Bacalhau com Natas
(Portuguese salt cod with potatoes and cream)
Salting fish is an ancient method for preserving the harvest of the sea, and salt cod is an iconic ingredient in many cuisines around the world. Called bacalhau (bak-ahl-YOW) in Portugal, salt cod is a star ingredient in many Portuguese dishes. In bacalhau com natas (cod with cream), cod is layered with potatoes and onions, drenched in cream and baked until bubbling and browned. Especially popular for Easter or Christmas
Cooking with salt cod requires planning ahead since it takes a couple days of soaking and changing water to remove the extra salt. But this is an extremely easy process, and it yields tender fish with a pleasant flavor that's not fishy or salty at all.
4 to 6 servings
- Salt cod -- 1 pound
- Olive oil -- 1/2 cup
- Onions, thinly sliced -- 2
- Garlic, minced -- 3 or 4 cloves
- Potatoes, peeled and diced -- 2 pounds
- Parmesan cheese, grated -- 1/2 cup
- Salt and pepper -- to taste
- Heavy cream -- 1 1/2 cups
- Nutmeg -- 1/4 teaspoon
- Dry breadcrumbs -- 1/2 cup
- Wash the cod in fresh water to remove excess salt from the surface. Place the cod in a plastic or glass container and add with fresh water to cover. Place in the refrigerator to soak for around 24 hours. Drain the soaking water and add more fresh water to cover. Soak for another 24 hours, then drain the soaking water again and rinse the cod with fresh water.
- Cut the cod into large chunks. Bring a large saucepan of water to a simmer. Add the cod and poach for around 20 to 25 minutes to cook through. Drain and let the cod cool.
- When the cod is cool enough, use your fingers to break it up into flakes, picking out and discarding any bones or pieces of skin. Set the cod aside in a small bowl.
- Preheat oven to 400°F. In a large skillet or saute pan, heat about 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium flame. Add the onions and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onions are cooked through, softened and translucent, around 20 minutes. Take care to keep the heat low enough that the onions don't brown too much.
- Remove the onions to a small bowl and add another 2 to 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the potatoes and saute, stirring occasionally, until they are lightly browned and partially cooked through. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
- Finally, add another 2 to 3 tablespoons of the olive oil to the pan and saute the flaked cod until it is nicely browned. Remove to a small bowl and set aside.
- Butter or grease a medium-sized, ovenproof casserole dish. Spread 1/3 of the onions on the bottom of the dish. Layer 1/2 of the potatoes over the onions and 1/2 of the cod over the potatoes. Sprinkle 1/3 of the grated cheese over the cod and season with salt and pepper.
- Repeat with another layer of 1/3 of the onions, the remaining potatoes and cod and 1/3 of the cheese and season with salt and pepper. Finish with a final layer of the remaining onions. Pour the cream over all and sprinkle with the nutmeg. Mix the remaining cheese with the breadcrumbs and spread evenly over the top of the dish. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Place the dish in the preheated oven and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until cooked through and bubbly and the top is nicely browned. Serve immediately with crusty bread, a side salad and a nice Portuguese white wine.
Bacalhau com Natas Variations
- Using Fresh Cod: If you don't have salt cod or the time to soak it, you can use fresh cod instead. Just eliminate the soaking step and poach for only around 10 minutes.
- Potatoes: Instead of dicing and sauteing the potatoes, try boiling them whole with their skins on until they are half cooked. Drain and cool the potatoes completely, then peel and slice into 1/2-inch rounds. Layer with the other ingredients as directed in Step 7 and Step 8.
- Cream Sauce: Some recipes call for bechamel sauce made with cream instead of straight cream. Still others enrich the cream sauce with an egg or two.
- If you like, garnish the top of the dish with some pitted black olives before you pop it in the oven.
Because many cod fisheries around the world are severely stressed, it is best to purchase salt cod that comes from sustainable fisheries, or at least to restrict your consumption of salt cod to special occasions and holidays with family and friends.