When I page through a cookbook from Portugal, or look at Portuguese recipes online, I am impressed just how powerful Portugal once was and how it brought to its eating and cooking parts of the world that remain with it today.
In Portugal’s case, the east-west traffic with its colony, Brazil, gave Portugal foods such as chocolate, potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum peppers and the turkey, the latter widely eaten in Portugal at Christmastime. (For its part, Brazil got the vine, pigs and, interestingly, via Portugal’s holdings in Africa, sugar cane.)
In 1497, the Portuguese seafarer Vasco de Gama set sail for a water route east around Africa and on to India, the center of the spice trade and, consequently, capital at that time of one of the world’s more valuable commodities markets.
De Gama brought back to Portugal a wealth of spices still tasted throughout Portuguese cooking: mustard, peppercorns, nutmeg and cinnamon, to name but four.
Consequently, the Portuguese were some of the first cooks to use what we consider to be a modern technique, the spice rub. In one well-known dish from the north of Portugal, a pork stew called rojoes, cubes of pork are rubbed in a cumin-based spice rub before being braised with wine and garlic.
On his way around Africa, de Gama visited Mozambique, which along with Angola later became a Portuguese colony. Africa influenced the modern Portuguese menu with such foods as fresh coriander (cilantro) and what the Portuguese call piri-piri, a chili sauce using a small, hot pepper. In Portugal today, if you ask for a bottle of hot sauce at a restaurant, you get a bottle of piri-piri.
And then there is bacalhau: dried, salted cod.
I have read that there are 1,000 recipes for bacalhau. Or that there are as many ways to prepare bacalhau as days in the year. I do know that some years ago, on a four-day trip through Portugal, I was served bacalhau nine times, often in two ways during the same meal.
Bacalhau is the Portuguese national protein. A Portuguese eats about 22 pounds of salted, dried cod a year.
The Portuguese make fritters of bacalhau. They scramble it with eggs and potatoes (today’s recipe). They boil it and bake it and grill it. They make cocktail cakes with it, and casseroles, and cook it with rice. As far as I can tell, the only time it isn’t served is at dessert.
For centuries, Portuguese cod came far from Portugal, in the North Atlantic waters off Newfoundland and Labrador, where the Portuguese had hauled their nets since the late 1400s. Such was the reach of the Portuguese fishing fleet.
Nowadays, Portugal imports about 95,000 tons of cod, most of it from Norway. Of this, 61,000 tons are brought in fresh and salted and dried in Portugal. Little is fished anymore and, moreover, there are modern versions, much favored by young Portuguese, of already-soaked or frozen bacalhau.
Convenience in food is the case today with most countries, Portugal included. But perhaps to an extent not seen in many other countries, certainly west European lands, Portugal for a very long time sought out and brought back the latest in foods.
Bacalhau à Brás
Serves 4-6. This recipe comes by way of a friend of mine, Rui Abecassis, who lives near Lisbon and works there in the olive oil and wine businesses.
- Scant 1 pound dried, salted cod (bacalhau in Portuguese; bacalao in Spanish; baccalà in Italian; see note)
- 1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into matchsticks (or grated on the large holes of a box grater), squeezed and patted dry
- 7-8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, separated
- 1 large onion, peeled and sliced into rings
- 1 head garlic, cloves peeled and crushed (or less, to your taste)
- 6 eggs, lightly beaten
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Fresh flat-leaf parsley, to taste
- 18-20 black olives, to taste
Take the dried cod and soak it. (See note on procedure.) When ready to cook, remove the skin and bones and break it apart with your hands. Set aside. In a large skillet, fry the potatoes, in batches, in 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, about 7 minutes a batch, until they are golden brown and slightly crisped. Set the potatoes aside to drain on brown paper bags or thicknesses of paper toweling.
Meanwhile, in a large deep pot, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil and cook the onions and garlic until golden, anywhere from 10-15 minutes. Add the pieces of cod and cook for 4 minutes, stirring gently, until the fish softens and everything soaks up the oil.
Fold in the reserved potatoes and stir while adding the eggs, cooking the eggs until they are just set, about 3 minutes, minding that they do not harden. Add pepper to taste. Serve the bacalhau hot, garnished with the parsley and black olives.
Cook’s note: To soak bacalhau: Rinse it well under cool running water to remove surface salt. Place it in a large, deep, non-reactive, oblong-shaped platter or container and add enough cold water to cover by at least 2 inches. Cover the container with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 12-18 hours, changing out the water a few times depending on the size and thickness of the cod. Nibble on it during the last hours and, if it remains too salty, change the water again and soak it for a few more hours. Mind that you can always add salt to a recipe but you cannot take it out once it’s in.
Sources for dried, salted cod — by whatever name — in the Denver area include Tom’s Seafood & Specialties in Lakewood, Spinelli’s Market in Park Hill and, get this, any Safeway can order it for you at its fish and butcher counter. (Just ask; if the counter person needs a prod, tell them that it is available via its wholesaler, Northeast Seafood.) It’s usually in the range of $13-$15 a pound. Online, bacalhau is available multiple places but check here for a good Portuguese-run, Massachusetts-based source, portugaliamarketplace.com.
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