Saturday, 13 August 2011

In Memoriam: Gaspe Salt Cod -- Bacalao Stew

In Memoriam: Gaspe Salt Cod -- Bacalao Stew

Although one of Spain's oldest cities, and with a multi-cultural heritage, Seville's food scene was hardly impressive.  Dozens of restaurants dot Seville’s narrowly winding streets, they ring the Alcazar and speckle the marketplace, and every last one of them is serving up greasy rustic deep-fried fruits of the sea and heaps of microwaved paella.  I mean, literally, all of them.  It's a fast food heaven and the novelty wears off real quick.
Now across the river in tourist-free neighborhoods of Triana, that’s where you’ll find the most delightful tapas:  the succulent shrimp aswim in heavily garlicked oil of camarones al ajillo or succulent tenderloin, solo mio, in pepper sauces with french fries.  But the best meal I had was watching Spain trounce Portugal in their race to the world cup, chowing down on an over-priced but delicious cod stew.  

It took me straight back to my childhood; the Spanish used to love chowing down on the delicious sun-dried cod fish freshly salted from Quebec, back when there was cod to catch.  In the summers the heart-warming stench of the sea filled our coastal region, with endless flakes all covered with little wooden teepees, sheltering the salt-laden cod underneath from the rain and dew.  So, in memory of the Gaspesian fishing industry and to my wonderful vacation in Spain.

My ancestor, Rupert Leggo, standing outside 
the old salt-house in L'Anse a Brillant, holding a fish as big as himself

3 medium onions
1/4 cup of quality olive oil
3 cloves garlic
1lb (about 2 1/2 cups reconstituted) salt cod, cubed
1 cup passata (tomato sauce)
1 cup Chardonnay
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh oregano
1 sprig fresh sage
1 fresh bay leaf
1 cup of gnocchi (optional, substitute diced potato)
1 tsp crushed black pepper

Garnish: 8 olives; 2 hard boiled eggs
Serves: 2 but scales well to 6-8, after which the sauce will boil too long in its reduction

Slice your onions thinly, so they cook faster.  Toss them in a large pan or pot, bring to a sizzle, cover and set to low.  Slice the garlic or smash and chop it fine. Check those onions and they should be sweating out.  When they hit translucence and the outer edges are browning on them, toss in the garlic.

When the onions are golden and/or the garlic (preferably both, but be careful not to over cook the garlic or it will overpower the dish), add the cod and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes.  Toss in the liquids and the herbs.  Reduce until thick and pulpy like an oatmeal after it’s been sitting for a few minutes.  Try to keep the fish in sizable (1 inch chunks), by not over stirring.

Now, a lot of fish stews have potatoes in them and I’d like this one to be no exception to the rule.  And, I’m the sort of guy that would make fresh gnocchi just to have their pillowy deliciousness in my stew and deal with the 5 leftover servings later.  So, I'll usually make this dish after a night of gnocchi to use up leftovers, or the night before a night of gnocchi, just to get a good taste of what's to come.

Salt this recipe to taste only after you've finished cooking.  If it's undersalted, and it rarely is, I prefer to add more olives to add the salt rather than salt the stew itself.

Garnish with fresh chopped fresh herbs, fresh green olives, and quarters of boiled egg and serve with crusty bread and the rest of that Chardonnay

Looking to impress a date?

For the fry, add extra butter or swap in pork fat or suet, and fry up the fish until it is golden before you add the onions and it'll develop a richer and meatier flavour. For the garnish, grab some quail eggs and high-quality, bright-green, Spanish olives. A little Hungarian bacon (the garlic paprika slathered one that you're not supposed to cook) as a garnish, if they swing that way, will really sexy it up.

Salt Cod drying on Flakes in Point Saint Peter

Reconstituting Salt Cod 

Bone the cod while dry, that's how my grammy always did it and that's how i do it still.  If you don't know how to bone a fish, however, you can sort through the flesh for the bones when you chunk it up.  Be a dear, though, and don't completely mash the fish?

Most salt cod these days comes from Europe.  Well, I mean it comes from Newfoundland, obviously, but the Spanish trawlers are hauling the loads back to Europe, salting them and sending them back here.  So, there's a reason the Spanish loved our Gaspesian salt cod -- we didn't oversalt it.  Your typical salt cod is bleached white from salt and it comes through in the flavour. It's burnt and that's why it's so fishy. Like freezer-burn, but with salt.  That stuff, it'll last for years.  It ain't right that food should last that long.

So, it's understandable, I think, that prepping salt-burned cod should take a while. Here's how you go about it:  Fill a pot or bowl with enough water to cover the cod, cutting the cod into smaller pieces if necessary. Soak the cod for about a day, changing the water every 4 hours or so. Let it sit overnight.  Just before using, boil for about an hour to rid it of any excess salt that’s still hanging around.

Gaspesian salt cod, god bless it, is lightly salted and sun-cured.  If you prep it the way I told you to prep the pilfered cod fish just above, you'll absolutely ruin it. Soak it for 4-5 hours and boil it for 20 minutes. It'll still be a bit tough, but it'll finish cooking in the tomato sauce, suffusing the sauce with its remaining salt.


I love cod, but I eat it very rarely, feeling guilty about every delicious morsel of its delicate flesh.  Honestly, I feel this way about a lot of the fisheries and I would urge you to eat more sustainable stocks until there is a sustainable aquaculture on which we can properly rely.  I include this recipe for nostalgia, a bit of history, and because it is so damn delicious that you should never make it.

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