Back in the 1930s Basque Country, mid and high class girls that attended school at a late age (16-18 years old) were not taught the same things as boys. Instead they would learn something called "general culture", which consisted of music, sewing, etiquette and cooking classes. They were taught how to be the "perfect lady and housewife". My grandmother was one of those girls. She was a very good cook and could nail any dish, no matter how complex it was, and would serve it in a very beautiful way.
One of the recipes she was taught was the traditional "Bacalao pil-pil" (Pil-pil cod). As years passed by, it became my grandma's greatest hit as it was the most demanded dish every time any son, daughter or grandchildren went to visit her.
The recipe itself is more about ability than about the ingredients... It's a quite tricky. Actually, the best restaurants in Bilbao and San Sebastián are rated for the quality of this 3 ingredient recipe!!
But no panic, here is a complete guide to a great grandma's Pil-pil cod.
Step 1: Ingredients and Cookware
INGREDIENTS (for 2 people)
0.5kg Cod Fillet, preferably from the upper part of the cod, where they are thicker
1 Garlic Clove, which will help emulsify the sauce, so it is not an optional ingredient (sorry if you don't like garlic)
200ml Olive Oil (best quality you can find)
2-3 slices of Dried Chili Pepper
*Salt: Traditionally, cod was preserved in salt, so if you buy salt cod you will have to eliminate the salt and rehydrate it by putting it in a bowl with water for 48h (changing the water every 12h). In this case you will not need to add any extra salt when cooking. If the cod you are using is fresh (our case), then salt will be needed.
Any frying pan can be used to cook this recipe. Traditionally, a Terra-Cota clay pan (aka. "Cazuela de barro" in Spanish, or "Cassole" in French) was used because it preserves heat very well (and most times was the only one available). The main problem with this cookware is that it cannot be used in induction or electric stoves. In addition, the bottom is not completely flat, so heat is not equaly distributed if you put it on a flat ceramic stove.
Step 2: Aromatising the Olive Oil
- Cut the garlic clove into thin slices (1-2mm).
- Put 150-200 ml of olive oil in the pan. The right quantity is determined by the thickness of the cod fillets, the amount of fillets in the pan and the size of the pan. The objective is to cover about half of the thickness of the fillets. The sauce will be made out of the olive oil you put in the pan, so the amount of sauce will be as much as the amount of oil you use. The more sauce you want, the more oil has to be used.
- Add the sliced garlic and the 2-3 slices of chili pepper.
- Heat the oil up until the garlic starts frying. The goal is to cook the garlic at the minimum temperature possible because we want it to send out all its aroma to the oil, so we need to maintain it in the oil as max as possible.
- As soon as the garlic turns GOLD (not brown because it will spoil the taste of the whole dish), take it out of the pan (the chili pepper too) and save them for later.
- Move the pan away from the stove. We need the oil to cool down to about 60ºC in order to confit the cod.
Along with the chopped garlic, two cloves have been added. They will become candied garlic, which you can peel and eat directly. It has a sweet taste.
Step 3: Cooking the Cod
The cod in this recipe must be confit, not fried. The process will be done at a temperature of around 60ºC. If the temperature of the oil is too high, you will not be able to make the emulsion that creates the Pil-Pil sauce. The whole process must be carried out at this low temperature.
- Once the oil has reduced its temperature to 60-70ºC, put the cod fillets in the pan with the skin side down. There's a big debate about whether if it's better to put it first with the skin downwards or upwards. I think it is better to put it downwards as most of the juices that contribute to making the sauce are in the skin and adjacent areas.
- Now salt the fillets. Do not put too much salt. The taste of the sauce with the garlic will be strong enough to flavour the whole dish.
- After the first 3-5 minutes of cooking the cod, a few white drops will appear in the oil. This is the other component of the sauce. It is convenient to move the pan gently in circular moves while the cod is releasing this liquid to help the cod release all of it and to start creating the sauce. Keep moving it until the fillet is cooked.
- The total cooking time will depend on the thickness of the fillet:
If they are not thick, they will only be cooked from one side and will not be flipped because the cooking temperature is low that heat will reach the upper part of the fillets and they may come apart.
If they are thick, like the ones I used, cook them for most of the time with the skin downwards (20 min) and then flip them and cook them with the skin upwards for 2-3 minutes. In the picture above you can see how the fillet is being cooked with the skin upwards because it's very thick and you may notice all the white drops it has released.
It is highly recommended to pick a thin fillet for the first time you cook this recipe and increase the hickness as you learn.
Step 4: Making the Sauce
Tradidionally, the emulsion was made by moving the pan in circles for 1.5-2 hours with the fillets in the pan. However, the emulsion can also be made by stirring the oil with a colander. For practical reasons, this is the most used method in every Basque household and also the one used here.
- Once the cod fillets are cooked, take them out of the pan and put them on a dish.
- For combining the two ingredients of the sauce, the oil and white liquid released by the cod must be at 50-60ºC. Start making energic mixing moves with a small colander. If the temperature is on point then you will soon see how the sauce appears. Keep mixing until you get a homogeneous mix.
- Now add the cod fillets, garlic and chili pepper back in the pan and cook it atlow heat (40-50ºC) for 5 minutes.
If you are following the steps but you see that the "magic" doesn't happen it may be for one of these reasons:
- Temperature too high. In this case, let the oil cool down for about 3 minutes and try again.
- Too much oil compared to the generated white liquid. In this case, you need to put some of the liquid that the cod has released on the dish while you have been working on the sauce. The more you put the thicker the sauce will be.
Step 5: Presentation
Serve it along with some chopped parsley and some candied garlic cloves (confit garlic cloves that end up having a sweet taste that both kids and adults love).
A dry white wine is recommended.