Rain has stopped play (if you can call doing battle with next door's rampant mile-a-minute vine and a wobbly ladder 'play'). I head to the kitchen and make soup to thaw out my fingers and make me feel better about giving up. I have been intending to use the salt cod in the cupboard for weeks now, but every time I feel inspired I then remember that the fish needs at least 24 hours' soaking in cold water before it gets to the cooker. Two days ago I finally bit the bullet and unwrapped the lumps of salt-encrusted fish and started soaking and rinsing. Somehow, even though I have used it before, I'd got it into my head that the whole thing was a bit of a palaver when in fact it is no more of a hassle than soaking haricot beans.
In Oporto, the salt cod shops are cool, piled floor to ceiling with different cuts of salted cod. Whole fish hang from the ceiling like sparkling kites; neat blocks, the sort you find in the supermarkets here, are stacked like yellowing paperbacks in a secondhand book store; elsewhere they keep a few other salted treats for aficionados - eel, maybe, and anchovies the size of fingers. Back at home, you are more likely to find your salted fish tucked away in the darkest corners of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Caribbean grocers.
Something sweet to offset the savoury quality of the main ingredient is crucial in this soup, which will be a handy way of making a hole in the leek mountain in the fridge. I'll cook them down to a pale-green slush in a mixture of olive oil and butter set over low heat. Silkily soft yet still with cheerful colour, the leeks make a sweet backbone for the fish.
In the absence of anything more substantial, this needs to stand up as a main course. Fish and potatoes can barely fail as a marriage, and are well known in fish cakes, fish and chips and fish pie. They will surely work in harmony as a one-pot rainy-day soup.
Potatoes, the dry and floury sort, crop up in the more usual recipes for salt cod fritters, but the idea of potato-less bunuelos de bacalao - as they serve them at London's reliably excellent Spanish restaurant Fino - appeals even more. I have made the restaurant's superb recipe before - it's in Sam and Eddie Hart's book Modern Spanish Cooking (£20, Quadrille) if you want to have a go - and I now use it as a base for my own.
In its raw state, salt cod is strangely beautiful, its silver and grey skin glistening like frost. The pieces are awkwardly shaped, and it is essential to go for the thickest pieces, otherwise you will have little to show for your efforts of soaking and draining. The flesh and bone make difficult cutting - I have seen them use a guillotine in Portugal. As mine is going to end up shredded, the flatter and generally cheaper pieces from the belly will do, but for the soup, something thicker and meatier, say from the loin, will be more appropriate.
So we sit down to soup the colour of the sky, soup that I have procrastinated about making, like it was going to be the most difficult thing in the world. When in fact it was as easy as falling off a log, or maybe a wobbly ladder.
A big soup of salt cod and cabbage
Serves 2-3 as a main course
200g salt cod
4 medium-sized leeks
2 tbsp olive oil
4 small (not new) potatoes
6 rashers of smoked bacon
a small bunch of parsley
1.5 litres of light stock or water
2 handfuls of greens, such as kale, cabbage or cavolo nero
2-3 tbsp of roughly chopped parsley
thick pieces of bread
Put the cod in a bowl of cold water and leave it to soak for at least 24 hours - better still, 48. Change the water every few hours.
Trim the leeks, cut into thin rings and rinse thoroughly. Melt the butter and oil in a deep, thick-based pan. Stir in the leeks then cover them loosely with greaseproof paper or kitchen parchment and cover with a lid (this stops them sticking). Leave for 15 minutes on a low heat, checking from time to time to make sure they aren't colouring, stirring if needed. Scrub the potatoes, peeling them if you wish, and cut into large pieces.
When the leeks are soft, tender and bright green, add the bacon (cut into large dice) and the potatoes. Chop the parsley leaves and stir them in, then pour in the stock or water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down so that the liquid simmers gently.
Cut the drained fish into thick fingers and introduce to the soup, letting them simmer for 10 minutes, till the fish is tender. Trim the cabbage leaves so they will fit on to a spoon.
Taste the soup, grinding in pepper and perhaps salt. Drop in the greens, push them under the liquid and cook for a minute or 2. Serve in large, open bowls, scattered with parsley if you wish. Pour over olive oil at the table and eat with big pieces of bread.
Salt cod fritters
400g salt cod, soaked for 24 to 48 hours in cold, regularly changed water
2 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns
1 small onion or shallot, peeled, finely sliced
3 large eggs
150ml cooking liquor
juice of ½ a lemon
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
groundnut or sunflower oil for deep frying
a bowl of aioli or tartar sauce
Put the fish, cut into large chunks, in a deep saucepan and cover it with the milk and enough water to cover. Add the bay leaves, peppercorns and onion or shallot. Bring to the boil then switch off the heat and leave the cod to cool slightly in the seasoned milk.
Remove each piece of fish. Crumble them into flakes. Reserve 150ml of the cooking liquor (discard the rest and the onion). Pour the water into a small saucepan and stir in the butter. Add the flour and beat thoroughly with a wooden spoon, then simmer over a low heat, stirring regularly till it turns a pale beige (about 7 minutes). Leave to cool a bit, then beat in the eggs, one at a time, ending up with a thick sauce. Beat in, slowly and thoroughly, 150ml of the fish cooking liquor to give a soft, slightly creamy mixture. Stir in the flaked fish, lemon juice and parsley. Season with black pepper and check for salt.
Heat the oil in a deep pan. Take a heaped tablespoon of the mixture at a time and slide it off with another spoon into the oil. Deep fry till crisp and pale gold. Serve with a sauce.