Bacalhau Com Natas (Salted Codfish With Cream Casserole)

What can I say about this dish that hasn’t been said many times over?  It is a classic Portuguese dish featuring what is perhaps the most iconic protein in  Portuguese cooking: Salted Codfish.  The Portuguese conquest of the globe (they discovered 2/3 of the known world) was driven by the need for fishing grounds from which to catch cod and supported by its sea salt industry.  Both these ingredients were a natural fit because codfish, caught hundreds (and even thousands) of miles from Portugal,  was quickly preserved in salt below the decks of ships.  The process was dangerous since it involved dropping tiny boats (called a dory) in the water occupied by one man.  The fisherman and his dory would deploy from the main fishing vessel and only return when the small boat was full of fish.  Often boats and men were lost in the fog or rough seas never to be found or heard from again.  Even if you made it back to the ship the processing of the cod, which involved cutting the fish in half,  caused injury which if infected meant amputation or death. The men would bunk below decks often surrounded by salted codfish on the return home.  It was cramped and smelly and their diet consisted mostly of fish, primarily codfish.  I have known former cod fisherman who never ate codfish again in their lives.  There are of course many versions of this dish which was created by chef João Ribeiro in the 1930s.  My version is taken from my dear friend and great Portuguese chef Agostinho Gomes   (Augie) currently the chef of Taste of Portugal in Newark, New Jersey.  Augie prepared this dish for the Les Marmitons cooking club (which I was a member for a brief period) back in 2011 and it was a huge hit.  The dish is typically found on the menu of all Portuguese restaurants the world over but it is mainly a Sunday special as the preparation is extensive.  This is not a weeknight meal but it can be prepared ahead of time and stored frozen in an oven proof dish.  I actually make extra and put it in small single serve casseroles. I freeze it and thaw in the refrigerator during the day.  When its time to make it during the week I just pop it in the oven for about 30 minutes and it tastes delicious.  Please note that you must use salted codfish.  Fresh codfish or haddock won’t work.  You must also soak the cod for several days before using it.  I explain how to do that in the instructions below.

 

Bacalhau Com Natas (Salted Codfish With Cream Casserole)
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Bacalhau Com Natas (Salted Codfish With Cream Casserole)

Ingredients

  • 4 pieces of codfish (about 3lbs)
  • 2 onions, peeled and diced
  • 6 eggs
  • ½ gallon cups milk
  • 1/2 pound of potatoes, peeled and cut into one inch dice
  • ¼ cup of regular flour
  • 3 tablespoons of margarine
  • ½ tablespoon of pepper
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • 1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 whole nutmeg for grating (you will need about ¾ teaspoon)
  • Roasted red peppers to garnish
  • Portuguese olives to garnish

Instructions

  • • Several days ahead of cooking the dish soak the cod pieces in fresh water for three days. Change the water at least once every day. Taste the cod (yes you can eat it raw as it has been cured with the salt) to see if it is the right saltiness for you. If not continue to soak for additional time until you are satisfied with the salt content.
  • • Boil the eggs and chop once cool.
  • • Cook the codfish in a pot with equal amounts of milk and water (enough to just cover the fish) until the codfish is cooked through.
  • • Remove the codfish and reserve the milk/water mixture. Drain the codfish and let cool.
  • • Once the codfish is cooled skin and debone the fish. As you set aside the codfish meat break it up with your hands along the same way you would do with pulled pork. The consistency should be a rough shred and not a fine shred.
  • • Meanwhile fry the potatoes in vegetable oil and set aside.
  • • Take the diced onion and sauté it with the margarine until it is translucent.
  • • Add the flour and make a rue.
  • • Add salt, pepper and ground nutmeg and then add reserved milk/water mixture and cook until a béchamel cream is formed. Add half the reserved liquid at the beginning then add more to reach the right consistency. Remember you can always add liquid but you cannot remove it.
  • • Combine the béchamel, cod fish, potatoes, eggs and the heavy cream. Again add the heavy cream a bit at a time to get the correct consistency. It can vary by the water content of the fish, temperature and humidity. You don’t want it to liquidly.
  • • Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs.
  • • Place into an oven proof casserole (or individual ramekins if you want to freeze it for weeknight use) and cook in the oven until a brown crust forms on top.
  • • To serve garnish with roasted red peppers and Portuguese olives.
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