Finding perfect codfish cakes

Bacalhoaria composite

When people ask us what to eat in Lisbon, we recommend they try one of the city’s culinary triumphs: the humble, sublime codfish cake. You can order it in many eateries, from simple “tascas” to fancy restaurants. But, unfortunately, codfish cakes vary greatly in the quality of their ingredients and the care used in their preparation.

Luckily, there is a restaurant in Lisbon called Bacalhoaria Moderna (the modern codfish eatery) that serves perfect codfish cakes.  It is headed by Ana Moura, a talented young chef who cooks with intensity and flair. She uses superb codfish, captured in the pristine waters of Iceland and expertly dried and salted by Portuguese fishermen.

As soon as you seat at Bacalhoaria, the waiter brings one gorgeous codfish cake per guest, together with a plate of irresistible brandade. These appetizers are a culinary lesson. A chance to compare a Portuguese and a French codfish recipe. The brandade is elegant and delicious–the best we ever tried. The codfish cakes are light, crisp, warm and flavorful—little pieces of culinary magic.

After this heady start, we can choose from a plethora of other codfish preparations as well as many great alternatives like octopus, roasted pork, and vegetarian options.

An intriguing culinary question is: where will a new classic codfish recipe be created and by whom? Our answer is: at Bacalhoaria Moderna by Ana Moura.

Bacalhoaria Moderna is located at Rua São Sebastião da Pedreira, 150, Lisbon, tel. 21 605 3208, 

Dona Luisa’s famous codfish recipe

composit-solar-dos-amigos-2

A year ago, we had a memorable meal at Solar dos Amigos, a restaurant in the small village of Guisado near Caldas da Rainha. We returned this year for another great experience. Our lunch started with succulent lamb chops, grilled to perfection. They were followed by a wispy, tasty “Bacalhau à Campino” (peasant style codfish) served inside the hearty country bread that is baked at the restaurant.

Dona Luisa Nunes, the restaurant’s owner and chef, is in great form and so is her octogenarian father who continues to produce a delightful wine that pairs perfectly with the food served at the Solar.

When we praised her famous codfish Campino style, dona Luisa offered to give us the recipe so we could share it with you, dear reader. Follow the instructions and you’ll have a delicious codfish meal. But, will it taste as good as when dona Luisa prepares it?  Not a chance!

Codfish Campino style

Soak 4 slices of salted codfish for two days, changing the water periodically to remove the salt.

Boil the cod for 15 minutes. Reserve the water, remove the skin and the bones, and shred the fish by hand. Boil a green cabbage and drain the water (dona Luisa favors a pusa-drum-head cabbage, known in Portugal as “repolho coração de boi”).  Open the top of a country bread, remove the inside of the bread and soak it for 5 minutes in the water used to boil the codfish. Carefully drain the water from the bread.

Combine olive oil and sliced garlic in a frying pan. Add the soaked bread, the shredded codfish, the cabbage and 2 pounds of cooked red beans. Season with salt and pepper and let the mixture simmer gently for a few minutes. Place the mixture inside the country bread, cover with the bread lid, season with olive oil and place in the oven for a few minutes, until the bread turns golden. Decorate with parsley sprigs and serve.

Solar dos Amigos is located on a small village called Guisado, 100 km north of Lisbon. The restaurant’s address is Rua Principal, 49, Guisado, Caldas da Rainha. Even though the restaurant is large, it is a good idea to make reservations. Their telephone number is 262-877-135. Click here for their website.

A faithful friend

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portugal’s favorite fish does not swim in Portuguese waters. Since the 16th century, Portuguese fishermen have sailed to Newfoundland in search of gadus morhua, more commonly known as codfish. The French call the bland-tasting fresh cod “cabillaud” and the more appetizing salted cod “morue.” In Portugal this distinction is superfluous because only the salted variety is appreciated. So, one word suffices: “bacalhau.”

Since cod has very little fat, once it is cured in salt it keeps for a long time without becoming rancid. For this reason, dried codfish was often consumed by those who lived far from the coast in days of religious abstinence from meat like Christmas Eve.

The quality of the cod depends on the size of the fish (the larger the better) and the type of cure. To produce the best cod, the cure must begin on the boat, shortly after the fish is captured. This cure continues on land, usually in open-air pavilions. Lesser cod is stored frozen in the boat and cured only on land. Much of the codfish consumed in Portugal is cured in Ílhavo, a region with abundant sea salt.

Two popular sources of cod are Norway and Canada, but the best cod is caught in Iceland by Portuguese fishermen.

Before cooking, salted cod is soaked in water for two or three days to re-hydrate and remove most of the salt. The fish is then ready to be combined with symbiotic ingredients such as garlic, potatoes and olive oil.

The commerce of “bacalhau” is so important that there’s a whole street in Lisbon, Rua dos Bacalhoeiros, that was once reserved for codfish vendors.

In good times and bad, the Portuguese gather at the table to share this fish we call “fiel amigo” (faithful friend). It is a delicacy that comes from afar but has the taste of home.

Have you tried salted cod?

Bacalhau

Bacalhau (cod) is a fish with a bland taste. But, once it is salted and dried in the sun, it becomes the perfect foil for garlic and olive oil. The Portuguese have enjoyed salted cod for more than two centuries. Lucas Rigaud, chef at the court of D. Maria I, included two cod recipes in his 1780 cookbook.

In 1778, Queen D. Maria eliminated the cod sales tax to help the fisherman and the poor. When the Queen returned from a boat ride on the Tagus river, she was greeted by ships decorated with garlands, overflowing with people cheering to the sound of music and fireworks. D. Maria was so touched, that she did the unthinkable. With tears in her eyes, the Queen sent away her coach and walked unguarded amid the crowd to the royal palace in Terreiro do Paço.

If you’re visiting Portugal, give salted cod a try. There’s something truly unique about food that can bring a distant queen so close to her people.