EAT Magazine March-April 2013_Victoria_48_Layout 1 2/27/13 11:25 AM Page 27
food matters — by Julie Pegg
Worth Its Salt
Salt cod, a Portuguese staple, finds its way into some delicious fusion recipes.
OLD GENTS sporting tatty caps and frayed jackets of once-fine tweed gather on the pavement in front of International Fish Market in Hamilton, Ontario. Coffee and cigarettes permanently in hand, these guys sip and puff and chat loudly, often over each other mostly in Portuguese. I hear a good smattering of Italian too. The shopping bags anchored off their arms bulge with potatoes, sausage, peppers and dried fish. The fish is heavily salted cod or, in Portuguese, bacalhau, a staple of Portugal ever since that country’s fishermen began hauling cod from Newfoundland’s Grand Banks more than 500 years ago. Stepping past this merry band, I enter the musty plank-floored shop. Past jars of spicy condiments and tins of tomatoes, I spot a whack of preserved cod piled in an old meat case with the windows popped out. There are large and small cod—some bone-in, skin on; some de-boned, skin off. Some are creamy white; others are slightly yellow or grey-hued. Prices range from four to eight dollars a pound. Alas, I lack the language to ask which fish are best or used for what. (I will read later in Lidia’s Italy [Knopf, 2007] that thicker fish are less salty.) Beside the case, wood crates with still more fish are stamped “Norway,” “Nova Scotia” or simply “Canada.” The shopkeeper approaches, points to the grey-hued fillets from Nova Scotia. They are “good price and very good.” Shrugging, he points to a pair of broken tongs. I take the plunge and come away with a couple of pounds of cod, a few links of chourico, a sausage very like Spanish chorizo, and a few waxy potatoes. I too have a bag dangling from my arm now and grab an espresso from the coffee shop next door. Back in the kitchen, I begin to divest the cod of its salt coat, a two-day process of bathing the fish in a glass (never metal) dish filled with ice water. The water must be changed regularly to remove most of the salt. The desalinated cod is pearl-white, firm fleshed, keeps its shape in a slow simmer of water or milk, yet flakes easily with the nudge of a fork. My initial experiment many years ago with salt cod was ghastly. I didn’t know the fish needed desalting and I also boiled it to a horrible rubbery consistency. Following
more trial and error, a pal and I finally riffed on a delicious, garlicky potato and olive oil puree called skordalia. Blending in flakes of desalted, gently poached bacalhau, we hadn’t the foggiest notion that our velvety Portuguese/Greek spread was a reasonable facsimile of brandade de morue, a dish common in the south of France. But it sure went well on our homemade crispy pitas. This time I follow Elizabeth David’s recipe (French Provincial Cooking, Michael Joseph, 1960) for authentic creamy brandade. I add the required milk but mash the potato and fish mixture (instead of pureeing). The chunky mélange serves as a bed for David’s oeufs Benedictine. I place a poached egg lovingly on the brandade, but swap the sauce hollandaise for chopped chives and add a few slices of fried chourico. This makes one fine brunch. Other Elizabeth David salt cod recipes feature the fish with morue red wine sauce; baked with shallots, garlic, parsley, onions and lemons; and lightly flour-dusted, fried then simmered in tomato sauce. Not long after my successful brandade experience, I wander into Sea King Fish in Toronto’s Kensington Market. The friendly Portuguese fishmonger tells me the custom of wind- and sun-drying cod before salting has gone in favour of indoor heat drying. (Unsalted dried fish is known as stockfish.) Soon I’m snacking on Portuguese salt cod and potato dumplings—a buck a pop—from the Market Bakery. I also start chatting with Maria, a Portuguese-Irish woman who quickly recites her mother’s “lasagna” recipe— salt cod layered with onion, chourico and, of course, potatoes. I seem, suddenly, to have quite the salt-cod repertoire. Back in Vancouver, I miss Ontario’s Portuguese market vibe. Fortunately, I can buy good quality bacalhau from our better Italian markets. So I’m off to ferret out a salty fillet for Maria’s “lasagna” and Lidia’s creamy baked Baccala alla Trevigiana—for spooning over crispy polenta. If I’m lucky, I’ll also stumble on a bit of sidewalk entertainment equal to the likes of Hamilton’s. For Maria’s Portuguese lasagna, check out www.eatmagazine.ca.
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