Salt Cod

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on July 27, 2005

There are some places in the world where not being a meat eater is harder than others.  South Korea  comes to mind, where our hosts constantly wanted to honor us by serving us meat, only to be bemused when I refused the expensive treat. In Poland it was the same thing: meat galore.  Italy ? Even with all the pasta and risotto available, my nonmeat-eating caused some consternation. “What, you don’t eat any meat at all?” one puzzled man asked me. He paused, trying to grasp it. “But you do eat rabbit?”

The latest cross-cultural challenge to my nonmeat-eating habits was on a recent trip to Portugal. There, they have gorgeous vegetables, which they throw into the stew pot with meat, of course. But I don’t face the same difficulties that vegetarians do since I eat fish and, believe me, the Portuguese have some incredible fish. Not only do they pull an abundance of the fresh variety out of the sea, but they are also inordinately fond of bacalhau, the dried fish we call salt cod.

Salt cod is pretty much what it sounds like: fresh cod, gutted and split, salted heavily and dried. Salting was originally valued because it preserved the cod caught in the northern Atlantic as it traveled south to the sunny climes of Spain, Portugal, Italy, southern France, and the Caribbean. Now people like it just because it tastes great.

If you want to read more about the trade in cod, I highly recommend Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Kurlansky went one further in a later book, Salt: A World History. Between the two of these fascinating books, he’s got bacalhau covered.

But the Portuguese don’t want to read about salt cod; they want to eat it and, like their southern European neighbors, they take it very seriously. Just walking into a grocery store in Lisbon was an education. In the U.S. we are not, as the British say, spoiled for choice. But in Portugual the selection is amazing; the cod is graded and stacked high in piles of stiff white crystalline slabs of fish. Shoppers take it home, soak it in fresh cold water for a day or two (changing the water frequently) and the fish plumps up as good as (and some would say better than) fresh.

Now, I have loved salt cod since a Norwegian friend of mine, who has a wicked way with fish, made me a fabulous Spanish salt cod stew, all rich,
flakey fish and spicy tomato broth with new potatoes and olives. I was amazed that this stiff-as-a-board fish, sparkling with salt crystals and smelling like a, well, like an old fish, could cook up into such an tantalizing, fragrant dish. Granted, the flavor was strong, but not at all fishy – and more than offset by the bold and vibrant flavors it was cooked with.

After tasting Jan-Inge’s wondrous stew, I have ordered salt cod whenever I’ve had the chance, which isn’t all that often here at home.

In Portugal  I seized the opportunity to eat salt cod every day, a simple matter since the Portuguese seem to have more ways to eat salt cod than the French have cheeses. Culinary highlights of my trip were fat slabs of roasted salt cod with spinach and fried onions; shredded salt cod with fried shoestring potatoes, lightly scrambled with eggs; salt cod fritters; and salt cod baked with salt (!) with new potatoes and braised cabbage. Every dish was spectacular.

I ate my fill, but, only temporarily sated, came home hungry for more.

Fortunately, both the Butchers Block and Sahara Mart carry salt cod, and I’ve been trying to replicate those wonderful meals ever since.

This is not an authentic Portuguese dish, since it is a cross between a Bacalhau Estufado (codfish stew) and the concoction that Jan-Inge cooked up for me many years ago. Whatever it is, it’s great.

Salt Cod Stew

1/2 to 1 pound skinless, boneless salt cod (available at the Butcher’s Block or Sahara Mart)
1/4 cup olive oil, as pungent and fruity as you can find
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 large can tomatoes with juice, broken up
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1 pound new potatoes, cut in wedges or 1-inch cubes
1 cup pitted olives (you can use the Greek kalamata, which I prefer, or green Spanish olives like Manzanilla)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro or flat leafed parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the cod in fresh cold water for at least 24 hours, longer if necessary. Change the water every couple of hours, especially at the start and when you think it is close to being reconstituted (it will look plumper and more like fish). You will have to taste it to see if enough salt is out. It won’t hurt you (one Portuguese cook I ran into loves to nibble it as she prepares dinner) and it’s the most reliable way of getting this right.

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or large pot. Saute onion till translucent, add garlic and cook a minute or two until fragrant. Add tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon, and paprika and wine if using. Cook until thickened, about 20 minutes, adding some water if it gets too thick.

Meanwhile, boil the potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain them.

Drain the cod, remove any remaining skin and bones, and cut into bite-sized chunks.

Add the potatoes and cod to the sauce and simmer until cod is opaque, about 10 minutes. The fish can get chewy if over cooked, so keep an eye on it. Add olives and chopped herbs. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve in bowls, with bread.

Serves four to six.

This is authentic Portuguese stuff, a specialty of the Lisbon area. Serve with a salad for lunch or as a light dinner.

Bacalhau a Bras

Eggs Scrambled with Salt Cod, Onions and Potatoes (From Jean Anderson, “The Food of Portugal, William Morrow, 2001)

1/2 pound skinless and boneless salt cod
3 medium onions. peeled and sliced thin
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups peanut oil (for deep frying the potatoes)
2 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into matchsticks
10 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley (preferably flat-leaf)
12 large oil-cured black olives

Soak cod as in previous recipe. Drain and shred finely, set aside.

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil over moderate heat five to six minutes, until onion is golden. Turn heat down, cover, and cook gently 10 minutes. Add the cod, mix well, cover again and cook over low heat for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Heat peanut oil in a deep pan to 375 degrees. Dry potato as much as possible between paper towels. Fry in four batches, stirring to keep potatoes separate as much as possible. Drain on paper towels.

When cod has cooked for 25 minutes, add half the potatoes and cook, stirring constantly, about two minutes. Add eggs, pepper, and half the parsley and cook over moderately low heat, stirring the eggs occasionally, two to three minutes until softly set.

Mound egg/cod mixture on plate, sprinkle with the remaining parsley, potatoes and black olives.

Serves four.

This French dish is easy and delicious served with crusty bread or garlic toast as a first course. 

Brandade de Morue

Based on a recipe in Patricia Wells’ “Bistro Cooking,” Workman, 1989)
1 pound boneless, skinless dried cod
2-3 boiling potatoes, peeled
3/8 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper.

Prepare the codfish as in the Salt Cod Stew recipe. Place soaked, drained cod in a large saucepan, cover with cold water, and bring to a simmer
over medium heat. Immediately remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 15 minutes. Drain, remove any bones or skin and tear into bite sized pieces.

Cook potatoes in boiling, salted water until tender. Mash with a fork.

Scald the cream in a saucepan, remove from heat. In a separate pan, heat olive oil until hot, but not smoking.

Place cod and garlic in food processor and pulse to mix. Add potatoes and pulse. Add oil in a stream, pulsing occasionally, being careful not to
overwork cod. When all oil is incorporated and mixture is smooth, add cream and pulse til fluffy and smooth.

Season to taste with pepper. Serve in a bowl with toasted bread.

Serves six to eight.

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