Portuguese cod fritters (Bolinhos de Bacalhau)
A recipe from the old-world grandmother I never had
So there’s this cliché about the Portuguese that they’re a maudlin lot. Melancholy is, apparently, the defining aspect of their culture, like all they do is lie around singing heartbreaking fado songs and lamenting Prince Henry the Navigator. I submit Christine and Céu as evidence to the contrary, but I guess that still doesn’t explain why half the Portuguese cookbooks I come across start by apologizing for the fact that you’re about to make salt cod with potatoes. Hey, cod and potatoes are good! At least 364 versions worth of good, if not the full 365 the Portuguese claim.
Anyway, here is version No. 1: Céu’s cod fritters, the pride of Waterbury, Conn. Unfortunate versions abound, but Céu’s are fluffy and pleasingly chewy with bits of cod, encased in a slight crunch, tasting satisfyingly of potatoes and fish. To be honest, I learned to make my lady friend’s mother’s specialty to keep my home life happy, but I’m glad to share them with you. And may they make your day a little less maudlin.
Portuguese Cod Fritters (Céu’s Bolinhos de Bacalhau, also called Pastéis de Bacalhau)
Makes 5 dozen. Yes, that’s a lot if you don’t have a big Portuguese family coming over for Christmas. But they reheat well in the oven.
2 ¼ pounds russet, Yukon Gold, or Maine potatoes
1 ½ pounds soaked salt cod, preferably with skin and bone (from about 18 ounces dried, see step 1 below)
1 medium onion (about 4 ounces), finely chopped
1 ounce parsley leaves, chopped (a small handful)
6 large eggs, beaten
Salt and white pepper
vegetable oil for frying
Meat grinder, or stand mixer meat grinder attachment
A food mill/potato ricer and clean towel
- A couple of days before: Rinse salt cod in cold water, and then submerge it in a large bowl. For up to 1-inch-thick pieces, Céu soaks them for about two days in the fridge, changing water a few times a day. When they’re ready, the filets will feel flexible, like fresh fish, but the flesh will not have the firmness of truly fresh fish; it will hold a slight indent when you press into it. (Incidentally, don’t buy fresh fish that does that; it will make you sad.) To really know if it’s ready, take a knife, and dig out a tiny bite from the center of the fish. It should have an appealing saltiness — you should be able to imagine eating a big bite of it and not start gasping for water. If it’s just slightly more salty than you like, that’s OK — just decrease the salt later when cooking the potatoes. If it’s saltier than that even, keep soaking. (Céu likes to soak more salt cod than she needs, and then freeze the rest, ready to use whenever.)
- Peel and cut potatoes in half lengthwise (if they’re really big, quarter them), so they’ll cook quickly and evenly, and cover potatoes by an inch of cold water. (The reason to start potatoes in cold water is so that the starch on the outer cells don’t gel up upon hitting boiling hot water, giving you a gummy layer. I’m not totally convinced by that, but it definitely beats having to wait for the water to boil before you get the potatoes cooking.) Bring the pot to a boil over high heat, then turn it down to a moderate simmer. Salt the water a little less than you normally would because you’ll add the cod later, which will have its own salt.
- After about 15 minutes, take a paring knife to one of your potatoes. When the potato is nearly but not quite ready to give up the ghost, holding just a bit of resistance against the knife, add the cod to the pot. Bring back to a simmer. Keep prodding the potatoes every couple of minutes. When they break apart easily with a poke of a fork, it also shouldn’t take much convincing to make the fish come apart. If all these things are true, take the cod out in whole pieces, and drain the rest of the pot.
- Flake apart the fish with a fork, breaking it up and feeling and looking for bones to take out. The skin should come off easily. Discard the bones and skin.
- Now, Céu says, “Portuguese people put the cod in a towel.” She balls a towel up as if filled with fish and demonstrates kneading it like it was dough. This breaks the fish apart into chunks. You can do it that way. “But I no like that. I like it this way,” she says, flashing a cheater’s smile and feeding the fish through a meat grinder into a large bowl. The salt cod comes out like short threads, looking like an accident at the fabric factory, but the fineness of the fish lets it mix more thoroughly in the fritters and leaves them more tender. She feeds the potatoes through the grinder, too, but if you don’t have one, you can use your food mill or potato ricer.
- Add the onion and parsley to the bowl, and pour in the eggs. Now, with a pinching motion, lift and mix it all together lightly but thoroughly, so that it looks a bit like overly wet mashed potatoes, but enough to still hold a shape, with some shards of fish and onion sticking out. “I’m no like that Italian lady cooking on TV. Blah blah blah! Don’t tell me what you doing, show me!” Céu says. OK, then:
- Give the mix a taste. I know there are raw eggs in there. You’ll live. Is it bland? Add some salt, enough to heighten the flavors, and just enough white pepper so that you can tell it’s there. (OK, if you’re really afraid of raw eggs, give it a mix and season before adding the eggs, and then add a pinch more salt and pepper once you incorporate the eggs.) Now, get a wide, heavy pot filled 2 to 3 inches deep with oil, and heat over medium-high heat.
- Meanwhile, form the fritters. You can make quenelles with two spoons, which is the classy choice:
- But, to be honest, I liked the fritters even better when Céu is too busy to do them this way. In a hurry, she just plops a spoonful into the palm of her hand and squeezes it slightly to form vaguely football-shaped cakes, with some dents and ridges from her fingers. All the little imperfections of the form — the little juts and crags — fry up more crisply, because of their greater surface area. While you’re working, check on the frying oil once in a while. Don’t take too much time making the cakes and let the oil burst into flames.
- Now get frying! Subject your first sacrificial fritter to the lake of grease; it should sizzle, but not scarily, immediately on contact. If not, let it heat up or cool down. (It should be around 375, if you’re using a thermometer.) Lower the fritters into the oil with a spoon, or by gliding them in with your hand away from your body. (Getting scared and dropping them in is the most dangerous way to do it; you’ll get hot greasy splashes everywhere.) Add as many fritters as will fit with room to float and move around a bit, and help out by turning them occasionally. Take them out with a slotted spoon as they turn the color of walnuts, and let them drain on a tray lined with several layers of paper towels as you fry the next batch.
- Serve while hot and crisp. Many like them still at room temperature, after they’ve softened a bit, but I find that they reheat and crisp up again nicely in the oven.
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