Let’s look a my Portuguese word for the day: “Bacalhau” .. or as it is known in English – Salt Cod.
It was somewhat of a surprise for me to discover that Bacalhau, one of the most important and strongly identifiable ingredients of Portuguese cuisine is not actually native/ local to the Iberian peninsula’s waters. The Bacalhau or Salt Cod as it is known in English, is traditionally imported from Newfoundland or Norway and has been a staple of the Portuguese kitchen for hundreds of years after the highly successful preservation technique of salt drying was discovered some four or five centuries ago.
In recent decades however, world stocks of cod have declined dramatically, turning Bacalhau from a cheap routine meal in the Portuguese kitchen into an expensive treat often reserved for special family occasions and national holidays.
That said, Bacalhau is a treat that in my humble opinion, and according to my own personal list of “100 must-have taste experiences before I die” must be tried at least once in your lifetime, the flavour is excellent and the curing process seems to give a strength of flavour to the fish, without it to me at least, being overly “fishy” as some more oily fish are apt to be.
The first thing to do is to track down some salt cod… depending on where you live in the world this is sometimes easier said than done, but once located it is well worth the effort. The second thing is that now you find yourself in possession of a length of fish that is hard and brittle and looks like it would make a decent substitute as a softball bat should Coach accidentally misplace the junior squads’ kit bag this week.
Your dried cod will look like this:
The very first time I bought salt cod I made the mistake of buying the longest length of fish that they had in the pile, beguiled by the fact that it looked prettier than the short stubby cut pieces that were nearby.
Yes, they DID ask me in the shop if I wanted it cut, and in fact they asked twice to make certain.. but naively I said no, “no thanks, no problem, it’s fine as it is“. Wrong move, as I found out to my horror at home, faced with a dry and solid piece of fish that was easily four or five times longer than the width or depth of my largest and most cavernous cooking pot.
My dear husband, once he finished wiping the tears away from his face from laughing so hard at my dilemma, came to the rescue with a handsaw and diligently hacked away at my treasured find, while I swiftly came to the conclusion that the learning curve for dealing with this simple fish was steeper than I first imagined… or that I was indeed dumber than I liked to think.
The moral of the story is of course: buy the small bits or gratefully accept the shops offer to cut it for you, because in the end you will be picking this fish off it’s bones and not serving this as a length of fish, so it’s appearance in it’s salted form really doesn’t matter.
What does matter however, is that wherever possible you should try and buy pieces that are all roughly the same size and thickness, as this will help you to get a more even cooking time once you are ready for that part of the process.
Oh well, at least said husband knew from previous Portuguese travel experiences that Bacalhau was worth his sawing efforts, and the bonus was that our hand-saw got the scrubbing of it’s life both before and after the Bacalhau surgery so having done at least one item in the family tool kit a favour, I was ready to tackle the business of cooking my brand new finned friend.
Actually, after this shaky start it all turns out to be far easier than I had thought, in fact I liken dealing with Salt Cod to making your first pastry from scratch: you sweat about it for ages, then muster up the courage to do it and once you actually brave your fears and get into it you discover than it’s far easier than it looks and wonder what on earth you ever worried about in the first place and why didn’t you get around to doing this years ago?
The process is alarmingly simple but it does take time… and the time is something you can’t take a short-cut on, the soaking process is fundamental to the success of your recipe.
Immerse your Bacalhau in a large pot of clean cold water, and let it soak for a minimum of 24 hours, changing and refreshing the water several times during the soaking period.
Refresh the water around your Bacalhau one last time and add the following ingredients to the pot:
2 lb salt cod (1 kg)
1/2 cup white vinegar
2-3 carrots, diced ( use several if they are small)
3 celery ribs
1 onion, cut into quarters.
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried parsley or few sprigs fresh parsley.
This favourite recipe is my basic starting point, but over time I have amended it somewhat in that usually I throw in some peppercorns ( only a few, if I am too lazy to pick them all out later ) and if I am better organised I make a small boquet-garni of whole black peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley and tie them into a little muslin bag that then gets tied up and goes into the pot. If your family is like mine and celery is not in their top 10 ( or even 50 ) vegetable list, then I sneak in more here, ditto the onion and I never do things by halves so I usually shove in several bay leaves. We like flavour in our house. Bring it on… the bolder the better.
There is no salt in the recipe because of course the fish bought the salt with him, and even after a through soaking the residue should easily be enough to complete and compliment the rest of the seasonings.
Now bring your water to the boil and simmer until your cod is just cooked though (about 15 minutes for my pieces) Don’t be tempted to overcook it or the texture of the fish will not be as nice in your finished dish.
Now you have successfully “dealt with” your Bacalhau.
All that remains is to carefully remove the skin and bones so that you have a wonderful pile of fish all ready to add to your favourite Portuguese Bacalhau recipe.
Now that you have mastered the Bacalhau preparation process, See wasn’t that easy? Usually I buy as much fish as I can get into two of my biggest pots, I soak and boil both and then, once the fish has been prepared and off the bone, I bag meal sized amounts and get what I am not using right away into the freezer. This means that when you want to make a different Bacalhau recipe another time, you can skip straight to the recipe and the most time consuming part has already been taken care of.
Soon I will be introducing you to some of my favourite recipes recipe that uses the cooked fish flakes that are before you…