Holiday Salt Cod with Creamy Sauce
In Portuguese, we call this dish Bacalhau de Natas. The word Nata in Portuguese refers to cream, milk, or heavy cream— that goes on the creamy sauce.
If you’d like to keep this dish on the lighter side, you can skip the sauce completely (which is like a bechamel sauce), although I love the effect of the sauce with the rest of the dish as it does NOT penetrate the fish and vegetable layer, so the outcome is still on the light side. Less time spent cooking, means more time spent entertaining. Bake this recipe ahead of time, serve it with a glass of white wine, and you’re all set for this Holiday season! This recipe is inspired by Manuela Arrais and featured on my cookbook My Rio de Janeiro.
Bacalhau de Natas
For the Cod and Vegetables:
1.8 lbs (820g) salt cod (measured dried)
2½ cups cold milk
2 lbs (908g) small young potatoes
3 tablespoons + ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper (about ½ lb or 227g), thinly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper (about ½ lb or 227g), thinly sliced
1 green bell pepper (about ½ lb or 227g), thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
¼ cup fresh chopped parsley
For the Bechamel:
1 cup milk , plus the poaching milk
5 tablespoons (65g) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons (40g) all-purpose flour
½ cup (35g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Equipment: One 9X13 inches baking dish, lightly coated with cooking spray
- Prepare the Cod: Rinse the salt cod in cold water and place inside a large container. Fill with water, about 2½ gallons (the volume of water should be 10 to 15 times the size of the cod). Store in the refrigerator to soak overnight, changing the water at least 3 times per day (no, you don’t need to wake up in the middle of the night to change the water).
- Remove the fish from the water and place in a medium-sized saucepan (cut the fish to fit the pan if necessary). Cover the fish with the milk. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, until opaque, 15-20 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the cod rest in the milk for at least 20 minutes, covered. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cod and strain the milk in a bowl. Flake the fish with your hands into small chunks, or place in a food processor, using the pulse mode for just a few seconds, being careful not to shred too much (you can keep the shredded cod for up to 12 hours in the refrigerator before using).
- Place the potatoesin a large heavy saucepan and cover with cold water by at least an inch. Add a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until fork-tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and spread onto a plate. When cool enough to handle, peel and slice the potatoes ¼ inch thick. Set aside.
- Place the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet and cook the onions and peppers together over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, sweet, and translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Resist the temptation to use high heat, or the vegetables will brown. Add the garlic, and cook for another minute. Add the shredded cod and parsley and mix everything together. Set aside in the corner of the stove, off the heat, covered.
- Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
- Prepare the Béchamel Sauce:You need 3 cups of milk altogether to prepare the béchamel sauce: 2 cups of the reserved milk from the poaching liquid and add the cup of fresh milk. Warm all the milk in a saucepan over low heat. In another saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour, and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it foams. Pour in the milk and cook, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens. Taste before you season since the milk will be salty from the cod and season with salt —if it needs any— pepper, nutmeg, and a dash of cayenne pepper.
- Lay half of the potatoes across the dish, spreading them evenly with your hands. Arrange half of the cod mixture on top, spreading it evenly. Repeat another layer of potatoes and cod. Drizzle ½ cup olive all over, and ladle the béchamel sauce on top (the sauce will not penetrate the dish, and that’s exactly what you want, just on top). Sprinkle Parmesan and bake in the oven until it looks bubbly and lightly golden brown, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.
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