Like many Cuban Americans, I grew up eating bacalao a la vizcaina (codfish Basque style), rehydrated slabs of dried codfish cooked in a typical tomato, onion and pepper sauce (sofrito). Not very inspiring, really.
That desiccated fish from the North Atlantic became a staple on a Caribbean island is an anomaly of history -- a gift of immigrants from Spain's Basque region. And unless one's ancestors were among them, we Cubans generally are not masters of cod.
Bland in its fresh state, cod benefits from salt-drying. The process concentrates the flavor, and the reconstituted fish, if treated properly, has wonderful taste and texture.
It was not until I visited Spain that I experienced the full glory of salt cod, particularly in a sublime Basque preparation called bacalao al pil pil: The fish, soft and pillowy, swims in a bed of creamy, golden sauce.
Later, when I dared to try cooking it, I discovered there is no cream in the sauce. It is, instead, an emulsion of olive oil
and the juices emanating from the fish as it cooks, ever so slowly, in a pan that is shaken by hand for 20 minutes or more. (The name comes from the Basque pilpiliar, ''to shake.'') In my hands, alas, the emulsion curdled and the dish was a disaster.
When a new Basque restaurant, Sinfonía, announced the pil pil dish was on the menu, I rushed there not only to eat it but to learn the secrets of making it from chef Jaime Pérez, 72, who was born in a town near Bilbao.
Pérez begins with salt cod loin from Norway (''The best comes from Scandinavia,'' he says, echoing age-old wisdom), and soaks it for 36 to 48 hours, changing the water frequently.
He cooks garlic cloves slowly in extra-virgin olive oil to flavor it, then discards the garlic. He pours the oil into a clay pot and heats it on the stove. He puts the cod in the oil, and for half an hour moves the pot up and down while the fish releases its juices.
If the sauce is too thick, he adds a few drops of water. Finally, he removes the pot from the fire, but keeps shaking it while the fish and the sauce finish cooking.
''Clay takes a long time to heat, but also a long time to cool down,'' Pérez explains.
His pil pil turns out beautifully, as does his bacalao a la vizcaina. The latter is quite different from what is served at local Cuban restaurants, although, like the Cubans, Pérez uses tomatoes in his sauce rather than the traditional pimientos choriceros, a mild Spanish chile he says he cannot get here.
The Basques mastered salt-cod cookery because they dominated the cod trade from the 11th to the 16th century -- an epic story Mark Kurlansky tells in his award-winning book, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
(Walker, 1997). For a wealth of salt-cod recipes, however, no one can beat their chief competitors on the Grand Banks,
The menus at Old Lisbon on Coral Way and the newer Coimbra on West Flagler Street are full of cod dishes. Coimbra's chef-owner, Fernando Santos, offers such classics as reconstituted loin of cod, grilled and served with a sauce of oil, parsley and garlic -- a dish of austere simplicity. Other cod dishes revel in excess: potatoes, egg, cream sauces, mayonnaise, the works.
Santos, too, sings the praises of Norwegian cod, although he complains about the prices. Canadian cod is an alternative. (Overfished to near-collapse, cod is relatively scare and commensurately expensive today.)
''You can take advantage of every part of the cod,'' says Santos. ''The cheeks, the tongue, the liver.'' Bone-in cod is tastier than the deboned loins, he says, but only hard-core cod fans, usually Portuguese or Brazilian, insist on it and call ahead to have it made.
Coimbra also serves bacalhau à Brás, a Portuguese comfort food that I've had almost every time I've dined with Brazilians. It's nothing but shredded cod with fine strips of onion and fried, shoestring-cut potatoes, all scrambled with egg. It's a dish that can evoke home even in someone like me, who never had it at home.
There is one dish at which all salt-cod eating nationalities excel, and that is fritters: Cuban frituras de bacalao, Portuguese bolinhos de bacalhau, croquetas de bacalao -- the latter good not only at a Basque emporium like Sinfonía but at every Spanish restaurant in town. Everybody gets it right, even Yankees, whose fish cakes are made with cod.
And, having learned some of chef Perez's secrets, I'm ready to tackle bacalao al pil pil again in my own kitchen.
Any time now.