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It’s Beginning to Smell a Lot Like Christmas…

Sat Dec 15, 2007



Nobody told me it was going to smell bad. Excited to try a new ingredient, I tore at the brown butcher paper like a six year old opening a present to reach the snowy white, stone heavy, rigid piece of bacalao inside. I gagged. I gagged again.

Now I’m used to describing aromas; I write wine tasting notes for a living. But the pungent, nay putrid, smell of the bacalao left me bewildered. Did it smell like a gym bag full of dirty clothes left undiscovered for a year? Or more like the science-experiment Tupperware found at the back of a bachelor’s fridge? Plagued by inadequate similes, I turned to my boyfriend, who came racing into the kitchen to respond to my “oh gods.” “It smelled like five-day-old road kill, like the kind I had to clean up when I worked for the department of transportation in high school,” he said.

Bacalao, is the Portuguese word for salt-dried fish, usually cod (the Italians call it baccalà and the French call it morue) eaten in European countries for centuries. Salt is used to preserve the fish, which will keep, it’s said, for an eternity. It’s been a staple protein for navies, slaves and Catholic peasants and part of Christmas Eve traditions stretching from southern Italy to Provence to Portugal. The fish needs to be soaked in water for at least two days before cooking, changing the water every 8-12 hours to reconstitute it and remove most of the salt. The repulsive smell dissipates with soaking, thank goodness, but there are also some markets that sell pre-soaked bacalao around Christmas-time, sparing you the visceral experience.

I’ve had salt cod before—Pizzeria Mozza used to make an amazing salt cod montecato bruschetta, whipping the cured fish with mashed potatoes and serving it atop grilled bread, garnished with dried olives and a drizzle of olive oil—and it was delicious. So I was quite excited when Kay Steffey Bouchard of Quinta do Tedo, a Port and olive oil producer located on Portugal’s Douro River, sent me a recipe for traditional Portuguese bacalao with bay and roasted peppers. It would be an excellent opportunity to try her olive oil, test a festive holiday recipe and drink some Portuguese wines from K&L Wine Merchants growing selection.

Bacalao with Bay Laurel and Roasted Red Peppers

1 ½ lbs bacalao, cut into four serving pieces and soaked in water for two days, changing water at least twice a day. Once soft, use a tweezer remove as many of the fish’s small bones as possible.
8 onion, sliced into half moons
6 bay leaves
1 cup Quinta do Tedo olive oil
3 roasted peppers, seeded and quartered
Dried black olives

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large sauté, heat ½ cup Quinta do Tedo olive oil; add onions and bay leaves and season with salt. Stew for a half hour or until soft and translucent. Transfer to a large (9×12) baking dish.

In another sauté heat ¼ cup of the olive oil. Lightly flour softened bacalao and quickly brown on both sides. Place in baking dish with the onion mixture, creating a little nest for each piece of fish. Bake until flakey, about half an hour.

Garnish with roasted peppers and olives and finish with remaining ¼ cup of olive oil, cracked black pepper and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt, like Maldon.

The resulting dish was fantastic! Quinta do Tedo’s olive oil was soft and lightly sweet, with fruity tones that complemented the delightful, just-plucked-from-the-sea flavor of the fish. There wasn’t even a trace of the bacalao’s malodorous beginnings. The texture was remarkable, too. The rock hard piece of fish was surprisingly delicate and flaky with slight chew. The sweetness from the onions and the roasted peppers also served as an excellent counterpoint to the saltiness of the fish and they bay leaves added an earthy sweetness.

I paired the bacalao with two Portuguese wines, recommended by Chip Hammack at K&L Wine Merchant’s Hollywood store. First was an excellent non-vintage vinho verde from Broadbent ($8.99). The wine had a nice grapefruit-and-mineral-tinged sparkle that tickled your nose and tasted clean and refreshing, with great acidity and just a hint of grapefruit on the palate. The wine went wonderfully with the fish, which amplified its mineral, almost ocean air-like quality. Its lightness was a great textural compliment to the richness of the olive oil, too.

The second wine we tried was the Quinto do Crasto “Crasto”($15.99). A bit tight and overpowering for the fish when we first opened the bottle, a quick decanting made this wine another great pairing. Like the vinho verde, the Crasto, a blend of tinta rouriz and touriga nacional, had plenty of acidity to cut through the oily richness of the dish. Its briary-fruit-forwardness highlighted the roasted peppers and slight spice brought out the cracked black pepper that finished the dish.

So if you’re looking for a great dish for your Christmas feast and a couple of wines to pair with it, look no further. My only recommendation? If you can’t find the pre-soaked bacalao, hold your nose. At least you have been warned.

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4 Responses to “It’s Beginning to Smell a Lot Like Christmas…”

  1. foodwoolf Says:

    You’re a much braver person than me. After smelling all those foul odors I would have given up.

    So when I get the courage to make salt cod…Can you come over and hold my nose?

    Happy Holidays!

  2. leah greenstein Says:

    You bet! Better yet…I’ll supply some clothespins.

  3. Joe M. Says:

    Leah –

    The Niepoort Tiara would have also been awesome with the bacalao dish. Sorry again to make you wait (again) on my article. Good things take time, right?

  4. Earl Netwal Says:

    It may be a little daring for my annual Christmas Recipe book, but I would like permission to include your recipe in a future edition. The current issue is already in free distribution on my blog, and the paid compilation will be out by Thanksgiving. I don’t have a salt fish recipe yet.

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