Last night we had two friends over for dinner, and I was in charge.
- red cabbage salad with avocado, carrot, pumpkin seed, figs, and a honey-mustard-almond butter vinaigrette
- Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá with tomato pesto garnish
- steamed aspargus with Argentine reggianito cheese
- dessert: cherry and almond clafoutis
I began to search for a way to prepare bacalhau after a Spanish friend brought a dish of red peppers stuffed with salt cod to a dinner party at our apartment a few months ago. The cod in bechamel sauce was a perfect complement to the roasted peppers, and Pedro insisted that "it was the easiest thing in the world to make." Was it? I wasn't convinced.
Though I had seen the sheets of flat, dried fish at La Rosa Fine Foods and other bodegas up here in the Heights, and I'd certainly eaten plenty of bolinhos de bacalhau (cod fritters) during my time in Brazil, I was always a bit intimidated by the raw look of the fillets, and the fact that they required an overnight soak. This fear is somewhat unwarranted, I must admit now that I've made the dish, because soaking salt cod is about as easy as soaking beans, which I do at least once a week.
Leite's Culinaria provided me with the recipe for Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, but before I was ready to try making it, I wanted to know what it tasted like. A few weeks ago we went to Via Brasil, a Brazilian restaurant near Times Square, and I ordered an uninspiring version of the dish, drenched in too much oil, the fish almost flavorless, the potatoes without seasoning. Yet I suspected that the recipe had the potential to be so much more; it shouldn't be hard to bring out the flavor in the combination of cod, potatoes, and onions -- almost like a tortilla española with some Portugues cod thrown in for variation, ¡a la portuguesa!My suspicions were correct: made in a large cast-iron skillet in the oven, this version of Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá was just as I had hoped: easy, mellow, and rich. I added a couple of eggs and a few tablespoons of cream to the mix before popping it in the oven, and the result was fantastic!
When I told my mother about my determination to find some use for bacalhau, and my fond memories of Brazilian cod fritters, she responded with her own recollections of the New England version: fried cod cakes that her great-aunts made for her in Maine in the 1950s. I'm not surprised that cod, so strongly linked to the Portuguese-Atlantic trade, has now made its way full circle in my kitchen: from the waters of colonial New England to imperial Portugal; from the Portuguese colonies of the Azores to its crown jewel, Brazil; and from Brazil to New York, Atlantic metropole:
B A C A L H A U is in my blood and on my dinner table.