The times of the great maritime discoveries were very beneficial to the culinary world. The spice trade that had started in ancient times between North Africa, Europe and India intensified after the discovery of the Americas making some spices worth more in weight than gold. Spices were used for many applications however in Europe their main use was to either preserve or enhance the flavour of foods.
In the 15th century Portugal stood out as a powerful maritime nation even though it was also being affected by the crisis that hit Western Europe. The geographic location of Portugal was favourable to navigation and its kingdom was less prone to disputes and conflicts than say England, Spain or France. In addition, many classes and entities in Portugal had a high degree of interest in pushing for the search of new lands for various reasons. For the commoners being able to move to another part of the world was a chance to improve their living conditions. For the kingdom of Portugal it was an opportunity to overcome the crisis by increasing their resources. The nobility was also very supportive of possible new discoveries as there would be more chances to get promoted or rewarded.
During the Age of Discoveries, the Portuguese were the first to circumnavigate Africa. Then in 1500 they arrived in the coast of Brazil to explore a land of abundant resources such as minerals, exotic plants and fruits. The Portuguese took advantage of this and were responsible for introducing many produce from South America to the world such as chilli and cassava root. They also brought their cooking techniques and tastes to Brazil such as their appreciation for wine, olive oil, flour and sweets.
In addition Brazilians inherited from the Portuguese the passion for dishes made with salted dried cod (or bacalhau in Portuguese) as well as the art of producing salted dried meats. The harsh long trips at the sea required foods that would last for longer periods and that is why the salted dried cod became so popular amongst the Portuguese and today is considered the most adored delicacy over there. Bacalhau was perfect for that purpose therefore the Portuguese sailors always made sure they had a good supply of the salted dried fish to nourish their crew.
This ancient conservation method removes most of water content of the fish and not only preserves it but gives a very distinctive flavour. The modern production of the salted dried cod lasts for about 3 weeks. First the fish is eviscerated and then beheaded. The fish is then sliced open and its fillets are run through a machine where the central spine is removed. The next stage is the salting process in which the fillets are stacked in boxes with loads of salt and kept for several days in an environment with a temperature that varies from 8 to 12°C. Then the fillets are turned, more salt is added and to conclude the fish is subjected to a drying process.
The classic Portuguese bacalhau bake is made in a deep tray where layers of rehydrated cod, eggs, onions, black olives and potatoes are cooked in plenty of olive oil. In Brazil, the bake recipes vary quite a bit and besides the usual Portuguese ingredients some recipes may also have capsicums, tomatoes and cassava instead of potatoes.
Olive oil and sweet vegetables are a perfect match for the saltiness of bacalhau. My recipe offers a traditional combination of ingredients with a twist. Instead of baking all the vegetables and fish in layers, I decided to stuff the petit capsicums with mashed potato and bacalhau and bake it like that with olive oil. The whole olives are turned into a piquant tapenade dressing made with olives, capers, lime, black pepper and olive oil. To finish it off the dish is served with delicious roasted asparagus and the super sweet truss cherry tomatoes. This is a perfect great spring/summer dish that can served as an entrée or light meal paired with a glass of white wine.
Bacalhau is known in Australia for either its Spanish or Italian names bacalao or baccalà respectively and it is fairly easy to find in gourmet shops or Portuguese grocers located in big cities. In Hobart they are available from The Italian Pantry.
1.5 kg salted dried cod (bacalao)*
4 medium potatoes (550g)
1 cup (250ml) milk
70ml extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
18 multi-coloured petit capsicums (2 x 500g packs)
Extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle
2 x 240g packs mini truss cherry tomatoes (or 500g regular cherry tomatoes), whole
2 x bunches of asparagus, whole
60g Kalamata olives
1 tsp capers, drained
2 tbs parsley, roughly chopped
Juice of ½ lemon (about 1 tbs)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
80ml olive oil
*Available from selected gourmet shops and Portuguese delis
**The dressing can be prepared 1 day ahead and kept in an air tight container in the fridge
You have to start this recipe 2 days ahead
1. To desalt the bacalao, place it in an airtight container, cover with cold water, close the container and leave in the fridge for 2 days changing the water 3 times a day, approximately every 8 hours. After 2 days, drain the fish and place in a saucepan with milk over high heat. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes or until the flesh starts to fall off the bone. Drain and transfer to a plate to cool slightly. Using fish bone tweezers, carefully pull off the bones, remove skin and shred the fish very finely (yields about 500g of shredded fish). Store in an airtight container and place it in the fridge until required. Transfer to a bowl.
2. Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and cook for 12 minutes or until soft. Remove the potatoes from heat and set aside to cool. Peel and mash them well. Using a wooden spoon stir in the potato, milk, olive oil and bacalao until creamy. Season with salt (if necessary) and pepper to taste.
3. Pre-heat the oven 200°C, fan-forced. Cut each capsicum lengthways, carefully remove core and seeds and stuff with the bacalo mixture, place it face up onto a large baking tray. Repeat with remaining capsicum halves. Drizzle all capsicums very generously with olive oil and season with freshly ground pepper. Roast for 30 minutes.
4. Place the tomatoes and asparagus onto a separate tray, drizzle with olive oil and season with freshly ground salt and pepper to taste. Roast for 10 minutes or until tomatoes start to wrinkle.
5. For the tapenade, squash each olive with the flat part of a large knife and remove the stone. Rinse the capers under running water. Place the pitted olives, capers, parsley, lime juice and pepper in a bowl of a food processor and blend well, scraping down the side of the bowl with a spatula. Add the olive oil and process until ingredients are well combined. Season with black pepper and reserve.
6. To assemble, place a layer of asparagus then tomatoes on top, arrange 3 halves of capsicum on the side. Drizzle vegetables with the olive oil from the tray and pour tapenade dressing. Serve with extra tapenade dressing on the side.