The first time I tasted this dish I was in paradise on earth. After exploring the Douro valley of Northern Portugal where grapes for port wines are grown in one of the most dramatically beautiful landscapes in all Europe, we crossed the rolling mountains of the Beira Alta by car. After being too late for the midday meal we were served repulsive Spam-like luncheon meat on overcooked pasta in a surreally dodgy lunch cafe further north. During the early evening, we traversed dense forests and misty weeping-willow lined rivers, ending up in a somnolent townlet so tiny it only had one restaurant. There were no menus and only one or two dinner options. A bit apprehensive, we let the lady who was in charge of the establishment serve us whatever she had prepared for the night. So started the meal that belongs among my top 5 restaurant experiences during this new millennium…
Later on we learned that the dish we enjoyed there is not uncommon in Portugal and among Portuguese immigrants elsewhere. Famous enough to earn its own wikipedia entry, it is called bacalhau à brás. The Swedish classic Jansson’s frestelse (known in Finland as Janssonin kiusaus) is clearly of shared lineage, although I’m a bit ambivalent about anchovies and feel the Portuguese dried-cod version is better amalgamated and far more delicious.
Near New York City, you can get a sampling of authentic bacalhau à brás in the Ironbound section of Newark. This neat working-class neighborhood has a setting considerably less idyllic than Beira Alta, just off the New Jersey turnpike airport exit, a very short distance from the scarred industrial moonscape that houses one of the most blighted urban slums in Northeastern US.
Recreating legendary restaurant meals at home is usually a pretty futile task. Supposedly, I’m watching my weight right now and trying to eat as healthfully as possible. Too bad my cupboards are full of temptations – for example a pound of bacalhau. Well, dried fish is not exactly unhealthy, just the company it keeps… eggs and oil by the bucketful. This was my first attempt at a bacalhau dish, but the results were so delicious that I almost couldn’t believe it. Also, this is definitely the first time I find myself cooking from a wikipedia entry. I decreased the bacalhau-potato ratio because the cods of the North Atlantic have been overfished to near extinction.
Bacalhau à Brás
250-300g of bacalhau (dried codfish)
500g of potatoes, julienned into matchstick-like pieces
2 onions, finely chopped
large quantities of canola or corn oil for frying
2-3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
6 eggs, slightly beaten
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
0.5dl chopped parsley
Soak the codfish for 24 h, changing the water 3-5 times to get rid of excess salt. When the fish has softened, check for bones and cut into pieces with kitchen scissors.
Peel and cut the potatoes into long, thick matchsticks. Rinse several times until the water remains clear; drain in a colander. Heat the oil in a large skillet, fry the potatoes till golden. (I use oils more suitable for heavy-duty frying and less expensive than high-grade olive oil for this purpose and enhance the taste of the dish by using good oil later in the process). Transfer the potatoes on a plate lined with kitchen towels to absorb excess fat. Next, fry the chopped onions in the oil until lightly browned. Put aside, and stir-fry the cod in the remaining oil.
Heat a little olive oil in a thick-bottomed kettle. Infuse the quartered garlic clove until golden, then remove. Add half of the potatoes and all of onions and bacalhau. Lightly beat 6 eggs in a bowl, season with freshly ground black pepper, then add this mixture into the kettle. Stir gently over a low heat, not unlike scrambling eggs: when the eggs are firm, take away from heat; add the chopped parsley. Just before serving, add the remaining fried potatoes to maintain their fried crispness. Decorate with black olives if desired and serve immediately with good crusty Portuguese bread and wine.
The meal is pretty substantial – don’t plan on doing anything more important than taking a nap or viewing one of Manuel de Oliveira’s slowmoving films a few hours after this meal.