Bacalhau Espiritual (Spiritual Codfish)

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.

 

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