Growing up in the hinterlands of Brazil did not help me much with my knowledge of seafood. There used to be a salesman that showed up in the village perhaps two or three times a month driving his dilapidated truck on those dusty roads announcing very loudly over speakerphone that sardines had swum all the way somewhere in the Atlantic to our neighborhood five or six hours inland by car. At the sound of his voice, most villagers would run down the streets to greet the man enthusiastically. Surprisingly his fish was impeccable in quality. I also loved the smell his car exhaled. To me, back then a landlubber who’d never seen the seashore, I experienced a touch of the ocean in that truck: a mix of brine, unusual seaweed, rotting matter, and life. Amazing! I first saw the ocean when I was twelve years old. And though I don’t swim or like boats, I’ve been a sea-lover since.
My mother would buy lots of sardines and over the course of two days cook them in many different ways. It was a real pain to clean those sardines (talk about child labor!) but it was always well worth it. Plus my cat and the chickens in the backyard had really a good time feasting on the fish guts. Don’t be grossed out: this is what sustainable agriculture is all about. Nothing goes to waste. I really loved the ritual. I can’t wait to share some of my mother’s sardine recipes sometime soon!
Today I’m writing about another seafood item that almost swam to my tiny village of Olegário Maciel once or twice a year: dried salt cod fish, also known as bacalhau or baccalá. In Brazil, as in most Catholic countries, people abstain from eating meat during Lent; or at least that’s how things used to be. Instead good Catholics will feast on fish of all kinds. Fresh water fish was plentiful and delicious at home. But Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, which means that part of our culture is inherited from them. That in turn leads to salt cod; a Portuguese staple, particularly for those long sea voyages across the Atlantic when Brazil was first being developed.
There is some cache in eating European, I think. It sort of makes you feel part of the Old World? Here in America merchants are always trying to make you believe that European goods are better: French wine and cheese, almost all Italian products, etc. I believe the propaganda! Therefore, if you’re Brazilian, having a bacalhoada once or twice a year is a must!
Where I’m from, everyone tried to save some of their meager income in order to make their favorite salt cod dishs. These recipes invariably use another European export: olives and olive oil. When do I ever have enough of olives and olive oil?
But cod fish has an interesting and sad history. A few years ago I read this fascinating book written by Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. He basically credits the discovery of the New World to salt cod because it allowed the sailors to survive the long journey. Of course whenever there’s money to be made, bad things happen. Kurlansky details the shocking greed, ignorance and overwhelming demand that ultimately, over the past 700 hundred years, led cod fish stocks to be decimated due to over fishing.
Many previously colonized countries in the Americas have their own recipes for salt cod inherited from the food cultures of the early settlers. Here is one of the many Brazilian/Portuguese ones that I grew up eating:
Bacalhoada: Salt Cod with Chick Peas and Assorted Vegetables
1 ½ to 2 lb dry salted cod fish, de-salted (see below)
1 ½ cup dried chick peas that have been soaked in the last water change of the cod
1 cup of pitted mixed olives (I used Spanish, Kalamatas, French, Portuguese and Peruvian)
4 large red and/or yellow bell peppers, cut into strips
2 bay leaves
2 medium onions, cut into thin slices
6-8 ripe Roma tomatoes
½ cup good olive oil (Spanish arbequina is best for this dish)
Fresh black pepper and salt to taste
3 carrots cut into chunks, blanched for few minutes
Approximately 16 cloves of fresh garlic. Leave half of them as whole cloves, the rest roughly chopped
½ cup reserved juice from cooked cod fish
To remove salt from salted cod, immerse in a large pot of water for about 24 hours, changing the water about four times during that period.
Boil cod fish for about 10-15 minutes in fresh water along with shallot and 1 bay leaf. Remove and transfer to a bowl. Let cool. Reserve ½ cup of cooked juices. Add chick peas to remaining water and cook till soft/al dente for about 25-30 min.
When fish is cool enough to handle, remove skin and bones, trying not to break the fish pieces too much. The fish will break apart further during cooking, so it is best to keep them as large as possible now.
Heat a large pan with 3 tbsp of olive oil. Add onions and peppers, freshly ground black pepper and a bit of kosher salt. Sauté on high temperature till onion becomes translucent and peppers turn soft, approximately 15min. During the last five minutes of cooking add garlic, tomato halves, carrot and lastly the cod fish. Gently stir. Transfer cod mixture to a baking pan. Place olives and whole garlic cloves around and under fish. Pour reserved cooked juices and remaining olive oil over everything. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 500F pre-heated oven for 30 minutes.
For the last 8-10 minutes, remove foil and let cod brown a bit on top. Don’t let it burn. Remove from oven. Drizzle a bit of finishing olive oil on tow and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving. I served the cod dish with plain white rice and shaved sautéed Brussels Sprouts.