If there’s one Portuguese ingredient familiar to all, it’s probably salt cod. And if there’s one Portuguese salt cod dish that’s best known, it’s likely bacalhau à Brás. Why has this particular dish – salt cod scrambled with eggs, onions and matchstick potatoes – risen to the top?
“It’s the most democratic,” theorizes chef Luís Gaspar. “It has eggs, potatoes – things everyone likes.”
We’re at Pica-Pau, one of three Lisbon restaurants that Luís oversees, to learn more about what is ostensibly one of Portugal’s most famous dishes. He tells me that it was invented by a Lisbon chef named Brás, and that à Brás – “in the style of Brás” – has come to refer to a method of slowly cooking something with that most democratic trio of egg, onion and potato.
“You can use any protein,” Luís tells us. “But the original dish was made with salt cod.”
Luís takes us to the kitchen of Pica-Pau, where he’s laid out the various elements of the dish: flakes of salt cod, thin, crispy matchstick potatoes, onions and eggs.
“It’s a simple dish, but it’s hard to make it perfectly,” Luís tells us. “The eggs have to be creamy, the potatoes should be crunchy, the codfish should be soft.”
To accomplish these, Luís employs a few chef’s hacks that your average Lisbon tasca wouldn’t even imagine. For starters, he cooks the onions in advance, confit-style. This means a slow simmer in olive oil, with garlic, salt and pepper until the onions are light brown, melting and sweet. “It gives them more flavor and texture,” he tells us. Rather than use shredded salt cod off-cuts – the standard for the dish – he uses the more expensive middle “loin” cut. Instead of boiling the salt cod, he steeps it in hot water made aromatic with a clove of garlic and a bay leaf. And rather than go through the trouble of peeling, slicing and deep-frying potatoes, he simply pops open a bag of matchstick potatoes, as “The texture is perfect.”
Luís agrees to demonstrate a dish for us, and after heating a glug of olive oil in a saucepan, he adds a generous scoop of those confit onions. These are followed by flakes of tender salt cod and just a pinch of matchstick potatoes. When this mixture is heated through, Luís adds the eggs, but not before removing the saucepan from the flame.
“If the egg gets overcooked, it gets dry,” he tells us. “Did you notice that I took the pan from the heat when I added the egg? The ambient heat is enough to cook the eggs.”
He stirs the mixture carefully but deliberately so that the egg remains creamy. With the saucepan still off the flame, he adds the remaining matchstick potatoes, chopped parsley, a pinch of salt and a generous grind of pepper, stirring the contents once more. He then removes the dish to a platter and garnishes it with black olives.
We shift to the semi-open-air dining room of Pica-Pau to taste the dish. It’s golden and fragrant, and markedly richer than other versions we’ve encountered previously, with the confit onions and the generous amount of fish and eggs setting the pace. To these relatively heavy ingredients, Luís has added a generous amount of black pepper, one of his favorite seasonings, and the ideal complement to this warm, homey concoction.
Recipe: Bacalhau à Brás, salt cod scrambled with matchstick potatoes and eggs
Chef Luís Gaspar, of Lisbon’s Pica-Pau, makes bacalhau à Brás via a process that requires two steps that can be done several days in advance, if desired.
This recipe makes a generous serving for two people, which is about as much as a medium saucepan can accommodate. If you’d like to make more than this, feel free to increase the ingredients accordingly but portion the final cooking step as described below to avoid overloading the pan.
The recipe benefits from the aroma of freshly-ground pepper.
For the salt cod
350g bone-in, skin-on salt cod loin
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
For the confit onions
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions (around 500g total), peeled and sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
4 grinds of pepper
For the bacalhau à Brás
120g packaged matchstick potatoes
4 eggs, beaten with a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper
2 sprigs parsley, chopped
4 black olives
Prepare the salt cod: Desalinate the salt cod by soaking it for at least 24 hours, changing the water at least three times. In a small saucepan, combine the salt cod, garlic, bay leaf and enough water to cover the salt cod by a couple centimeters. Over a high heat, bring the water to just short of the boil then close the lid and remove the saucepan from the heat. Allow the mixture to sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Strain and discard the water. When the salt cod is cool enough to handle, flake the flesh, discarding the bones and skin; you should have around 200g of flaked salt cod. Set aside in the refrigerator for up to five days or proceed to the next step.
Prepare the confit onions: Up to five days in advance, heat the olive oil over low heat in a medium non-stick saute pan. Add the onion, garlic, salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the water has emerged and evaporated, and the onions are light brown in color and sweet, around 1 hour; you should have around 150g of confit onions and oil. Set aside in the refrigerator or continue to the next step.
Prepare the dish: In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the confit onions, stirring until warm. Add the reserved salt cod, stirring gently, until combined with the onion mixture, and warm. Add half of the potatoes, stirring gently until combined with the onion and fish mixture, and warm. Remove the saucepan from the heat, allow it to rest for 15 seconds, and add the eggs, stirring constantly to combine and to ensure that they don’t set too quickly. Add the remainder of matchstick potatoes and 3/4 of the chopped parsley, stirring to combine. Taste to adjust seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper to taste, if needed; the dish should taste pleasantly salty and rich, with a distinct aroma of pepper.
Remove the dish to a serving plate, garnish with the olives and remaining chopped parsley, and serve warm.
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Published on October 31, 2023