Portuguese Christmas Eve codfish recipe the way I like it

Food is a matter of great importance in Portugal. It is a common belief that when Portuguese families or friends gather, they spend hours at the table, engaging in conversation, laughter, and savoring a variety of dishes, including appetizers, main courses, desserts, coffee, digestives, and a range of beverages such as red wine, champagne, Port Wine, Ginginha, and more.

For Christmas Eve, many Portuguese people have a light dinner called Consoada. Portugal is a predominantly Catholic country, and as such, it's customary for many to abstain from eating meat during this time, often opting for fish, particularly codfish, or seafood dishes. In some regions, octopus is preferred over cod, prepared either by roasting with potatoes or as part of a rice dish. Christmas occasionally falls on a Friday, which is traditionally a day of abstinence within the Catholic Church. However, the practice goes beyond religious observance, as many European cultures have developed customs of meatless meals on Christmas Eve, as a prelude to the Midnight Mass and the ensuing celebration.

The most commonly chosen fish for Consoada is bacalhau, the salted-dry fish that holds a prominent place in Portuguese cuisine. The traditional preparation of bacalhau for Consoada is quite simple, though it may not appeal to all tastes. It typically involves boiling the cod with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and hard-boiled eggs, all dressed with olive oil, vinegar, and minced garlic.

When preparing a dish with bacalhau, it's crucial to follow a specific procedure for desalting the fish. To begin, the salted cod, purchased from a supermarket, is cut into large pieces. These pieces are then soaked in a glass bowl, which is covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated. The water in the bowl should be replaced every 8-10 hours. After approximately 48 hours, a small piece can be sampled to determine the saltiness, and if necessary, the soak can be extended for a few more hours with water replacements. The duration of soaking varies depending on the size of the fish. Once desalting is complete, the cod is ready to be prepared.

The way I prepare codfish is straightforward and follows a similar initial process as the traditional Bacalhau da Consoada. First, the potatoes are peeled, halved, and then boiled in water with a pinch of salt, along with the codfish. Cod has a firm and robust texture, allowing it to be boiled for an extended period, typically ranging from 30 to 45 minutes. Generally, when the potatoes are fully cooked, the cod is also done. While I don't use separate pots for cooking, you can choose to do so if you prefer. Once everything is boiled, it should be drained thoroughly.

In a pot large enough to accommodate all the ingredients, I combine the potatoes and the cod. Next, I finely chop two or more garlic cloves and sprinkle them over the mixture. I then season it with sweet paprika (pimentão doce or colorau), white pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. I cover the pot and allow it to sit for approximately 10 minutes.

Bread is an essential part of the table, as it's incredibly delicious when dipped in olive oil seasoned with sweet paprika and garlic. (For my American readers: "Colorau" is a red powder derived from the dried fruit of a plant native to the Americas, introduced to Europe centuries ago. It plays a crucial role in Portuguese cuisine, imparting color and flavor to a wide range of dishes.)

I acquired this method of preparing codfish from my grandmother, who referred to it as Bacalhau à Lavrador (The Farmer's Codfish). It was a meal consumed by those toiling in agriculture, working in the fields. They would carry it from home to the field, carefully wrapped, in the Mondego river region, a central part of Portugal renowned for its rice cultivation, back in the 1940s.

On Christmas Day, another family feast awaits, and this time meat graces the table. The choices may range from roast turkey to lamb or cabrito assado (baby goat). In the North of Portugal, Roupa Velha, translating to "old clothes," is also a traditional dish. It involves taking the leftover codfish from the previous night and frying it alongside thinly sliced potatoes and boiled eggs.

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