If you ever go to Portugal, there’s one thing you have to try at least once: bacalhau. Honestly, bacalhau, is just the Portuguese word for cod. What’s fairly unique about it in Portugal is the way it’s been preserved: with salt. This tradition dates back to the Roman occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and has been maintained since, the main difference being that most of the fish caught nowadays comes from Norway.
In my experience salted cod is endemic to Portugal and is hard to find abroad. One has to rely on a dedicated Portuguese shop. It requires some forethought to cook, as it has to be soaked for 24-48 hours beforehand. The salting process leaves you with a particularly salty fish, so you should add minimal amounts of salt when cooking. What’s easier to use is the fish that’s been salted, soaked, and frozen (demolhado e ultra-congelado is the slogan to a popular brand in Portugal). These tend to have lost most of the salt, so adding salt while cooking isn’t as delicate a process.
There are a fabled thousand-and-one ways of cooking it. Espiritual, à Gomes Sá, com natas, cozido com todos, roupa velha… we even have two types of bacalhau fish cakes! What I wanted to share with you this time is a widespread classic that is relatively simple to make: bacalhau à brás.
Bacalhau à brás consists of bacalhau, onions, garlic, eggs, and batata em palha. Batata em palha is one of those things that seem endemic to Iberia, as I seldom see it outside the peninsula. Resembling its namesake (palha is Portuguese for hay), it’s potato cut into thin strips and deep fried. Apparently, it translates as shoestring potatoes, and there’s a recipe for it on epicurious.
I got the recipe for bacalhau à brás from a Portuguese website and made alterations of my own, because I just don’t seem to like following recipes.
- 400 g salted cod
- 500 g potatoes
- 6 eggs
- 3 onions
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- olive oil
- black olives
If you got salted cod, let it soak for 24-48 hours, changing the water halfway. I had frozen cod, so I took out about 500g (aka whatever I had left) of that and let it defrost. The recipe said I should take out the bones and tear the fish apart by hand whilst raw. I said no! What I did was use a technique that applied to another bacalhau dish. In Portuguese, it shares a name with blanching, but it’s really more of a conservative poaching. Put the kettle on and place the fish in a pot. Pour the boiling water over the fish, cover the pot, and wrap it up with one or two tea towels. Leave it for 20 minutes. After that, the fish will be mostly cooked and will easily come off the bone and flake out.
While waiting for the fish to poach, you might as well start getting stuff ready. Because we’re all responsible adults who time manage appropriately. Grab a match and place it beside your chopping board. Peel and cut your potatoes so that the pieces match the matchstick (pun, unbelievably, not intended) and deep fry them. I avoid deep frying, mostly because I’m scared, so I tried baking them. They ended up a bit like hash because I didn’t space them out properly. Although not ideal, it was okay. Here’s a couple of cheats: if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere you can easily buy shoestring potatoes, just do it; if you don’t live somewhere you can easily find shoestring potatoes and can’t be bothered to make them, cheat the same way my aunt does—buy some McDonald’s fries and use those (1½ large portions?).
Cut the onions into thin rings. If you’re not confident in your knife skills, cut the onions lengthwise to give you a flat side on which to lay them, then cut those into thin half-rings. Crush and chop the garlic cloves. Heat up 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat and sweat the onions and garlic.
Once the onions are soft and translucent, fold in the fish so that it is covered in oil.
Now, this next step might require you to move quickly, so that the potatoes don’t end up too soggy. Lightly beat your eggs together and season them with salt and pepper. Fold the potatoes into the pan and then add the eggs. Once the eggs are in, mix the whole thing with a fork whilst removing the pan from the hob. Ideally, the residual heat will be enough to cook the eggs. You can bring the pan back to the hob just to give it some extra heat, but don’t leave it there too long—eggs are easy to overcook. Kind of do it like Gordon Ramsay does here. The moment the eggs are cooked and creamy and fluffy you have to serve it. Everything else can be done hours ahead, but the potato’n’egg addition is done right before serving. It is usually presented in a tray from which everyone helps themselves, but if you want to be fancy you can serve them in individual ramekins. If you want to be quirky, go for the ever-quirkifying mason jar.
The dish can look extremely yellow, so garnish it with plenty of coarsely chopped parsley and some black olives. I tend to serve with some steamed rice, but that’s something I’ve learnt to be done only by my family. To avoid carb-loading serve it with a salad.
I made this dish sometime in the early Summer of 2012 to celebrate the fact that my friend was going to spend a year in Portugal. I was able to see her this past April and she said that the one I made her was still the one to beat. Not saying I’m great or anything, but, ya know…