It’s not often a country’s most iconic ingredient is not native to the area; however, that is exactly the case with bacalhau, or dried and salted cod, one of the most popular ingredients in Portuguese cuisine. While the old adage goes, “There are 365 ways to prepare bacalhau in Portugal, one for every day of the year,” in actuality, there are said to be 1,001 recipes including bacalhau in the country.
Typically produced in Norway, Iceland and Newfoundland, bacalhau was first discovered 500 years ago. Due to a lack of refrigeration, the Portuguese people tried salting and preserving the many varieties of fish found off its Atlantic coast. Eventually, they discovered the ideal fish for this process off the coast of Newfoundland and began fishing its waters. Soon, it was pervasive in Portuguese cooking, an everyday staple in many households. It became especially popular in the predominantly Roman Catholic country because it could be enjoyed on the many days per year the Church forbade eating meat. Today, due to overfishing, among other reasons, bacalhau is more expensive. It is now served mostly on special occasions and, in some parts of the country, is the traditional Christmas dinner.
Before preparing any of Portugal’s popular bacalhau dishes, the soaking process is fundamental. In a large pot of cold, clean water, soak the fish for at least 24 hours, changing the water several times. The salted cod must then be boiled; to flavor, vinegar, carrots, celery, onions, parsley, peppercorns and such can be added before boiling for 15 minutes. Once skinned and de-boned, the bacalhau is ready to transform.
From here, bacalhau can be broiled, fried, stewed, grilled, roasted — you name it — and is traditionally served with potatoes. Among the most common, and tasty, transformations are bacalhau com todos, served boiled with vegetables, hard-boiled egg, olive oil and garlic; bacalhau à Brás, prepared fried rice-style with potatoes, onion, scrambled eggs and olives; and bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, similar to the à Brás preparation, but the fish is soaked first in milk, then roasted and served with hard-boiled egg. Also frequently seen are bolinhos de bacalhau, fried balls of bacalhau and potatoes. Oven-baked varieties include à ze do pipo, when milk-soaked cod is baked with onion, mashed potatoes and mayonnaise and garnished with olives; and bacalhau com natas, like a potato gratin with cream and béchamel.
Whichever way you prefer your bacalhau, there’s no denying the many ways this non-native ingredient has come to characterize Portuguese cuisine.
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