Find dinner inspiration from Norway and the Mediterranean with a hearty bowl of bacalao
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
Taste of Norway Editor
The Norwegian American
Fish has been a key export for Norway for centuries, with cod as king. People often think of cod as a mild whitefish, but have you heard of bacalao, a popular cod stew in Norway?
Bacalao simply means “cod” in Spanish, but it refers to the preparation in which cod is salted and then dried. Interestingly, fresh cod in Spanish is bacalao fresco, which shows the importance of the salted and dried version.
In English, we call it salt cod; dried cod without salt is stockfish. In Norwegian, this dried-and-salted cod is called klippfisk, which is directly translated as “cliff fish” in reference to the traditional outdoor drying method. To prepare it, the dried and salted fish is soaked for a day or two with several changes of water to rehydrate the fish.
This preservation technique made klippfisk one of Norway’s most important exports, and it is also an important export from Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Canada. The biggest consumer market was in the Mediterranean: Spain (bacalao), Portugal (bacalhau), and Italy (baccalà). These predominantly Catholic countries used salt cod for their meatless Fridays, Lent, and other holy days.
The portability and affordable price of salt cod fueled its popularity and spread to many cuisines in the Mediterranean, West Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America through trade, colonialism, and slavery.
Bacalao is also the name of a hearty stew made with salt cod that is wildly popular in Spanish-speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic.
The tomato-based version of bacalao was first brought to Norway via Kristiansund in the 1800s by Spanish sailors, and it spread throughout the country.
Though fresh cod is found more commonly in Norwegian cuisine, bacalao is a popular dish in Norway today, especially in the area of Møre og Romsdal. You can find restaurants and festivals along Norway’s extensive coastline dedicated to this salted cod stew.
In my research, I found many variations of Norwegian-style bacalao, but a common theme emerged: klippfisk, potatoes, onion, olive oil, tomato paste, and canned tomatoes.
I also saw reference to “krisebacalao,” a wartime version of Norwegian bacalao that fed people during food shortages of World War II. I couldn’t find a recipe for krisebacalao, but if you know of one, please write to me!
Developing this recipe was the first time I have used klippfisk, but I was surprised to find it available at my regular grocery store. (It’s also available online through a number of retailers.) I admit that I was totally skeptical of the rehydrating process, but I followed the directions on the package: Three changes of water over 24 hours. I was pleased how easy it was!
To build the flavor, I focused on ingredients that can be found in American grocery stores: thick slices of onion, garlic, and tomato paste. I opted for Yukon Gold potatoes, which hold their shape nicely in a stew. I also added some Spanish smoked paprika, sweet pimentos in a jar, and briny Kalamata olives. (You can use whatever olives you like!) If you like some heat, add a thinly sliced fresh chili pepper or some cayenne pepper.
After sautéing the aromatics, I layered in the fish and potato slices, and poured a can of crushed tomatoes and the remaining ingredients. It simmered away for an hour.
My taste tester gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up, and I liked it, too. I didn’t think it needed any bread or carb on the side–my kind of one-pot meal for a weeknight! And the best part: It reheated beautifully a few days later for an easy lunch.
If you’re on the search for a plant-based option for bacalao, our friend Sunny Gandara of Arctic Grub developed a NorVegan bacalao recipe that uses heart of palm and chickpeas instead of fish–brilliant! You can find the recipe here: arcticgrub.com/bacalao-where-norway-meets-portugal.
For those who want to know more about the fascinating history of cod, I highly recommend “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World” by Mark Kurlansky.
Are you a bacalao fan? I’d love to hear from you! Write to me at email@example.com.
Spanish-style Salt Cod Stew
By Christy Olsen Field
For The Norwegian American
1 pound salted dried cod (look for Bacalao on the packaging; I used Galeco brand)
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly sliced
¼ cup olive oil, plus more to taste
1 large onion, thickly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 fresh red chili pepper, halved, deseeded, and sliced into half-moons (optional)
2 tsps. smoked paprika
2 tbsps. tomato paste
½ cup water
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 small jar (4 oz.) pimentos
1 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1 bay leaf
2 tbsps. flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Salt to taste
Here’s how you make it:
The day before you cook, rehydrate the cod per the package instructions. I used Galeco brand, and it called for changing the water three times over 24 hours. Slice the cod into 1-inch pieces.
In a medium pot (I used my 4-quart Dutch oven), heat the olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and a generous pinch of salt, and sauté until golden brown.
Add the sliced chili (if using, omit if you are sensitive to heat!), garlic, paprika, and tomato paste, and sauté until the tomato paste deepens in color.
Add the water to deglaze the pan, scraping up any stuck bits on the bottom.
Add in all the cod pieces, followed by all of the potato slices.
Pour in the can of crushed tomatoes and add the pimentos and olives. Add in the bay leaf.
Cover the pot. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, and let the mixture cook for one hour, so the potatoes are tender and the flavors have melded.
Taste for seasoning and add more salt or a glug of olive oil to balance the flavors. Garnish with parsley.
This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.