Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"Fake-alao" -- daing na labahita masquerading as bacalo a la vizcaina

Sometimes the best bequests have no material value but carry a lot of sentimental value. 
Or in this case, a lot of culinary value. 

This is my late Tita Nery.  She was married to a favourite uncle and ninong, my Ninong Toto.  
Growing up, I didn't see her much but we re-connected when I visited her in the States where 
we quickly bonded over our shared interest in cooking.  
She was a generous and enthusiastic cook and shared quite a few of her favourite recipes-- 
the best of which was her bacalao a la vizcaina.  
On one of her visits to Manila, she stayed in our home and we cooked bacalao a few times until 
she knew that I had finally learned how to do it.  
I have since done it on my own a number of times and it's been a success with family and friends each time I have prepared it.

Bacalao is a traditional Good Friday meal -- at least it was when I was growing up.  My father 
cooked it infrequently since bacalao was hard to come by and extremely expensive.  
Times have not changed much -- there are just a handful of specialty food stores that sell good bacalao and it has become even more expensive.  At almost P2,000 per kilo, it's certainly not something you would cook often.
Last Holy Week when I was in Lucena for a few days I found a dried fish vendor in the public
market with a stack of daing na labahita or dried salted surgeon fish.
Labahita is firm, fleshy, flavourful.  When dried and salted, it is a frugal, practical substitute for bacalao.  Caviteño cooks swear by this as they use labahita to make an inexpensive version of bacalao.

I did not change Tita Nery's recipe at all except that I substituted P400 per kilo labahita for P1,900 per kilo bacalao.  The other ingredients are black olives, canned diced or crushed tomatoes, lots
and lots of red bell peppers, potatoes and of course, olive oil.

Tita Nery's bacalao is easy to make but the prep takes a long time. 
The dried labahita needs to be soaked and washed to remove much of the saltiness.  Just a tip
and reminder -- daing na labahita is a lot less salty than bacalao so there is no need to 
soak it in water for too long.  You will lose much the saltiness which is what makes
bacalao a la vizcaina so good.  Deboning and shredding the labahita also takes quite a bit of time.  Make sure you remove all the bones, specially the tiny ones.

In lots of olive oil, sauté the onions and when translucent, add the flaked, deboned labahita.  
When the fish is cooked, add the rest of the ingredients -- tomatoes, the roasted and sliced bell peppers, olives and the diced, pre-fried potatoes.  Simmer for a while and it's ready to eat!

The labahita worked just fine in this a la vizcaina recipe.  As I mentioned earlier, next time I will not soak the daing as much to retain more of the saltiness of the dried fish.  This goes well with rice but
I prefer eating it with slices of toasted baguette or sourdough bread. 
I hope Tita Nery is not rolling her eyes up there in heaven -- I think she would have approved of my "fake-alao", she was a natural and inventive cook who appreciated a culinary twist or two.
Thank you Tita Nery for this delicious and priceless culinary bequest!


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