There is a long-held secret to codfish casseroles in Portugal. It is like a family keeps a secret about some errant ancestor they talk about in hushed tones. The national culinary secret is that baking codfish with cream and bechamel sauce has its origins in French cuisine. “Brandade de Morue”is the provincial classic way to prepare codfish with cream and potatoes “au gratin” style and it was stolen from the French. Chef Almeida Araújo (of the then famous and luxury restaurant Cozinha Velha, in the Palace of Queluz) fell in love with the dish while he was in France. He travelled to France in the 1940s to develop new dishes he could serve at his high-end restaurant. He tried to get the exact recipe and ingredients to take back to Portugal but was unsuccessful. The French version was first developed in southern France in the 18th century and utilized the natural ingredients of the region: cod and olive oil. At the heart of the dish was what Almeida described as a divine or heavenly sauce and he went about experimenting with various preparations until he settled on bechamel and cream. With it a whole new way to prepare codfish was created and it became a hallmark of Portuguese cuisine. The term “espritual” or spiritual came about because the dish was described as heavenly and divine and it was a marketing ploy to cater to the rich and noble families that frequented his establishment. Chef Almeida’s recipe also inspired the classical “bacalhau com natas” (codfish with cream) which is similar in preparation. In my recipe I make some slight changes to this classic. Instead of boiling the codfish in water I use cream and milk to blanch the fish and save the liquid to make my bechamel sauce. This not only enriches the cod, but it also flavors the bechamel as the cream and water mixture is infused with the codfish essence. This initial step also sweetens the codfish and it in turn imparts a savory (almost umami) note to the bechamel. The next alteration I make to the recipe is to substitute butternut squash for the carrots. I like the squash’s sweetness over the carrot because it balances out the saltiness of the cod. Squash also pairs very well with the nutmeg in the bechamel. You can prepare the dish ahead of time and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to bake it but omit the breadcrumbs until just before baking it in the oven. Also, be aware that the moisture content will drop as the fish absorbs the cream over time. To remedy this just add a little more cream over the top before sprinkling the bread crumbs. You can serve the casserole alone or accompanied by some grelhos (broccoli rabe), sautéed green beans or with a side salad. It is the perfect meal for Christmas Eve.
- 4 cod fish pieces (I prefer the loin section) soaked for 4 days
- 2 medium to large onions diced
- 5 garlic cloves minced
- ¼ cup Portuguese Olive Oil
- 3 cups of shredded butternut squash
- 1 bunch parsley finely chopped
- 10 ounces of bread (crust removed) cubed
- 1 quart Heavy Cream (1 cup reserved)
- ½ stick of butter
- ¼ cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
- 2 cups Parmesan cheese
- Salt and white pepper to taste
- Soak the codfish in water for four days, making sure to change the water daily. Taste the fish (you can eat it raw) to determine its saltiness. If it is still too salty after four days continue soaking until it is just right. In a large pot make a 50/50 mixture of cream (minus the cup you reserve) and bring it to a boil. As you begin to boil the mixture make sure to keep the flame low because cream and water will boil over and burn. Take the cod fish pieces and gently place them in the boiling mixture. Blanch them for 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness. You do not want to cook the cod all they way through. You merely want to blanch it, so it will be easier to remove the bones. Once the codfish is blanched remove it gently from the cream and water mixture and place in a colander to cool and drain. Remove the cream and water mixture from the flame and set aside. Once the codfish has cooled off remove the skin and bones and break the cod up with your hands into small bitesize pieces and set aside.
- In a sauce pan melt the butter and add the flour constantly stirring with a small whisk or fork. Make sure the flour is well incorporated with the butter and cooked but don’t let the flour discolor. Cooking the flour will take 5 minutes or less. Add about 4 cups of the reserved cream and water mixture used for blanching the codfish and stir it really well to break up any clumps of flour. Pour in the grated nutmeg and white pepper. Over a low to medium flame stir the mixture until it thickens. Once it thickens add 1 cup of Parmesan cheese and mix it. Set the bechamel sauce aside.
- Place the bread in a bowl and pour in enough of the 50/50 water and cream liquid until it just begins to cover the bread. Set aside.
- Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. Using a wide and shallow pot or Dutch oven heat the olive oil and sauté the onion for 5-8 minutes until it becomes translucent and cooked through. Add the garlic and continue to cook for another minute then add the squash. Let the squash cook through for about 10 minutes or so. Add the skinned and deboned codfish to the pot and stir it to break up the fish even more. Add the soaked bread cubes and gently mix. Pour in about 2 cups of the bechamel and stir. If the mixture looks dry add some more bechamel. Your desired consistency should be akin to a bowl of cereal with milk where the ratio is equal portions of solid and liquid. If the bechamel isn’t enough to achieve this, add some of the reserved cream. Add in the chopped parsley and turn the heat off letting it rest for about five minutes. Pour the contents of the pot into a shallow pyrex or clay casserole. Drizzle the reserved cream gently over the top then add the remaining cup of Parmesan and top it all off by dusting the top with breadcrumbs. Place the pyrex casserole in a sheet pan (to collect any boil overs) and bake for about 20 to 30 minutes or until the top begins to brown and crust. Remove the casserole from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before serving. It is important to let it rest so that the contents of the casserole can reach an equilibrium. Straight out of the oven the mixture will be too liquidly. This resting will allow the cod to absorb the excess liquid and be perfectly balanced.