I don’t know from when or with who exactly, but I have a memory that has accompanied me for many many years of dried, salted codfish. I see myself in Colmado Cruz, a small market store in the Las Palmas district of Utuado. In shelves, I can see and smell bacalao (cod). Dark in color, dried and with a particular smell to it. I know it was a long time ago because that store in my older preteenage and teenage years was not a full store.
Later, in the ’90s, when my dad and mom owned and managed a small eatery, also in Utuado, I remember my mom buying cod filet, not at all the same feel and look of the dried version.
Codfish to me was related to older people, people from the past and rigid traditions. My abuelita, my mom’s mom, cooked a bacalao guisado that was probably the best I have ever tasted. Very oily, which made it perfect to pour over viandas (root vegetables or starchy vegetables). Abuelita used to serve it a lot for lunch.
Although the Spanish started bringing Atlantic Cod Fish to Puerto Rico at around 1510, it took a halt after 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for the British Crown all the way until the 1700s. By then, Puerto Rico started receiving cod from British ships to feed soldiers and slaves alike as it was cheap food and at the same time very high in protein.
As the prices stayed low and religious beliefs were impregnated in Puerto Rican families, cod became a first source for protein and for meat abstinence.
Puerto Rico’s diet was mostly based in carbohydrates. Cod was a great buy because it was dehydrated and salted which kept if for long periods of time. Fresh meat was a luxury, even if you raised livestock yourself, as it was difficult to keep. So cod became known more like a poor man’s food.
Another food that was related to low economic classes was corn and all products related to it. Cornmeal as a carbohydrate was not very common in free people’s kitchens. As corn made it to Africa between the 1600s and 1800s, slaves that arrived in Puerto Rico saw in corn a familiar food.
In today’s Puerto Rico, as explained in Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra’s book: Puerto Rico en la Olla ¿somos aun lo que comimos?, Corn is still related to hunger and poverty. It reminds people of the Great Depression when cornmeal was most times, all there was to eat.
Before the 1900s, corn was a slave food mostly.
Tainos gave us corn, cornmeal, and cornbread. Africans gave us various ways of processing and cooking corn.
Nowadays Guanimes con Bacalao is even an exotic dish from the past. Served mostly in specialty eateries, food festivals and in some rare house kitchens.
My wife Mariela loves Guanimes. Cornmeal is mixed in boiling water or coconut milk. Once cool a bit you roll the dough into a cylinder form, wrap it in banana leaves and then boiled again.
On Holy Thursday morning I sent a Whatsapp text to my mom, asking for her recipe of bacalao guisado (stewed cod). Se quickly sent and I compared it to the recipes found in books and the internet. Although all very similar, some variations were evident.
Mariela was working all they out of the house. So I figured I would cook for her something that she really likes. So I started searching for recipes and went to the market. There are banana trees in my garden, so I went and got the leaves out back.
Started boiling, rolling and wrapping the guanimes. The mixture I used was about five cups of unsweetened organic coconut milk mixed with about a cup and a half of the water used for boiling the cod. Also added half a cup of brown organic sugar.
First time ever I prepared those, they came out pretty good if do say so myself!
For the cod, I followed, mostly, my mom’s recipe. I added fresh tomatoes and tomato sauce (about a tablespoon). But the scent coming out of the pan was one that threw me back to Paso Palmas, the Utuado neighborhood I was raised in. Sofrito, garlic, and achiote were sizzling on the pan. For the oil, I used coconut and avocado oil, both organic.
I server in the middle of the plate two guanimes, topped that with the bacalao guisado, all over them.
Mariela was happy and I was happy I made her happy and kind of proud of myself, as I cooked the guanimes for the very first time ever and from scratch like it was done decades and probably centuries ago. With the exception that the coconut milk was bought instead of handmade.
With the Catholic tradition embedded in Puerto Rican culture, Holy Week is still respected by many, although not in the same ways as in the past, the distant past. But many recipes developed in this time of year that today have made it to mainstream Puerto Rico.
It is for this religious reason that in most eateries in Puerto Rico, cod is served on Fridays, as the Catholic Church prohibited its followers to eat meat on these days.
So for my wife, I managed to cook a very historic dish that has in its roots Taino, African, British and Spanish origins and that shaped and popularised by slavery, poverty, and religion.
5 cups of unsweetened coconut milk
1.5 cups of salted water ( I used the water that boiled the cod)
Half cup brown sugar
Four cups cornmeal
In a deep pot mix coconut milk with salted water and sugar, when boiling, take out of the fire and mix in the cornmeal. When you have a dough consistency, mas roll into a cylinder shape, wrapped in banana leaves, tied at ends. As my mom told me, banana leaves must be put briefly on fire so it is easier to handle and guanimes can be wrapped.
2-3 tablespoons Vegetable oil, I used coconut oil and avocado oil
Two tablespoons of achiote sauteed in oil to bring out the color, flavor, and scent
2 tablespoons of sofrito
1 tablespoon of minced garlic or two cloves
3 tablespoons Diced green pepper, I used bell pepper
2 tablespoons of fresh tomatoes
2 tablespoons of tomato sauce
1 Boiled eggs
Half white onion, julienne
1 pound of Atlantic Cod
Heat oils, add sofrito and garlic. Add achiote oil, diced peppers. About two minutes later add onions, let them caramelized. Add cod, mix for about a minute. Add a little water (I used to big spoons of the water where I boiled the guanimes). Mix, add the two eggs cut in pieces. Mix and let cook for another minute or two.
In a plate, add two guanimes, unwrap. Pour over the cod stew. Eat!
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