09 April 2013

Bacalhau à Vasca

Warm spring weather gives me an itch to eat the beautiful green veggies showing up at the market. It is a temporary but powerful urge, driven by both the beautiful look of the produce and the knowledge that I will have to wear fewer layers of clothing very soon. A great opportunity to make a greens-filled, springlike bacalhau recipe to welcome the new season, wouldn't you think?

Yes and no. The typical bacalhau dish in Portugal only has one green component: parsley on top. The rest of the dish is nearly always beige: onion, garlic, olive oil, and potato. Sure there are green olives sometimes, spinach or a green pepper here or there. But on the whole, bacalhau recipes suffer from a lack of color.

So just imagine my excitement when I came across this recipe for Bacalhau à Vasca. Asparagus and peas and bacalhau? It may as well be called Bacalhau á Springtime!

In addition to the choice of veggies, this dish holds another first for me in my dealings with saltcod-- the bacalhau is braised. The idea is that the skin on the fish will hold a crispy crust while allowing the whole filet to cook in a shallow bath of fish stock. In reality, it meant I learned the hard way that turning a crispy-skinned fish filet is not so easy.  They stick like very sticky things to the bottom of the pan. I lost the skin on three of my pieces, a feat both disappointing and entirely my own clumsy fault.

On the other hand, the braising pot was wonderful for cooking the peas and asparagus in a flavorful steam. I placed the asparagus right on top of the fish filets with only a few minutes remaining to cook, and watched in delight as they turned bright green. A few chopped up hardboiled eggs on the side, and the dish was complete.

3 out of 5 fins
All right, I had to dock my score because of the lost skin. Also, I have to take into account that when I proudly brought my heaping platter o' Bacalhau à Vasca to the table, Bacalhau Boy looked at the peas and asparagus and noted that never in his life had he seen anything like this. He ate the cod, the potatoes, and the eggs. Yes. He only ate the beige items. A few peas may have made the cut, but only by accident. I, on the other hand, devoured the peas and asparagus all by myself, quite happily, along with my bacalhau. Averaging both our scores, I would say a 3 is fair.

Bacalhau à Vasca
serves 4

1/2 lb (250g) small red or white potatoes
4 eggs
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion, roughly chopped into half moons
4 cloves of garlic, crushed and with skins on
1 lb (500g) bacalhau, soaked and desalted and cut into thick filets with the skin on
1 tsp coarse ground black pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
1 cup fish stock (or white wine or water)
1/4 lb (125g) fresh asparagus, trimmed and washed
1 cup peas
salt and pepper to taste

1. Before you get started, cook the potatoes until they are nearly soft and hardboil the eggs. Drain and set the potatoes and eggs aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a thick-bottomed saute pan over a medium heat. Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the garlic and onion. Cover and let cook slowly until they are soft, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes. Remove the onion and garlic with a slotted spoon, set aside, and leave the flavorful oil in the pan.

3. Turn the heat up to medium-high. Season the bacalhau on both sides with black pepper. Place the bacalhau skin side down in the pan with the oil, being sure not to crowd the pieces. Let it cook for about ten minutes, or until the skin is crisp but not burned. Turn the fish and cover, cooking for about 10 minutes.

4. Add the fish stock and let it come to a simmer. Add the onion and garlic, red pepper flakes, potatoes, and peas. Lay the asparagus on top and cover the pan. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the asparagus turns bright green and the bacalhau is steamed and cooked through.

5. Arrange the cod, potatoes, peas, and asparagus on a platter. Check the seasoning on the veggies, adding a bit of salt and pepper if needed. Cut the eggs into quarters and serve with the rest.


  1. Bacalhau a prima vera! I may try this this weekend with rockfish...

  2. Jennifer - my name is Mike Moyle and I live in Sausalito, California, just north of San Francisco. I am a member of a local Portuguese-American organization, the Sausalito Portuguese Hall (http://www.idesst.org), which hosts monthly gatherings of its members with some theme. Our theme for March is "Best of Bacalhau" and our members will be encouraged to bring pot luck dishes featuring what I am sure you will agree may be the most Portuguese of ingredients! I just wanted to make contact with you at this time, but anticipate we will be suggesting folks check out your bacalhau blog posts to get ideas for what to bring to our event. We also have an active Facebook page for the Hall which I administer - see https://www.facebook.com/idesst. Até logo.