Bom dia! Crowded Earth Kitchen is writing today from Belém, Portugal. For food history buffs, Belém is a heady location. Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan both set sail from the port just down the cobblestone road from our kitchen. These giants of the Age of Discovery set food cultures on a collision course, bringing the flavors of India and the Spice Islands to the Iberian Peninsula and into much of Europe.
Food aboard ship was another matter entirely, as the absolute priority was long term food preservation. Salt cod, known in Portugal as bacalhau, was invented during the 15th century to supply Portuguese explorers with non-perishable food on long ship journeys. It is culturally significant even today, sold in Portuguese markets both in giant slabs and small packages. After soaking to rehydrate, it can be eaten many ways. One of the more popular preparations is pastéis de bacalhau, or salt cod and potato fritters, described below.
Ingredients (Serves 6)
1 pound (450 grams) bacalhau
6 medium/large yellow potatoes
1 cup Portuguese olive oil, divided
1/2 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Step 1) Cover bacalhau with cold water and refrigerate for two days, changing water at least twice each day.
Step 2) After two days of soaking, bring a pot of water to a boil. Add bacalhau and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain, and set aside to cool.
Step 3) Gently boil whole potatoes for 20-30 minutes or until soft. Drain, and set aside to cool.
Step 4) Using a medium size pot, saute onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil for 5 – 8 minutes or until soft and clear. Remove from heat.
Step 5) Peel cooked potatoes (peel will slide right off) and add cooked potatoes to the onion and garlic. Mash potatoes (it doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth) with onion and garlic.
Step 6) Take your time here; this step is slow and a bit messy for a bacalhau beginner! Remove the skin and bones from your cooked bacalhau, and shred the bacalhau as much as you can. We tried using a set of forks for this, and found it easier to simply use our hands.
Step 6) Add shredded bacalhau and eggs to the potato mixture, and fold all ingredients together to combine thoroughly. The mixture should be sturdy enough for a spoon to stand upright. If it’s too thin, add a bit of flour. If it’s too thick, add a bit of milk.
Step 7) Add two tablespoons of olive oil to a 12 inch skillet over medium high heat. Cook four pastéis de bacalhau at a time, spooning approximately 1/4 cup of potato/cod mixture into the skillet for each piece. Flatten slightly with the back of a spoon, and pan fry on each side for approximately 3 minutes or until golden brown. Repeat in batches of four until mixture is used up. Serve immediately with a simple salad and your favorite table wine.