Salted cod is a very popular ingredient all over the Mediterranean region, especially on the tables of Portugal, Italy and Spain. Bacalhau, Baccalà or Bacalao… whatever you prefer to call it, it is a true delight to enjoy all year long. It might look pretty unappetising at first sight, in fact it does look a bit like a dried-up leather shoe, but its softens once rehydrated and tastes delicious when cooked. I have to admit that It took me a little time to succumb to its charms and the first few times I actually cooked with dried-salted cod it was a disaster!
The fact is I actually had no idea how to deal with it at all and it wasn’t until I arrived in Spain and somebody taught me how to cook a delicious Basque classic called Bacalao al pil-pil, that I slowly began to truly understand it’s popularity. The Basque people will proudly tell you that they accidently invented bacalao (salted cod) when a group of Basque fishermen sailed from the Bay of Biscay in search of whales and came across a ‘field’ of cod off the coast of Norway. Legend has it that they landed so much fish that their boats were overflowing. They were so far away from home that the only option was to fillet the cod and conserve it in salt, using the same technique for the conservation of whale meat.
To prepare any dish with salted cod, you simply have to follow properly the procedure to remove the salt, as it obviously needs to be re-hydrated and de-salted before use.
So if you go to the market and buy yourself a large fillet of salted cod, the first thing you should do is cut the salted cod into portion-sized pieces.
Then soak the pieces of in a bowl of cold water. Cover the bowl with cling-film and store into the fridge. Replace the water into the bowl every 8 hours and after 24 hours, cut a little piece of salted cod and boil it for a minute, then taste to check if it is still too salty. If the salted cod is still too salty, extend the soak a little although it’s important that a slight salty flavour is retained.
These days I like to make my own salted cod and it couldn’t be easier. Take a nice, thick fillet of fresh cod and cover it with a mixture of equal quantities of sea salt and sugar. Then cover it with cling film and refrigerate for 24 hours. Once the cod has firmed up, rinse well in cold water and pat dry with a clean kitchen cloth. Your salted cod is now ready to cook!
Bacalao al Pil-Pil
Leave the skin on for this recipe as the gelatine helps to emulsify and flavour the sauce.
· 800g Salt-cod fillets (de-salted)
· 450ml olive oil
· 4 garlic cloves (peeled and sliced)
· ½ green chilli, chopped
· 100g flour
Place the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan or earthenware casserole and fry the sliced garlic and green chilli gently until golden brown. Remove the garlic and chilli. Flour the salt-cod fillets and place them skin side up in the frying pan and cook gently for 4-6 minutes. Turn the fillets over. Remove from the heat, and pour the warm oil into a bowl.
Move the frying pan in circular motions, back and forth adding the olive oil slowly to emulsify the sauce until thick and translucent. Season to taste.
Sprinkle with garlic and chopped green chilli and serve immediately.
Fillet of salt cod in a black olive crust with chorizo & white beans
· 6 x 150g fillets of salt cod (de-salted)
· 12 thin slices of chorizo
Black olive crust:
· 200g black olives (stoned)
· 2 garlic cloves (peeled and chopped)
· 25g sun-dried tomatoes
· 50ml olive oil
· 30g breadcrumbs
· Ground black pepper
To make the crust:
Place all the ingredients in a liquidizer and blend to a puree. Place a spoonful of black olive puree on the top of the salt cod fillets. Using a palette knife, smooth over to form a thin layer of crust. Reserve in the fridge until needed.
White bean stew
· 200g dried white beans
· 1 medium onion (finely chopped)
· 2 crushed garlic cloves
· 2 plum tomatoes, skinned & chopped
· 50ml olive oil
· 1tsp saffron
· 400ml fish stock
· 2tbsp chopped parsley
· 2 bay leaves
· Sprig of fresh thyme
Place the white beans, chopped tomatoes, garlic cloves, bay leaves, saffron and fresh thyme in a large saucepan and cover them with fish stock. Bring slowly to the boil, cover with a lid and cook slowly for 30-40 minutes. Add a little more water if necessary. Remove the beans from the heat and stir in the olive oil and chopped parsley. Season to taste.
Place the salt cod fillets under a hot grill and cook for 6-8 minutes until just cooked. Place a couple of large spoonfuls of the white beans in the centre of 6 of warm soup bowls. Place the cod fillets on top and garnish with chorizo slices and fresh herbs. Serve immediately.