Despite the fact that I cook rabbit, bison, fish and splurge on dijon mustards, white balsamic vinegars and impossible-to-find New Mexico Chiles, I usually make a whole fish, a whole rabbit and less expensive cuts of meat slow-cooked to tenderness, instead of specialty cuts, even fillets, and I look for the best price:quality:taste ratio on gourmet products. My point is obviously that the Montreal Festival en Lumière can be ridiculously expensive.
There are cheaper, or free, options, like the Crossroads of Flavour, but the festival is all about upscale dinners with guest Portuguese chefs, Portuguese wines, and Quebec restaurants. So it’s tough to know where to spend your money if you think these things are amazing. Really it’s unfair. It’s like a birthday where you misbehaved so you’re not allowed to open your presents, and they just sit there, all wrapped up, in front of you. Taunting you. Except in this analogy you never get the presents. Your parents are apparently very mean…and decided to give your presents to your smelly cousin Teddy. You hate Teddy.
So, present-less (or dinner reservation-less), your only option is recreate a Gourmet Portuguese meal for yourself. Sure, you could pick up some chicken and fries at (insert your favourite Montreal rotisserie chicken place here. Touchy subject…) but this dish was shared by Canada and Portugal long before a chicken even thought about crossing the road to St-Hubert.
1 lb boneless, skinless salt cod fillets (you can get it with skin and bones, but it’s a real nuisance trying to get them out of the cod after soaking it, so I thought it was better for my sanity to spend a few extra dollars for the pre-skinned and de-boned salt cod at Poissonerie Atwater
2 cups dried black eyed peas, cooked and drained, or use 2 540mL cans of black eyed peas or navy beans. Oh, the festival is also featuring Cajun cooking, and though I’m almost two months late for New Years, I’ll consider these a Louisiana specialty. Just pretend Chinese New Year, which was last Sunday, is North American New Year…makes it a bit more legit)
2 tsp olive oil or butter
2 onions, diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks of celery, diced
5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, or 2 tsp dried
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
5 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of one lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1 bay leaf
1 cup whipping cream (or 2% milk, almond breeze, coconut cream, or your favourite milk substitute). Obviously the milk won’t make the cassoulet as thick or creamy as the whipping cream, and the coconut cream will turn this into a Caribbean-flavoured dish, but any will work just fine)
So my reference to Canada and Portugal sharing this dish dates way back to the days of John Cabot as seen in the Canadian Heritage Moment where the fishermen lean over the side of their boat off the coast of Newfoundland and scoop up a baskets full of cod (1497-ish). Back in the day the Portuguese were fishing those waters, then the British, then whoever could get a boat over there. The cod got salted to preserve it for the long trip home. As much as it kills me to think that the cod I bought for this recipe may have been caught just outside Canadian waters, off the shore of Newfoundland, continuing to destroy the substantially-diminished Atlantic cod population (Giovanni, aka John, would not be having any more luck with the baskets), it’s hard to know exactly where it came from, and it certainly won’t be a regular occurrence. Like most fish, buy it in moderation, especially if it’s relatively affordable. There’s usually a reason it’s less expensive…I’m talking about you Atlantic Sole and Provigo Tilapia.
Salt Cod, or bacalao in Portuguese, takes a bit of planning ahead to soak the cod, but there’s no worrying about cooking the fish for exactly the right amount of time, like for fresh fillets. The really nice thing is that the whole dish will be very flavourful from all the salt, even after rinsing it as many times as you can remember to rinse it in a 24 hour period.
1. Rinse the cod under cold water, cut it into deck of card-size pieces and stick it in a large bowl full of cold water. Then put it in the fridge for at least one day, dumping the water and re-filling the bowl at least 3 times. The more you do it, the less salty the fish will be, but don’t go crazy about it. Sometimes it’s nice outside.
2. If you’re using dried black eyed peas, soak them overnight in a bowl or pot with 6 cups of water. Drain them, and then pour them into a large pot with 8 cups of water. Bring them to a boil, skim off any scum that collects on the surface, and reduce the heat to simmer until the beans are not quite tender, but not yet mushy, about 50 minutes.
2. Heat the oil or butter over medium heat in another large pot. When the oil is hot add the onions, carrots and celery. Cook for about 8 minutes, then add the garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper and stir for 1 minute. Add the wine and stir for 30 seconds, or until the liquid has almost evaporated. Then add the black eyed peas (or the 2 large cans of your beans of choice), the stock, and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes, or until your biggest pieces of carrots and celery are tender.
3. By now your cod is relatively salt-free, so get it out of the fridge, drain it, and in yet another large pot bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add the bay leaf. Now you have a choice, but you need to follow the instructions meticulously right up to the end of this paragraph. No skipping the last sentence. Either add the lemon juice and the bay leaf now or don’t add it and serve lemon slices on the side of the dish. If you skip the lemon juice your whole home will smell like fish for much too long a period of time, but depending on how much you don’t like the people you live with, that might be just fine. You won’t smell it as much since you’ve been in the kitchen with it for awhile. Don’t say I told you to do this.
4. Add the cod to the boiling lemon-optional water and cook, uncovered, just until the water starts to boil again. Then cover it and remove it from the heat. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then remove it from the large pot (finally, one LESS large pot) and flake it into small pieces with a fork. Remove the skin and bones if you saved a bit of extra money and knew you’d have your de-boning work cut out for you.
(If your vegetables are done before your cod is flaked, just turn off the heat on the vegetables and wait for the cod)
5. Add the flaked cod and the cream or milk to the vegetables and bring the pot back to a simmer, then reduce the heat just a little bit to medium-low so the milk doesn’t boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, or until the cassoulet is a stew consistency you’re happy with, stirring every few minutes to make sure the milk doesn’t form a skin on the surface.
6. To make it really authentic and feel like a great Portuguese Chef, drizzle each bowl of cassoulet with olive oil. Don’t tell anyone if the oil is Italian, not Portuguese. Lie if you need to. Like with International Water boundaries, you can probably get away with more than you think…
7. Eat with bread, maybe some kale (another Canadian and Portuguese shared specialty), maybe some Portuguese wine, and thank goodness you just saved at least $60 by not going to a Montreal Highlights Festival Restaurant.