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.