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Bacalhau March 3, 2010

Posted by inspiredbywolfe in Fish, Vegetables, Wolfe recipe.
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‘”Bacalhau?” Wolfe demanded.

“Yea. I happened to mention we were having it for dinner and she asked what it was and I told her, and she said salt cod couldn’t possibly be fit to eat no matter how it was cooked…” ‘ (from Prisoner’s Base)

Bacalhau (this is the Portuguese spelling, it’s also known by the Italian name baccala) was not something I’d tried before. I became curious while reading Prisoner’s Base as I generally enjoy salt fish dishes, and this one seemed a bit different to other salt fish-type dishes I’d tried.

To start with, I had to get some of the salt cod. I decided for a number of reasons I’d buy some salt cod rather than attempting to make my own – maybe I’ll try that next time. Luckily, the deli I usually shop at stocks trays containing various amounts of salt cod, and I bought just under a kilo.

I started the day before I was cooking the bacalhau, by soaking the salt cod in water. The recipe instructed me to soak it for 24 hours, changing the water 3 or 4 times. What this photo doesn’t show is the amount of salt and little bits of fish that came off the main pieces each time I changed the water.

Over the 24 hours, the fish did get noticeably softer and absorbed a fair amount of the water. The next day, when I was ready to cook the dish, I began by putting the fish into a saucepan with cold water, heated it until it boiled, then simmered it for about 15 minutes.

While that was simmering, I prepared the vegetables. The recipe in The Nero Wolfe Cookbook called for potatoes, but I decided to use a combination of white radish and turnip. I thought they’d give a bit more flavour variation than using potatoes.

I also chopped up two onions, and a couple cloves of garlic. I cooked the onions in some butter and also added the garlic. I boiled the turnips and radishes at the same time.

By this time, the fish had finished cooking. I drained the water, cooled it down enough to handle, and began on removing the bones and skin, and flaking the fish. This wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences! The skin had gone super gelatinous, making it hard to pull off neatly, and bits of skin got everywhere! On the whole the bones were quite large and easy to pull out, although there were some smaller ones I missed. At the end, I had a bowl full of flaked fish, and hands covered in bits of fish skin! I did taste a bit of the fish at this point and was surprised how salty it still was, despite the 24 hours of soaking and the 15 minutes of simmering. It wasn’t too salty to eat, but it was definitely still salt fish.

With all of the ingredients prepared, it was now time to assemble the dish. I buttered a casserole dish, then layered half of the turnips and radishes, then spread some of the onions on top of this. I added the salt cod as another layer, then put black pepper on top. Then I repeated the whole thing again. I sprinkled more pepper and breadcrumbs over the top of the whole thing. I placed the casserole dish in the oven and baked it for 15 minutes. Here’s what it looked like when it came out of the oven.

The recipe in The Nero Wolfe Cookbook advised boiling some eggs and put them, some chopped olives and parsley on the top as a garnish. I decided to skip the boiled eggs, and garnished the bacalhau with olives and parsley.

So, the verdict: to be honest I think H enjoyed this dish more than I did. I thought it was nice enough but not brilliant. The saltiness of the cod was balanced with the radishes, turnips and onions but I found the overall flavour of the dish a bit boring. The parsley was a nice touch, cutting through some of the saltiness and giving a contrast to the fish.

I think one issue I had with the dish was the amount of preparation time versus the end result. I’m more than happy to start preparation on a dish a day or even a couple days before if I know the end result is worth it – in this case I’m not sure if it was.

All in all though, it’s safe to say that salt cod is definitely fit to eat and provides an alternative to some other fish dishes. I can see how this would be a nice element to a larger meal and indeed this is how Nero Wolfe eats it.

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