone somewhere and a perosn comes up to me and says, “We’re cousins.” So who know?!

  20. Olwyn says:

    I don’t eat meat but I love fish. I was looking for different ways to cook fish to add variety to my diet. This recipe is definitely one of my favorites. The taste is amazing and they were lovely and light. I used my own batter I had made yesterday, which is not as thick so the fritters weren’t as uniformly shaped or as round as these.

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Olwyn, so glad that you like them. We have lots more fish recipes on the site, please let us know if you try another.

  21. Susie Taylor says:

    Making your amazing salt cod fritters from the home of salt cod in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. They are fantastic. I was a little skeptical of the oil water batter but it worked a treat. Thanks for the great recipe.

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