Many years ago, in most Mediterranean countries, salt cod (or Bacalao as it´s called here) was poor man´s food. Whole cod was salted, then dried in the sun to be stored and used when fresh fish was scarce. Nowadays, it´s become rather a luxury item, in the same way that offal and bizarre cuts of meat have become trendy around the world.
Fortunately for us, Portugal is only about 4 hours´ drive away, so we get to have a few breaks there every so often throughout the year. Also fortunate for us is the fact that the Portuguese consume huge amounts of Bacalao and sell it at greatly reduced prices. The supermarkets there will sell you anything from small flakes of cod to flavour soups and stews, to entire cod which they can chop up into portions with special electric saws. Before it´s rehydrated, the salt cod is tough but bendy, and it would be virtually impossible to cut it up at home.
On our last visit we stocked up, as it can be frozen, and have enjoyed many meals with our “Souvenir of Portugal”. Sadly we´re coming to the end of the supply, but on the plus side, this means we´ll have to plan another little break over there.
When you´re anticipating eating salt cod, you have to plan ahead. De salting it can take anything from 2 to 5 days, depending on the thickness of the fillets you have. Of course, you can also use fresh cod, in which case you can just go straight ahead and cook.
Put your fillets in a container which will allow them to be completely covered in water. If it´s hot, put the container in the fridge, but it´s not necessary if the weather is cooler. Try to change the water at least 3 times a day and test the cod by holding it up to your lips. Then lick your lips! You´ll know when it´s ready when it has lost that strong salty taste, although it will always retain a small trace of it. Just be warned, dried salt cod doesn´t smell too great. Overcome any revulsion you may feel, the finished dish won´t taste anything like it smells right now!
There are many, many ways of preparing salt cod – deep friend in batter, roasted, grilled, poached in sauce. This is a simple recipe which, once the cod has been desalted, is relatively quick and easy to prepare.
For 2 people you´ll need
- 2 large salt cod fillets, desalted
- 2 large potatoes roughly chopped and boiled for 5 minutes
- A cup of broad beans (use the pods too if they´re tender) chopped and blanched for a minute or two
- An onion finely sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic finely sliced
- About 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- Black pepper
- A lemon
If you´re lucky enough to have a terracotta cooking pot, do use this as it seems to add something to the flavour. If not, don´t worry, a deep frying pan will work just as well.
Put the oil, garlic, onions, potatoes and beans into the frying pan on a very low heat. You will now slowly braise these in the olive oil until all the vegetables are tender. You don´t want to brown them, so keep the heat low and half cover with a lid or some foil. Stir occasionally to get them all covered in your lovely olive oil. Incidentally, this style of cooking potatoes is known in Spain as “a lo pobre” or poor man´s style. Usually they´re done with strips of green peppers though, and not broad beans.
Once the vegetables are ready, lay your cod fillets on top, skin side up. Cook them gently for about 3 or 4 minutes (without moving or prodding them) or until the underside is no longer opaque.
Flip the fillets over, they´ll now only need a minute or two to finish cooking.
Remove from the heat and serve with plenty of lemon to squeeze over. I also like an extra drizzle of “raw” olive oil, but if you´re watching the waistline (as I really should be doing) then leave this out. You probably won´t need to add any salt, but taste it first and decide for yourself. ¡Buen Provecho!