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What the heck is bacalhau???
Bacalhau is the Portuguese word for codfish. More precisely, dried, salted cod (bacalhau fresco is fresh codfish). Long before refrigeration was invented, people preserved their meats and fish by drying and salting. While it may look a bit intimidating and not at all appetizing, I PROMISE you that once it is properly soaked and boiled, it regains its firm texture and mild taste. This dish has pleased many palates throughout the four countries I have lived in (U.S.A., France, Italy and Brazil). It is by far my most requested recipe.
I am throwing a dinner party for a few friends tomorrow night. This recipe was passed down along the women of my family (both my paternal and maternal ancestors come from Azores, Portugal). Each woman has made her own little changes according to her personal taste and so have I. While there are many versions of this dish, I am giving you MY version and how I make it. So...are you ready to try something really different? I know, I am blogging you from Tuscany and my first recipe isn't even Italian! NOTE: I cook without the use of measurements, so I will do my best to give an approximation for those who follow recipes precisely.
Christine's Bacalhau (feeds 6-8 people)
I kilo of dried, salted cod
2 kilos (about 4 pounds of potatoes)- peeled and sliced into 7 mm (1/4 inch) thick rounds
2 large yellow onions- thinly sliced and lightly sautéed
5 medium tomatoes- sliced (about same width as potatoes)
about 1 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
1 can of chick peas (cooked)
1 can of black olives (I prefer pitted)
5-6 hard boiled eggs- sliced
crushed red or black pepper, paprika, garlic powder (add all spices to your personal taste)
lots of olive oil
salt (IF needed)
THE HARDEST PART OF THE RECIPE: First you must buy a nice piece of codfish and the best comes from either Norway or the Northern Atlantic coast. My codfish vendor at the Central Market in Florence told me that he is expecting some codfish from Iceland and he wants me to try it out because it is also supposedly good- we shall see. What to look for: the fillet should be white, firm and fleshy (high). Usually two small-medium sized fillets (or one big, thick fillet) is enough to make a big casserole dish. Since this meal takes a while to make (not because it's difficult, but because it's time consuming), I usually make enough for a dinner party of 6-8 people or to have leftovers- and it tastes just as good if not better the second day! When you get home, rinse the cod, cut the fillet into halves or thirds and soak in plenty of water. Some people tell you to soak for days, but I soak from one morning to the following afternoon, changing the water frequently. No need to refrigerate, you can keep the bowl on the counter. I have provided a photo with a full fillet (right) and some chunks soaking in water (left) so you can have an idea of what to buy. Here in Italy, all the codfish is imported from Norway.
THE NEXT DAY: Now that the codfish has soaked, it is ready to be boiled. Place the fish in a big bot of water and boil until tender. Carefully remove all the fish with a slotted spoon and save the water in order to parboil the potatoes. By partially cooking the potatoes in the fish broth, they won't have to cook in the oven for so long and they will have a nice flavor. NOTE: the bacalhau should be slightly salty, but not too salty. Also, the water that the potatoes cook in should be slightly salty. While potatoes are cooking, remove all the spiny bones from the fish and all the skin, leaving small chunks of nice, white fish. Place all the chunks of fish in a bowl and set aside. Do not overcook the potatoes and remember to drain them gently- you don't want your little round slices to get mushy or broken.
THE EASIEST PART OF THE RECIPE: Now you are ready to layer the ingredients. Lightly oil your casserole dish (glass or metal is fine). Then, you will layer the following evenly (I usually do three layers, so divide your ingredients into thirds):
drizzle oil in the bottom of the casserole pan and line with potato slices
sprinkle with 1/3 chick peas
add 1/3 codfish
layer tomatoes and eggs
pepper, paprika, garlic powder and salt (optional- taste the cod and potatoes to see if they are salty enough, if they aren't add a little bit of salt)
drizzle with olive oil very generously
REPEAT 2 more times
End by drizzling lots of olive oil on top. Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 180c (about 350f) oven for about an hour or so. Check to see if potatoes are tender. If they are, turn off oven and let the casserole sit inside until it's time to serve. The longer you wait to eat, the better because all of the potatoes just soak up the olive oil and yummy juices.
To be continued...
Ok, I'm back! It is the next day and my bacalhau casserole came out wonderful. I began cooking around noon and popped it into the oven at 4:00pm- it was done in about an hour. The house smells delicious and my husband's mouth is watering, but we must wait for our dinner guests! I will take some photos and post them for you. We went out and bought some rustic, crusty bread and will be serving this savory meal with either a full bodied white wine or a medium bodied red wine. Either of these wines is fine for such a substantial dish with so much flavor and texture. I think my guests will be pleased and there won't be much left over (hopefully).
To be continued again...
Last night's dinner party was a HIT! The above recipe fed six hungry adults and I am happy to report that ALL of them had second helpings. I have provided photos for proof! Go ahead and try it out, then let me know what you think. Thank you for reading!
C. De Melo
Author & Artist