All right, kids, I’m gonna finish this dinner party if it kills me.
During our month in Spain, despite traversing many regions with distinct culinary and linguistic dialects, a few dishes were constant. Tapas were of course an everyday occurrence, and we easily fell into a routine of a handful of favorites: croquetas, tortilla español and above all else pimientos rellenos. I’m a big fan of bacalao, the salt-cured cod, under any circumstances, but mixed into a creamy filling inside a sweet red pepper is perhaps the most enjoyable application. I knew I wanted to reproduce this for the party.
A couple weeks beforehand, I was thrilled to see muy autentico piquillo peppers appear in their explosively colorful glory at the Happy Quail Farms booth at the farmers market. I had assumed I would end up resorting to either tinned piquillos or roasted bell peppers. Eagerly, I asked how long they would have them on hand, and was assured they’d be appearing in abundance for weeks if not months. The Spanish sun was shining on my dinner plans.
I roasted the peppers, blackening the skin under the broiler for easy removal. This is my normal method of roasting peppers; in this case, however, the thin-skinned piquillos might perhaps have benefitted from blanching instead of roasting, as the flesh of the peppers became too fragile and lost their shape. Live and learn.
Salmorejo was another regular item on our table in Spain. This emulsion of tomato, bread and olive oil appears as many things — sauce, dip, soup. I figured it would make a pleasant counterpart both in flavor and texture to the pepper.
The recipes I used as foundation came from a tourist-grade cookbook we bought in Spain called, simply, Classic Tapas. We were assured by a friend in Marbella that the recipes in the book were in fact quite authentic, and indeed we saw many dishes that we had enjoyed throughout our journey. But by virtue perhaps of poor translation, many of the recipes lack precision or even omit key steps, so it is at best a guide and not a bible. Fortunately, I am comfortable enough with basic techniques, like making a béchamel, that I was able to navigate successfully.
Pimientos piquillos rellenos de bacalao
Adapted from Classic Tapas, Rafael de Haro
10 piquillo peppers
5 oz bacalao
1 large onion
1 Tbsp flour
1 Tbsp butter
1 c. milk
Soak cod in cool, fresh water for 24 hours, changing water at least three times. Drain, dry and flake.
Roast peppers under broiler until blackened on all sides. Transfer to plastic bag and seal, or into a large bowl, covering with a plate, until cool. (Alternatively, blanch peppers in boiling water for 30 seconds, then shock in ice water.) Peel peppers, discarding skins, seeds and stems.
Mince onion finely. Sauté in a small amount of oil until soft and translucent but not brown. Add fish and stir to combine. In a separate pan, make a béchamel by cooking flour and butter together until integrated and foamy. Stir in milk, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil. As soon as the mixture begins to thicken, transfer to the fish and onion combination, and combine well. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Once cool, fill peppers with the bacalao mix either with a piping bag or a spoon. You may need to split open the peppers and wrap them around the filling.
1 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 lb stale bread, cut into cubes
2 cloves garlic, cut into pieces
1 c. olive oil
Place bread, tomatoes and garlic into a food processor and process until smooth. Drizzle in olive oil while processing until it becomes creamy. Add vinegar, salt and additional oil to taste. Store in refrigerator.