We first visited Sagrés Restaurant on Columbia Street in Fall River, MA, right after moving to nearby Rhode Island in 2000, on a Friday night, especially to hear the weekly live Fados, a mournful traditional song style of Portugal. Southeastern New England has, perhaps, the highest density Portuguese-American Community in the country, traced back to the Grand Banks cod fishery and the whaling industry, Azorean Islanders make up a significant part of this community. (See the book, Patina of Place, by Kingston Heath.) Whale oil continued to be produced into the early 20th century as a superb lubricant for the machinery of the last great industry of the region, textiles, which made Fall River one of the richest cities in America only to collapse with the wholesale abandonment by millowners for the cheaper, non-union labor of the deep south. The dislocation was brashly admitted by the fact that many mills retained their original local northeastern names, Native American names, at that, reaching back to a still earlier disclocation, to use a polite term. But that was not to be the last punch to the gut of laborers, as these mills, like the Wiscassett Mills of my previous stomping ground, Albemarle, NC then moved to Southeast Asia. So, perhaps, subconsciously, I was drawn to hear the Fados of Fall River by my tactile experience exploring, measuring and drawing the sad relics of the north in the deep south, doing restoration and rehabilitation work to entice the “new economy” back to that sleepy, but attractive, hill-town. Meanwhile the mills of Fall River remain empty as well, just 40 minutes from the Boston tech miracle.
I hope the deferential title for this recipe absolves me from bastardizing a Portuguese classic. You see, as I have always eaten it at the Sagrés Restaurant, it is made with salt cod, but I make it with fresh cod. I do that for two reasons: 1. Because if you are not near a great Portuguese market like Chaves’, just down Columbia Street (which has a mind-blowing section of Portuguese wines at bargain prices also), it is hard to get a selection of the best quality salt cod; and 2. Not being raised in a salt cod culture, freshly caught fish is my favorite, while salt cod is an occasional delicacy. I enjoy its unique, tougher, texture, but I am hooked on the charms of freshness. For centuries before refrigeration salting was the only way cod made it from the Grand Banks to the tables of Europe, so a cuisine was built around it. (See the book Cod, by David Kurlansky.) Today, the Portuguese and Basques, who dominated the cod fishery, are the ones who most assertively preserve that tradition.
Cod Sorta ala Sagrés has amazingly complex flavor for how simple it is to make, so you can add it to your regular rotation and people will still think you have gone all-out. The balance of light acidic vinho verde or sidra, barely baked produce and fresh fish can stand up to a next-day re-heat, something I almost never do with fresh fish, except in stews. But here it works in a light dish even though the fish is featured rather than subsumed into a deeply simmered sauce.
- 1 to 1-1/3 lb. very fresh cod filet(s)
- 3 roma tomatoes, diced
- 2 medium yellow or white potatoes cut into 8 wedges each
- ¼ medium-large sweet onion, wedged and layers separated
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tbsp. Italian parsley, chopped
- 8 calamata olives, halved lengthwise
- Vinho Verde or Natural Sidra
- Virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup bread crumbs
- ½ lemon
Pre-heat oven to 375˚
In non-stick pan add 3 tbsp. of olive oil and the minced garlic. Set heat to medium-high and let the garlic infuse the oil as it warms up, removing it and most of the oil to a saucer before it starts to smell acrid. Having retained just enough oil to brown the potato wedges, add them turning frequently to brown both faces, then reduce heat to med low and cook till al dente, turning occasionally to prevent burning. Set aside.
Lay the filets down inner (bone) side of cuts facing up in a lightly oiled 9” x 12” clay or porcelain baking dish with 3” sides. Squeeze the lemon over the filets, then drizzle them with the infused olive oil and wilted garlic. Evenly distribute the tomato, onion and olives over the filets and the potatoes around them. Sprinkle all very lightly with the breadcrumbs and with the parsley. Splash overall with wine or sidra adding extra to the dish around the fish. Then drizzle a last bit of olive oil to help brown the breadcrumbs.
Place in oven and cook uncovered for 30 minutes. Present the baking dish on the table and serve to plates there with a large, shallow serving spoon. Lift spoonfuls of fish and vegetables together and slide without flipping onto the plates followed by a spoonful of the pan juices over the serving.