One night, two Italians, a Portuguese and an American met one another while sitting at a bar… the conversation quickly led from sports to food. It began with the sharing of photographs from years gone by: “This was me as a basketball player 3o years ago” one of the Italians shared from his Facebook page, the other Italian whipped out his phone bearing an old soccer photograph and a marathon photo from his childhood. The Portuguese had a few soccer photos of his own too. The American the only female of the group smiled and laughed, I saved my old running photos for myself.
I don’t know how the conversation turned to baccala or bacalhau, or salt cod (depending on where you are from), but it did, and the Portuguese man was vehemently against the Italians’ method of cooking baccala with tomatoes. Shaking his head in disapproval, he argued that tomatoes, in his opinion, simply overpower the delicate baccala.
I asked him then how he preferred to prepare bacalhau, he thought for a second, his eyes lit up and he passionately led me through the steps of his recipe for Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo:
“You take yellow potatoes and mash them with olive oil – no milk, no butter, olive oil, okay!? Then sauté onions, garlic and a bit of red chili in olive oil – he called this sablada. Now, remember, this is important, don’t let the olive oil get too hot, keep it at a low heat. Soak the bacalhau for 2 days, changing the water each day. Boil it in milk for 15 minutes and then flake it into the onions and sautè until the codfish soaks up the olive oil. Make a well in the mashed potatoes and add the onions and the flaked bacalhau. With a wooden spoon, add egg yolks into a BIG measuring cup and beat it like a mayonnaise. This will take a long time, but keep beating until it thickens. Spread the mayonnaise on top of the bacalhau and onions, and bake it in a 425F oven until bubbling and browned on top.”
He also shared with me the best fish market for the freshest fish and the best bacalhau in Toronto, Osler Fish Market at 16 Osler Street Toronto, ON M4P 4A2 near Dundas and Dupont.
As he described the dish, I typed his words into my notes on my iPhone as fast as my fingers could fuddle. I came home delighted by learning about a new recipe and a new fish market to check out and began researching Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo. It turns out it’s somewhat like a Shepherd’s Pie in that it’s layered, contains mashed potatoes and is baked. The dish was devised in Porto and is named after its creator, Zé do Pipo, who owned a famous restaurant there during the 1960s. The dish was popularized throughout Portugal after his recipe won first prize in a national cooking contest, which in turn inspired many restaurants to adopt it to their menus and Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo became a smash hit.
I researched some more recipes and found that many use milk, butter and even egg yolk in their mashed potatoes. Olives and red peppers are commonly used to adorn the top of the dish. The bacalhau is flaked or whole filets are dredged in flour and sauteed in oil until golden brown. Taking bits and pieces from the kind man’s recipe from the bar along with recipes that I researched, I came up with my own rendition of Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo. I’ve also not mastered homemade mayonnaise so I reached for my jar of Hellman’s instead… Hopefully it’s Portuguese approved!
Bacalhau à Zé do Pipo
1 pound bacalhau filets, soaked in water for 2 days
1/4 cup flour seasoned with salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne, for frying bacalhau
4 Yukon Gold potatoes (larger size)
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for frying the bacalhau
1/4 cup milk
1 egg yolk
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large Spanish onion, sliced
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 chili pepper
4 large tablespoons of mayonnaise
1 small red pepper (roasted or fresh), sliced
black olives (to decorate the casserole)
fresh parsley, chopped
Fill a large pot with water, bring to a boil, add a palmful of sea salt and boil the potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes. Strain and peel the potatoes by slipping off their skins. Put the potatoes in a large bowl with the butter, 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil, milk, egg yolk and freshly ground black pepper. Mash with a potato masher until combined and smooth. Set this aside.
Grab a plate and add the flour seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne. Rinse and pat the bacalhau filets dry with paper towel. Dredge each filet in the flour, coating both sides. In a large saucepan, bring enough oil to a hot temperature and saute the bacalhau until golden on both sides, about 5-8 minutes. Remove the bacalhau to a paper towel to soak up the extra oil.
In the same pan that you used to cook the bacalhau, saute the onion, garlic, chili pepper and bay leaf until the onion starts to brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.
In a casserole dish, layer the bacalhau filets on the bottom. Then, cover the bacalhau with the onions and coat with the mayonnaise to cover. If you want to be fancy, take a Ziploc bag and cut the corner off or use a pastry bag and put the mashed potatoes inside, and pipe them out to surround the bacalhau and onions, otherwise, simply surround the bacalhau and onions with the mashed potatoes. Decorate with black olives and the sliced red pepper. Bake for 20 minutes in a 350F oven.
Before serving, garnish with fresh parsley.