When I landed in Porto, I was still sweaty from running across the airport to my closing gate in Naples. Zombie-like from only two hours of sleep and cappuccino #5, I lugged my overweight suitcase through the cold cobblestoned streets while being pelted by heavy rain and telling myself: You’re not getting sick. You’re not getting sick. The only thing I could think about in that moment was food, naturally. Perhaps a pastel de nata, the iconic Portuguese custard tart, accompanied by an espresso, would be the cure for my foggy state. (The city’s popular sardine and tripe dishes would just have to wait.)
I was already five-weeks deep into living out of my suitcase, and the bombastic, Vespa-laden Neapolitan streets still rang in my ears. But my mind was in Chicago, my home for nearly a decade. Juggling three jobs and working 80-hour weeks had paved the way for burnout. A two-year relationship with my then-boyfriend ended after a week of packing, and the rooms that expected our future only got mounds of cardboard boxes, soon to be tossed into a truck and taken to a storage unit, instead. One item the movers forgot in their haste: a broken piece of a Christmas ornament. The ornament ended up in my travel bag, with me in Porto, and I’m not sure why.
The hazy pieces of the last few months began to take a clearer and more unpleasant shape as my trip came to an end. What direction would my life take once I was back in Chicago? I feared that the partner and friend I had for so long would no longer be a part of my life. These charming Azulejo-tiled homes, the welcoming chime of the Clérigos Tower—would I just forget it all once I returned to Chicago, alone, 80-hour weeks in stark contrast to lazily watching the ocean sunset from the Dom Luis bridge?
But the city soothed me in the moment I needed it most. In only two weeks, strangers had become dear friends. Solo nights alone had made way for nights with friends laughing over Port wine, finding ourselves traipsing through museums at midnight and stumbling upon concerts in the park at 2 a.m. I had a coffee shop that knew my order by heart, the flat white appearing the moment I sat down. The Coffee Room (now called The Royal Rawness), a rustic cafe on the second floor of a boutique clothing store on Largo dos Lóios, became my new office space. Around two or three every afternoon, restaurants came alive with families and friends laughing, and sharing stories over free-flowing bottles of vinho verde and a smattering of different bacalhau (salt cod) dishes. While the Portuguese have more than 1,001 different recipes that include bacalhau—don’t worry, I didn’t try them all—I found the bacalhau à brás to be both a soul lifter and the ultimate comfort food.
The dish contains crisp, shoestring potatoes swimming in warm, creamy egg, interlaced with generous heaps of flaky shredded fish. It revived my body and my weary mind. I went back three times to a restaurant called Solar Moinho de Vento just for this dish. I’d like to think that it was what kept me from succumbing to the cold—which I now realize was physical and emotional—that was brewing when I first arrived.
While I would wholeheartedly recommend hopping on the next flight to Porto and immediately ordering this dish, it’s actually surprisingly easy (and much cheaper) to make from the comfort of your own home. In most of these traditional fish-based dishes, dried salt cod is the gold standard. This means placing the dried fish in cold water overnight to remove the excess salt, draining and re-filling with fresh water a couple of times. (This is a step that must not be skipped; trust me, I learned the hard way.) You’ll want to spend a little extra time de-boning and removing the skin from the salt cod the next day, if applicable. While it might be a pain, think of it as a labor of love. (For more info, see here).
I hope you enjoy this ultimate winter comfort food with a full-bodied Portuguese wine while surrounded by those you hold dear (and perhaps a lovely roaring fireplace and glass of port to end the evening). For me, this dish is a lovely reminder to slow down and enjoy living in the moment.
- 1 pound salted dried cod (boneless, if you can find it)
- 1 1/4 cups olive oil, divided
- 1 large potato, cut into small matchsticks (about 2 3/4 cups potato sticks)
- 1 cup thinly sliced onion (about 1/2 medium onion)
- 8 eggs (for 4 yolks)
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped black olives
- Salt and pepper to taste
Been to Porto? Tell us about it in the comments!