Bacalao or bacalhau, whether you use the Spanish or Portuguese term, is one of the ancient and divine foods I would undoubtedly put on my my desert island list. Matter of fact, if I were stranded on a desert island I would be making my own salted fish, whatever the variety, cooking it up with monkey milk, manioc root, lemon grass and wild ginger. Ever milk a monkey?
One classic dish is a gratin made of soaked and boiled salt cod with mashed potatoes. Not very salty and surprisingly not very fishy. It is creamy, umami wonderfulness. The fish adds protein, sure, but an almost indescribable savory quality as well.
Since I regularly malign recipes, and owing to some sweet potatoes I have on hand, my version is quite like the traditional version, except for sweet potatoes in place of russets. This is not that strange of a substitution, since many traditional recipes with salted cod use boniato, which is a white-fleshed, not very sweet, sweet potato used in Cuban and Puerto Rican cooking. For related ideas using this tuber, check out Bacalao Croquetas or this simple Boniato/Bacaloa Mash topped with a complicated and pricey truffle sabayon.
Bacalao may be available at your grocer year round, but chances are even better you’ll find it right now. It is a traditional food from mid-autumn through Christmastime for many cultures, including the Italians, Spanish, West Indians, and Pacific Islanders. You will usually find it with smoked salmon and other refrigerated specialty seafood items. Sometimes it comes in a plastic bag, other times in a little wooden box wrapped in plastic.
The following recipe is very, very simple. It is the time required to rehydrate the fish that turns most people off. I start soaking the cod at least 24 hours before I prepare the dish. Anything else and you can end up with too much residual salt.
Bacalao con Patatas Dulces
Ingredients for 4 servings
- 1/2 pound dried salt cod
- 2 large sweet potatoes or yams
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp butter
- pepper to taste, white pepper preferred
- 1/2 tbsp prepared horseradish, or more to taste
- 1/3 cup cream
- 1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 teas paprika
At least a day before finishing the dish begin soaking the bacalao by covering it with water and keeping in the refrigerator. Change the water twice during 24 hours.
In a small pot, add the drained fish to 1 cup of milk and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and hold for 20-30 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cod. Cool. Drain and discard milk. Flake the fish into fine pieces, removing any bones that you may find. The texture will be soft and fibrous, much like crab meat.
Peel and dice the sweet potatoes. As with the codfish, add the potatoes and garlic to a small pot and boil with 1 cup milk and enough water to cover by half an inch. Boil until soft, about 20 minutes. Pour off most of the liquid and set aside. Add the butter, pepper, horseradish, and cream and mash until smooth. Stir in the codfish and the parsley, adding extra potato water if the mixture is too thick. It should have a loose mashed potato consistency.
Spread into a 1-1/2 to 2 qt baking dish and sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 350ºF until top darkens, about 30 minutes.
Serve with a green salad and a hoppy ale with some malt backbone to marry with the starchy potato. Try an American-style amber or red ale, or a west coast India Pale Ale. Enjoy! TPJ