Saturday, 28 April 2007

A Portuguese Bacalhau In London

No, not a new horror film by John Landis, but one of Portugal's classic dishes cooked by me with help from four of Portugal's classic dishes. I refer, of course, to the young ladies who spent last week enjoying the sites of London from a base in my bedroom.

The dish in question was Bacalhau à Braz (alternatively Bacalhau à Brás), or cod with scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. Cooking on Thursday night for seven people in a small kitchen required professional and disciplined organisation. Mum sat in the living room and watched The Hairy Bikers Ride Again. Zélia took on the role of Executive Head Chef (recipe consultant and taster), I was Chef de Partie (in overall charge of the fish section), Sandra and Rosa performed the roles of Commis Chef (peeling, chopping and giggling), dad took the photos and Lúcia sent text messages to Portugal for last-minute advice.

Too many cooks spoil the bacalhau? Not at all!

Cooking with "the girls" was an absolute pleasure and also a new experience for me, and I hope the first of many enjoyable experiences cooking with women. I quite often cook with my male friends at home, which provides an excellent opportunity for manly banter. But I found cooking with these Portuguese women very different, the conversation being more laid back and light hearted (albeit with the occasional kitchen vs. bedroom innuendo thrown in for good measure). It was great to be able to learn from the girls in terms of their family approach to cooking and at the same time to show them certain techniques and skills I've learnt through professional training.

Things didn't start off too well. I cringed as I watched Rosa pick up £15 worth of beautiful fresh cod and drop it into boiling water. A culinary crime to a British chef, but that's the procedure they're used to when cooking with salt cod in their native Portugal. Relief came quickly when the fish was removed a few seconds later and it became apparent that the purpose of this dousing was solely to allow the flesh to be flaked. The next surprise was was being asked to produce wafer thin chips. "How thin?", I asked. "Fininho" was the reply. Something like crisps in British terms, or potato chips in American. And together with onion, garlic, beaten eggs, olives and parsley, these were the ingredients that turned plain and simple cod into the amazing dish bacalhau à braz.

Lunch, first day in Heaven

The final result was something quite extraordinary. I suppose it could be described as "dry" in the same way a wine could, yet at the same time it maintained incredibly moist texture throughout. But what I found most remarkable was the fact that we took a bunch of ingredients bought in Hackney and created a meal that was not only recognisable, but really appreciated by four women from a remote Portuguese village. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the whole approach to preparing and cooking a dish like this is so essentially different from the way we British folk are used to doing it. It's difficult to explain how and why - I guess it's something you can only experience for yourself through cooking such dishes.

Definitely a meal to repeat, now that I have the know-how. Washed down with a choice of white and rosé, with some fresh pineapple and cream, coffee and a bottle of Ferreira Dona Antonia Reserve Port afterwards. I've uploaded the pictures and written some notes for my photo recipe and I'll finish this off as soon as Zélia emails me the detailed recipe. It's been a busy day - I just drove the girls to Stansted to catch their flight back to Porto and I'm heading off out for my Saturday night right now.

I volunteered to play the part of hand luggage

Foi muito bom. Até a próxima vez!

PS. Mere adoration turned to something far more serious when I discovered that the girls had devoted one precious afternoon of their week's sightseeing trip to a guided tour of Stamford Bridge, including being photographed in The Special One's dugout seat. Respect!


Chennette said...

Very interesting. I love saltfish (traditionally also salt cod) and there are many recipes for this in the Caribbean. Buljol from Trinidad, also uses flaked saltfish mixed in with onions and sweet peppers, sometimes tomatoes and boiled eggs. The crisps look like a nice touch!

Trig said...

I'm also very familiar with saltcod, Chennette. I've cooked the traditional Jamaican dish ackee and saltfish quite a few times, and it's also readily available from Jamaican takeaways all over in Hackney. The crisps (well chips to me) brought something special to the bacalhau, I think because of the savoury fatty flavours they absorbed through deep-frying.

Eduardo said...

I am Portuguese and I have to say that picture wise you're spot on. I saw many Bacalhau a Bras that did not look as beautiful as yours. Congratulations. Hope you did enjoy your meal.

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