Esqueixada (pronounced “Es-kay-sha-da”) is a Catalan word that means “shredded.” In the case of this popular Catalonian dish, it refers to bacalao (salt cod), which after desalting and rehydrating, gets shredded by hand, before being transformed into this simple, satisfying, delicious salad. As with most dishes in Spain, ask anyone how they like to prepare it and you will get lots of different variations. Some people add a little diced tomato, others add some diced red bell pepper, and some like to add a little splash of vinegar (sherry or red wine).
The important part of esqueixada that everyone can agree on is the bacalao, good black olives (generally with the pits still in them), thinly sliced onions of some kind, and your best olive oil. Really, that’s all you need. A few years ago Rosa and I were dining far from Catalonia, in the beautiful, historical Portuguese city of Guimaraes, and were served a very similar salad of just bacalao, very simply dressed with beautiful black olives, crisp red onion, and a generous amount of great olive oil. It was insanely good, and made me realize that all the little additions people sometimes put in esqueixada are totally unnecessary.
I’ve served this simple satisfying version to many people, Catalans, Americans, Latin Americans, other Spaniards, and everyone always loves it. Don’t let the simplicity fool you. You can serve this in any setting whether ultra-casual eating on the back patio with the BBQ going, or as a course in a formal dinner party.
Use your best extra virgin olive oil to dress this salad and get good black olives that still have the pits in. Preferably from Spain or Portugal, but any good black olives will work.
You can use spring onions (just the white parts), sweet onions, or red onions. You can add bell pepper, tomato, or a splash of vinegar, but I highly recommend trying this extremely simple version first. It really doesn’t need anything else.
Migas de bacalao - the cheaper, scrap pieces of salt cod
For this recipe, you can use any pieces of bacalao that are available. “Migas de bacalao,” the less beautiful, scrappy bits which are often sold much more cheaply than the fat loin pieces or large sides of fish, are my usual choice. Besides being cheaper, migas also tend to desalt more quickly than the bigger pieces. Regardless of what type of bacalao pieces you use, just make sure you pull off and discard any stringy connective tissue or skin and bones when shredding it up for the salad.
8 oz bacalao
6 oz (about 1 cup) good black olives (not pitted), preferably Spanish
½ small sweet onion or red onion
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil – the best quality you can get
Desalt and rehydrate the bacalao: 2 days ahead, rinse the pieces of bacalao in cold water to get rid of the salt clinging to the surface. Put them in a large bowl or casserole, and cover with water. Change the water, rinsing off the bacalao in between, a couple times per day. Note: If you are using big, thick, meaty loin (lomo) pieces, you may need to soak an extra day or two to get them fully desalted. If you aren’t sure if they are desalted, just pull a tiny little piece out of the middle of the flesh and taste it.
Prep the onions: Cut the onion in half lengthwise, and cut into very thin julienne slices, place them in a container covered with very cold water and leave in the fridge until ready to use. Note: this is NOT a traditional way to deal with the onions in Catalonia (or anywhere else that I know of with similar salads. It’s actually a trick that I was taught by a Peruvian chef/coworker when he was teaching me ceviche many years ago. Leaving the onions in very cold water takes a little bit of the harsh raw edge off of them, while also making them very crispy.
Shred up the bacalao: This is traditionally done just by pulling it apart into little pieces in your fingers (and the name means shredded). I will often thumb my nose at the traditional and just dice it into nice little pieces with a knife. Do what feels better to you. The important thing is to get rid of any little bones, really tough connective tissue, and skin.
Assemble the salad: simply drain the onions, toss with the bacalao and olive oil, then mix in the olives. Serve with crusty bread.