20 June 2011

Bacalhau com Natas

If you are reluctant to eat bacalhau because it is fish, and fish is "too healthy and bland"...

If you have ever had a crush on someone who wasn't very good for you...

If you have a cholesterol level under 200 or an overactive metabolism you would like to cure in one night...

THIS is your bacalhau.

Bacalhau com natas (salted cod in cream sauce) is a decadent Portuguese dish made with just about every delectable and fattening food available on this planet.  Honestly, it's like they put the erstwhile healthy fish in there as a cruel joke, forcing it to play the role of its own evil twin.

Omega 3's?  BAH!  We will counter that with a cream-enriched bechamel sauce.

Low-fat protein?  ZOP!  Let's add some deep fried potato cubes to ensure maximum carb satisfaction.

It resembles the way the British drench fish in thick batter and deep fry it, or New Englanders take a tiny piece of clam and bury it in yummy fried fritter dough.  The urge to corrupt the virtue of healthy food seems to cross many cultures.

(And not coincidentally, bacalhau com natas is every bit as delicious as its good-fish-gone-bad cousins.)

5 out of 5 fins
This time we had some excellent, experienced, bacalhau-loving guest judges come in to share our meal (we'll call them Los Diablitos), and they rated this bacalhau com natas recipe at a perfect 5 fins.  Whoa!  Bacalhau Boy agreed, I think-- he didn't verbally rate the dish because he didn't stop eating long enough to talk.

Now, while every bacalhau com natas would have bechamel, cream, potatoes, onions, and bacalhau, beyond that there are several ways to arrive at the finished product.  This particular version was a combination of a couple of recipes, and I highly recommend two of the choices I made: add a bit of red pepper to enhance the super-creamy sauce and deep fry (rather than boil or mash) the potatoes before you incorporate them into the casserole.  It is more work but worth every moment of it when you taste that crusty crunch in every bite.

Post-dinner entertainment for this sinful dish?  An amazingly funny, clever, and complicated board game called War on Terror.  Please note the outstanding (and included with the game) Evil Balaclava modeled above by one of Los Diablitos.

Bacalhau com Natas
serves 4

2 pounds of potatoes
vegetable or canola oil for frying
1 pound of bacalhau, soaked and desalted
4 bay leaves
1 large onion, chopped
1 leek, sliced
4 cloves of garlic, diced
red pepper flakes
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
salt, pepper, nutmeg to taste
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup bread crumbs (panko preferably)

1. Begin by getting the potatoes fried.  Peel and dice the potatoes into 1-inch cubes (more or less).  While you are doing that, heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil in a deep, heavy pan over a medium-high heat to 375F (190C). Check to see if the oil is ready by putting in one potato cube.  If it sizzles and bubbles around it, then the oil is ready.

2. Fry the potato cubes in batches, approximately 4-6 minutes or until they are golden brown and cooked through.  (The first batch will take longer than subsequent batches, so keep an eye on color.)  Remove the potatoes and let drain on paper towel.

3. In the meantime, cook the bacalhau in boiling water with 4 bay leaves for approximately 5 minutes, or until cooked through.  Remove bacalhau and set aside to cool.  When cool, carefully remove skin and bones and pull into pieces.  Set aside.

4. Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-low heat.  Add the onions, leeks, garlic, and a few red pepper flakes (don't go too crazy, just a little will add a lot of heat).  Cover and let cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until everything is cooked soft and the onions are translucent.  Be careful not to let it brown.

5. While the vegetables are cooking, make up the bechamel sauce.  Heat the butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat until just melted.  Warm the milk for a few seconds in the microwave, until room temp or a bit warmer.  Sprinkle the butter with the flour, and stir for about a minute until it is the consistency of a paste but still a light color. Add the warmed milk slowly while whisking constantly.  Keep stirring the mixture until it starts to bubble, about 5 minutes.  (If it is too slow, you can turn the heat up a bit, but be careful not to let the milk burn on the bottom of the pan.)  Once it starts to thicken, take it off the heat and add salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg to taste.  Stir in the cream and set aside.

6.  Now, time to put it all together.  Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).  Add the potatoes to the onion mixture in its skillet, gently stirring so as not to break the potatoes.  Add the bacalhau, gently stirring again.  Now add the cream mixture, stir once more and return the pan to a medium-low heat.  Let the mixture cook for about three minutes, tasting and adding salt or pepper as necessary.

7. Transfer the mixture to a casserole pan, and top with bread crumbs.  Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 20-25 minutes, until bubbly and golden.


  1. Wowo! amazing, just amazing! And I look good in the picture too! ::wink, wink::

    I got to tell you, my favorite part of the bacalhau com natas is that you actually left the skins on the potatoes and added extra ground pepper.... lovely!! That took it to a whole new level.

    I have been eating bacalhau almost all my life, and this recipe right here takes the cake. 5 out of 5 fins

  2. This is one of those dishes that rates highly for me. But would you believe that I've been in the country for more than 72 hrs and I still haven't eaten any bacalhau?

  3. Tony, given what you were saying about your family traditions of cooking, I take that as the highest compliment. Thank you guys so much for coming and participating in the great bacalhau experiment. :)

    Cristina, I can't believe you have not eaten bacalhau yet! How on earth did you avoid it, frankly?? lol Just kidding... I hope you are having a great time in this lovely summer weather anyhow, and that your first bacalhau of the trip is amazing. (And if it is, tell me about it!)

  4. The bacalhau situation is quite embarrassing frankly, so I have tried to lessen my shame by eating pastries, many many pastries. I just wanted to let you know that I have seen copies of the Modesto cookbook (English & Portuguese) at a bookstore about halfway down the hill on R. Nova Almada (near the Armazens do Chiado)--if you haven't found it yet.

  5. This dish looks delicious, but unfortunately I am allergic to the combination of fish with milk and cream... Can I replace those ingredients with something else?

  6. Ohhhh, that is an interesting question. I don't see why you couldn't substitute a shredded meat for the bacalhau. Something like chicken would work with the potatoes and creamy sauce for sure. If you added in some peas and carrots, it could be like a chicken pot pie without the crust. Or, you could forego the meat and fish altogether and just double the potatoes to make it a creamy side dish. If you try it, let me know how it works out!

    (And Cristina, thanks for the book tip!! I can't wait to get it!)

  7. Hey, this dish gets devoured everytime I make it. Its soo good that aunts have requested I make it for family get togethers, and eveytime, the dish comes home with me completely eaten. Thanks!