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Cooking the Classics: Portuguese Bacalhau

Cooking the Classics: Portuguese Bacalhau

A look at one of the most iconic Portuguese dishes: bacalhau a gomes de sa, prepared with salted codfish, eggs, black olives and anchovies.

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Recently I tried one of the many variations on the most Portuguese of ingredients: salted, dried cod, or bacalhau. Bacalhau appears in many national cuisines under similar names (bacalla, for instance, in Catalan or the more exotic klippfisk in Norwegian, which means “cliff fish”), but its origins come from practical rather than gustatory traditions.

Salting and drying any meat or fish is an efficient way to preserve it. Think of air-dried prosciutto, sundried tomatoes, salted capers, and you get the idea. This is nothing new, and of course it makes sense to seek a preservation method for fish, which is fresh for only a few days at best—too brief a period to be functional as sustenance on long sea voyages, for instance.

What is bacalhau?

Bacalhau is, very specifically, cod dried with salt (without salt, dried cod is called stockfish). While it is most associated with Portuguese food, it was probably first produced in Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. But salt was extremely expensive until the 17th century (so expensive and valuable that Roman soldiers sometimes received a portion of their pay in salt, salaria, from which the word “salary” is derived).

To prepare the fish, the head is removed, as are the guts. It is then brought to shore for drying (traditionally outdoors, in the wind, as you would a leg of prosciutto) and then packed with salt. In order for cod to survive long voyages or time in a pantry, it was preserved and the question of how it was eventually processed into delicious food is where the raw ingredient began to reflect whichever culture happened to purchase and prepare it.

The name has its origins with the natives of Newfoundland, who called dried cod something like bacal, as reported by explorer John Cabot, and thus that became the prefix for many foreign terms for the ingredient, from Croatian bakalar to Maltese bakaljaw. The Portuguese version was said to have been learned from Basque fishermen working the waters of Newfoulndland.

Bacalhau is inedible unless it is rehydrated, hence the bathtub soaking that first piqued my interest. Once rehydrated, it can feature in all manner of dishes, and was popular in Catholic countries as a dish for Lent and fish Fridays.

In order to try cooking this myself, I decided to opt for a traditional Portuguese recipe, called bacalhau a Gomes de Sa. There are supposedly over 1000 recipes featuring this ingredient, in Portugal and in its various colonies, but this seems to be the most frequent.

First, a confession: I’m really not a fish guy. I’ll eat it, but I don’t get excited about it. Unless it’s a destination-worthy specialty at a restaurant, I’d rather order meat or a vegetarian option. If I encounter a fish bone I get turned off, and just about the only type of food that I know I don’t like, having tried it on many occasions, with an open mind, and each time having found my mind quickly closed again, is small, salty fish: anchovies, sardines, mackerel. Not my cup of tea.

How to rehydrate the salted codfish

I bought and brought home my salted cod. You're supposed to soak it in water for up to two days, changing the water several times. The water rehydrates the fish and removes the salt. I bought a fish that was small enough not to require my bathtub, so a flat pan was put to use. I changed the water twice a day for two days.

Various recipes reassured me that changing the water only twice, and soaking it for just one day would be sufficient. But I had an overly-salty-fish phobia, so I figured extra soaking and water changing would be good. The fish plumped up and now looked like a moist, inflated, formerly dried giant bat. Yum.

How to Make Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa

Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa is a specialty of Porto, and so I popped open a bottle of port wine, and had to make my way through half of it to gather the courage to dismember my main ingredient. Who was Gomes, you may ask? The story is that he was a member of a wealthy cod merchant family, but his fortune was lost, and he had to work as a chef. He got a job cooking at Ristorante Lisbonense in Porto, which became known for this dish, his specialty.

The recipe turns out to be easy, once I got past the ingredient intimidation. A casserole, you just cube the fish, boil it briefly, separately boil potatoes and hard-boil eggs, and sauté onions and garlic. Layer these ingredients in a casserole pan, with olive oil and black olives between the layers. Then bake.

You know what? It’s good. Having rehydrated salt cod, I felt as though I’d overcome one of life’s minor hurdles. I must report that, given the option, I’d still order meat at restaurant, but I can say that I have faced my salted, dry demons and been won over. Now how about the second half of that bottle of port?

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