Bacalhau is the quintessential Portuguese dish for the Christmas table
If any one food is representative of Portugal, it is without doubt the ubiquitous bacalhau – dried salted cod. The mere thought of it is enough to put many people off their dinner, and seeing it looking like a crumpled slab of cardboard in the supermarket is even less appealing.
But as anyone without a total aversion to fish who has ever tried good quality bacalhau correctly cooked will tell you, it is nothing short of delicious. The problem is that even in restaurants, the dish can often turn out to be less than appealing due to either poor quality fish or incorrect preparation.
First and foremost is the quality of the bacalhau itself. Do not skimp on cost; buy the best quality on offer in your supermarket. This is usually labelled as Bacalhau Graúdo, which will be more expensive than Crescido or Corrente. The latter two are fine for stews and the like, but for most recipes the extra cost paid for Graúdo is money well spent. Secondly comes the desalting; it is absolutely vital to get all of the salt out of the fish prior to cooking.
Indeed, the perception that bacalhau is a salty dish is a complete misconception. If correctly soaked, it should require salt before eating just like any other fish. A thick cutlet of between 3-4cm should soak in water for around 40 to 48 hours. A thinner cutlet of say 2cm should soak for around 24 to 30 hours.
To soak, place the fish skin side up, preferably raised on a rack, in a large Tupperware or other flat-bottomed container and leave in a cool place – ideally in the fridge. Raising the fish from the bottom of the bowl will help the salt disperse. Then, be sure to change the water at least three times during the soaking. Once desalted, the fish is effectively fresh so it is ready for cooking. If left, it will go off much like any other fish.
It is easy to see when it is ready by tasting the meat raw, if it is still salty then it needs to soak longer. But be careful not to over-soak as this will result in the meat losing both texture and flavour.
Finally, the cooking stage is where it is all too easy to mess up. Overcooked bacalhau is dry and almost totally tasteless. As much care should go into timing the cooking of bacalhau as with any fresh fish. Aim for firm flesh, still slightly sticking to the bone.
The traditional Portuguese Christmas dinner, served on the evening of the 24th, is bacalhau in its purist and simplest form. Prime cutlets, simply boiled, served with plain boiled cabbage, boiled potatoes and a good dressing of the best virgin olive oil available, with perhaps some finely chopped garlic to liven things up. Correctly cooked with the right ingredients, most bacalhau aficionados prefer this to more complicated recipes.
But as the famous saying goes, there are 365 ways to cook bacalhau. Here is a recipe for Pataniscas (fishcakes) that I was given by one of the chefs from Vila Vita Parc some years ago. This makes a great starter dish and if made smaller a nice Christmas canapé.