The Spanish region of Navarra is supplying the international marketplace with terrifically sweet, deep-tasting red peppers called piquillos; they come packed in brine in jars or cans. In Spain, it is very common at tapas bars to see stuffed piquillo peppers—as in the recipe below, where the peppers are stuffed with another Spanish favorite, bacalao (salt cod). This recipe can be completed 6 to 8 hours ahead and held at room temperature. The toothpick issue is up to you: Do you remove them from the piquillos, or leave them in? Hint: toothpicks are very big at Spanish tapas bars.
- 1 pound salt cod, soaked (see Notes)
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 small onions, finely chopped
- ½ stalk celery, finely chopped
- 1 (28-ounce) can of tomatoes, chopped, liquid reserved
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional as needed
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 8 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons all purpose flour, plus additional for dredging
- 4 cups whole milk, warmed
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Inexpensive olive oil for frying the peppers
- 3 (8-ounce) jars prepared piqulllo peppers (see Notes)
- 2 large eggs beaten with 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons chopped curly parsley
1. Place the soaked salt cod in a large saucepan, cover with water by 2 inches, and bring just to a simmer over medium-low heat. Remove the pot from the heat and let it cool for at least 30 minutes before draining. Discard the water. Using your fingers, finely shred the cod, removing any bones and cartilage as you work.
2. Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce: Add half of the olive oil to a medium skillet and place over medium heat. Add half of the onions and all of the celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden, about 10 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes, their liquid, 1 teaspoon of salt, the sugar, paprika, and thyme, and bring to a simmer. Cook gently until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pass the mixture through a food mill to make a loose, smooth puree. Taste for seasoning, set aside.
4. Make the salt cod stuffing: Heat the remaining olive oil and onions in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook gently for 5 minutes; add the garlic and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Don’t let the mixture brown. Raise the heat to medium, add the shredded salt cod, and stir well to coat with the flavored oil. Continue to cook about 5 minutes more, scraping up any fish bits that stick to the pan. Stir in the flour and, using a wooden spoon, add the warm milk, ½ cup at a time. Wait for each addition to be nearly absorbed before stirring in the next. When the last of the milk has been absorbed and the mixture resembles loose tuna salad, turn off the heat and let it cool. Season generously with black pepper.
5. Heat the oven to 350°F.
6. Pour oil into a large, heavy skillet to a depth of 1/3 inch and heat to 365°F. Stuff each piquillo pepper with about a tablespoon of the salt cod mixture and close with a toothpick. When ready to fry the peppers, dip each one in the egg and then the dredging flour, shaking off the excess. Fry the peppers in batches until golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels.
7. Place the peppers in an ovenproof serving dish and top with tomato sauce. Bake for 15 minutes.
8. Serve at room temperature garnished with the parsley.