Sunday, 15 November 2009


With the Vatican and the Israeli right wing still reeling from my latest denouncements and obscurantist clerics of all denominations trembling for what may be in store, I have decided to take a short break, so as to give unto the world one of the food recipes, for which I am justly famous - though among a group that is still too limited.

It is of course my variant of Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.

Bacalhau is dried and salted cod, a product traditionally sold by countries in northernmost Europe to Roman Catholic Iberians to ensure that whatever the season or weather, they have fish available for Friday evenings. In northern Europe, this food, called klipfisk or stokfisk, is despised, which is understandable, if you have tried it the way my mother prepared it in my early childhood (being both rational and kind-hearted, she stopped the practice). In Spain and especially Portugal it was discovered that dried cod and olive oil make a superb combination; it is difficult to describe how and why, but even people, who don't usually like fish are often convinced by an Iberian bacalhau dish. One of the most famous of the over 100 Portuguese recipes is the one invented in Porto in the 19th century by Sr Gomes de Sá. There is, however, room for improvement. The Portuguese have a number of fine traditional dishes, but are often stuck with certain fixtures such as sprinkling eggs in places, where they may add a nice visual touch, but at the cost of a negative influence on the flavour. And why they are so reluctant to use wine in cooking, escapes me.

So here we go:
1 kg bacalhaus (salted and dried cod)
1 kg medium size potatoes
4 - 5 medium-size onions
1 small whole garlic, peeled and chopped
As many black olives as you like
1 generous cup olive oil
Parsley chopped
1 bottle of white wine

Soak the cod in cold water for 12 to 24 hours,changing the water 2-4 times. This is the critical part of the preparation. If you soak for too long or change too many times, you lose too much of the prized dry cod flavour; if you do too little, it will be too salty. This of course also depends on how thick the pieces are.

Boil the fish in fresh water for 15-20 minutes depending on the shape of the pieces. Pour off the water and set aside to cool.

At the same time boil the cleaned but not peeled potatoes for 10 minutes, using the last change of water from the cod (dilute if you think it is too salty).

With your bare hands, split the cod into gross flakes, remove skin and bones (use a knife if needed).

Slice the half-boiled potatoes as well as the onions.

Heat 3/4 of the olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry the onions to light golden. Add the potatoes, most olives and all fish and stir gently to avoid crushing the potato pieces too much. Add some herbes de provence, if you feel like it. Mix in the garlic (which loses too much flavour if thoroughly fried).

Place it all in a large oven-proof dish, place some olives on top for visual effect, pour 3/4 of the wine over it and bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 oC for 30 minutes. Allow the top surface to become golden and a little crusty, but check a couple of times and if it looks too dry, add more olive oil and wine. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Best results are obtained by preparing in the morning or day before, allowing to cool and heating thoroughly just before serving. The longer the ingredients interact, the better.

Which wine? Any good heavy duty white wine will do. I would not use a chablis and certainly not a vinho verde. Most local Portuguese wines would be OK, but the ideal might be a sauvignon blanc, or a Riesling for fruitiness. I haven't tried with red wine, but hope that somebody will be adventurous enough to do so. In contrast, we have often accompanied this dish with red Alentejo, Côte du Rhône or other substantive stuff.

Bon ap'!