A little sun and salt

Tomorrow will be the first anniversary of our engagement and if there's anything I find more surprising than how quickly time has passed, it would be the montage of my random recollections of that day.

If you were to ask a million people to free-associate the words "engagement" or "proposal" it is highly unlikely that you would hear a chorus of cows, neon orange scuba suit, or giant-teddy-bear-riding-shotgun-in-an-Ariel-Atom from any of them - save one if, by some bizarre coincidence, I happened to be in your sample pool.

Another unlikely association would be salt. But being the kind of girl who associates all major events in her life with some kind of taste, this is one of the things I remember the most vividly from that crazy cool day.

The actual proposal came quite unexpectedly one lazy afternoon whilst we enjoyed an impromptu picnic during the only 2-hour window of sunshine all weekend. Our "feast" consisted of one bottle of Veuve (inexplicably sporting the above-referenced scuba suit), half a salami, a block of cheese and some leftover tapenade from the day before, and the last remnants of a bag of garlic crostini leftover from God-knows-when.

It wasn't especially practical to eat out of the boot of the car...

...but luckily, we happened to have an emergency hairdryer box on hand.

This is just one of the many reasons why I love this man so. 

That and the fact that many a would-be fiancé might have panic-paired a last-minute champagne proposal with a bunch of chocolates, sweets or something slightly less savory, but not mine. I may be a certified sugar-monkey, but when push comes to shove, I'll take a sassy salt-block over a sappy sugar-cube any day of the week. Besides, any more sweetness that day would have sent me straight into hyperglycemic shock.

Then again, truth be told, I was pretty salty myself that day - figuratively and literally.
If you're interested in the full story, you can read about it here.

Later that evening we met up with Francesco and Katrin - who, henceforth, will be affectionately referred to as the FranKat's - and the four of us continued celebrating all night at Algarve.

Named for a small region in Southern Portugal, Algarve is the only Portuguese restaurant in Utrecht and conveniently located around the corner between our respective houses. With a handful of tables in the front and one guy doing all the cooking in the back, it's one of those delightful little gems that really transports you and turns a simple dinner into a virtual holiday.

Always quick to befriend the waitstaff - after all, this person is responsible for my happiness for the next couple of hours - I inquired enthusiastically about the menu and was directed immediately to the specialty of the house: bacalhau.

Since the 16th century, bacalhau (known elsewhere as baccalà, bacalao, or just plain salt cod) has been the national dish of Portugal. The tradition is so strong there that dishes are categorized as fish, meat, poultry or bacalhau. Preparations vary from boiling, frying and grounding to grilling or baking. It is well documented that there is a different bacalhau recipe for every day of the year, and there are those who believe even that to be a gross underestimate.

Salt-cured and sun-dried, this unassuming, unsexy fish is even credited with making the Age of Discovery possible by providing the essential protein necessary for long sea voyages. It is also said that once you acquire a taste for it, you may be hooked for life.

Whew. That's one hell of a resume for what essentially amounts to fish jerky.
But damn was it good!

And what a perfectly appropriate metaphor for this day:

That the most average, ordinary, everyday things can become the impetus for a veritable renaissance with nothing more than a little sun and salt.

Bacalhau a Marinheiro (Sailors Bacalhau)
recipe adapted from AlgarveBuzz

This recipe requires a little forward planning if you're using traditional bacalhau, but it's really easy and very much worth it. Once desalted and rehydrated (check packaging instructions as soaking times will vary and some now come pre-soaked), the bacalhau can be cooked and either stored in the refrigerator for a day or two or frozen until you're ready for the deliciousness.

I will admit that salt-curing does impart a unique flavor that's pretty impossible to reproduce, but if you can't find any authentic bacalhau, fresh cod works just as well and it's likely that no one but you will know. If you're feeling ambitious, you can soak it overnight in a saltwater bath of 4 parts water to 1 part salt. Just be sure to cover it tightly or you'll need a boatload of baking soda to rectify the situation.

3 cups desalted bacalhau or fresh cod
1 cup milk + water
4 medium potatoes, cubed, shredded or julienned
3-4 tablespoons olive or canola oil 
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
2 egg yolks
1 cup full cream (light cream works well also)
3 tablespoons dijon mustard
salt & pepper
1/4 cup full-bodied white wine
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, lightly toasted
parmesan cheese or a cured sheep cheese
6 tablespoons cold butter (optional)

Whether you're using desalted bacalhau or fresh cod, place the whole portions in a pot and cover them completely with a water and milk bath. Let it boil for 15 minutes, at which point you will notice the cod puff up and the portions become much more flaky.

Drain the cod and let it cool. While its cooling, preheat your oven to 175 C/350 F, unless you're going to freeze or refrigerate it for later use.

When it's cool enough to handle, remove and discard the bones and skin. (Another merit of the fresh cod is that fillets are usually boneless and skinless.) Then you can either place the cod pieces in a food processor and pulse a few times to shred lightly, or you can shred it the "authentic" way: place the cod flakes in a cloth napkin, wrap it up and hit it a few times on your working surface. The water will drain off and the cod will be shredded. Just be sure to close the napkin well so as not to create a storm of random fish parts in your kitchen.

Next, peel and shred, cube or julienne the potatoes. Salt them lightly before frying - this will give them a much nicer flavor than salting them later - and fry them in the skillet until golden. Then drain them on absorbent paper and let them cool.

In the same skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter, add the chopped onion and sauté. Once they're transparent, combine with the shredded cod and potatoes in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl, create a cream mixture by combining egg yolks, mustard, salt, pepper and cream. Blend together, then gently add in the wine and stir until well blended.

Pour the cream mixture over the cod mixture and gently fold until everything is one big, beautiful mess. Spoon into an oven-proof pan or individual quiche dishes and sprinkle with breadcrumbs and grated cheese. Dot with scattered bits of the remaining butter and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Garnish with lemon slices and olives if you like.

Serve hot with a leafy-green salad, seasoned with a vinaigrette type dressing (we made this one) and a bottle of your favorite white wine.

If you happen to have leftovers, it's even better the next day.

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