Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cooking with Heart & Soul

I often reminisce about food I’ve enjoyed either from trips abroad or even from my childhood. Flavors and scents will trigger memories for me – from the aroma of Mom’s marinara sauce slowly cooking on top of the stove all day even to the headiness of sautéing onions with dried Italian herbs.

Our second buffet is slated for next week and I’ve been inspired to cook Portuguese-inspired food. Our theme is focused on Latin flavors and my dishes will fall right in line with what we plan to present at the buffet. Chef must have read my mind because the other night when I came into the kitchen he said he ordered some salted codfish (Bacalao – as it is referred to in my home) I smiled and rifled though my papers and pulled out a recipe for Pasteis de Bacalao (codfish fritters) and showed Chef.

Bacalao (pronounced băh-kăh-yēow) is a main ingredient in many Mediterranean cultures. Recipes are found in French, Basque, Spanish, and Portuguese kitchens. It was a prized food in the days before refrigeration was perfected – the cod was preserved in salt and dried and could be held for long periods of time. It was prefect for the time, a product that was not affected by inadequate storage and the opportunity to have fish when fresh fish was not an option.

Growing up in a Polish/Portuguese household, I was exposed to lots of different foods that were not typically American. I think those experiences laid the groundwork for me to have a greater acceptance of food in all its wonderful variety and genres. Bacalao was a common ingredient at the Ramos home. I remember seeing my mom soaking cod for a few days in water to release all the caked-on salt. She would change the water a couple of times a day to ensure that most of the salt would be released.

When preparing codfish, most often we would have them as an appetizer of crisp, fried Bacalao fritters. Other times we would also have a salad of broken cod, with herbs such as parsley, with sliced boiled potatoes and really good extra-virgin olive oil.

I was really excited to work with the Bacalao that Chef ordered and having NEVER made Bacalao fritters I was charged with the challenge. In fact, I haven’t had them in ages so that’s another plus! A few days before class I was on the phone with my Mom asking her how she made her fried Bacalao balls. Then she consulted with our cousins to refine the recipe and double check procedure. Finally a 10:30 pm call from Mom resulted in the recipe and procedure for the dish.

Back in the school’s kitchen, I put a stockpot filled with milk on the fire and added my codfish so it would soften and be pliable. I kept the fish on a low simmer and let it steep in the milk for about 40 minutes. Next, I chopped onion, shallot and garlic in a fine mince and I began sautéing the onion until almost translucent with no caramelized color, then added the shallot and lastly the garlic just to release its flavor. Chef came by and added a healthy pour of extra-virgin olive oil to the mixture and said, “its Mediterranean, we need lots of good olive oil!”

Once the fish was softened, we drained it in a colander, mixed it with the aromatics in the sauté pan and I broke up the pieces of fish and coated them just for a few minutes. Into a large mixer with the paddle attachment we carefully mixed the codfish with some double cream and some more extra-virgin olive oil and some cracks of black pepper. Lastly, the addition of freshly chopped parsley and some cilantro gave the creamy white mixture a nice pop of fresh color.

We all tried the Bacalao and were pleased with the creamy, subtle flavor – Chef had his bite on a slice of fresh bread and remarked that he’d be happy with just that for dinner. My fellow students took charge in shaping and breading the 2 trays of Bacalao with an egg wash and bread crumbs we made that evening while I began two sauces for our cold seafood platter in advance.

Chef disappeared for a few minutes while we were working and came back with a handful of fritters that he had just deep-fried to perfection – I guessed he couldn’t wait any longer to try them!

One bite into the crisp outer shell of breadcrumbs into the warm filling and I was 7 years old tugging on Mom’s apron anxiously awaiting to have the first one out of the hot oil. Waiting for the Bacalao to cool on paper towels seemed like an eternity but it was worth the wait – I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder.

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