Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Week One: A Journey to Portugal

Last week, if someone had asked me to describe Portuguese cuisine, my response would have been that it is very similar to Spanish cuisine.  After a week of researching Portuguese cuisine, I must say that such a flip, generalized response would not be completely inaccurate, but now, I have a much better understanding of its idiosyncrasies.  The flavor profiles are broad.  In just a few sources, I found all of these spices/ingredients listed as essentials:  bay leaves, black pepper, chili peppers, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry powder, fennel, garlic, mint, nutmeg, olive oil, onions, oregano, paprika, parsley, rosemary, saffron, sweet red peppers, and vanilla.  In other words, almost every spice in my pantry is Portuguese.  I found the same range applies to produce.  In both cases, the diversity results from Portugal’s strong role in globalization dating back as far as the eleventh century.  In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portuguese explorers were charged to bring bounty from the New World to their homeland, which resulted in a variety of spices, tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, and potatoes being introduced to the Portuguese diet.  Seafood serves as the prominent protein with bacalhau (dried, salted cod) reigning as the most popular dish.  Meats and poultry are also strong components of the cuisine with the most prevalent being pork and poultry.  Most desserts are best described as rich and creamy.  Rice pudding and egg custards flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, or honey dominate the category.  Upon discovering such a broad definition of the cuisine, I decided to read recipes designated as Portuguese in every cookbook on my shelf in order to better understand its themes and nuances.  This menu is a result of my studies:
  • Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread
  • Cilantro and Garlic Soup
  • Clams Cataplana
  • Portuguese Custard Tarts
Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread
I found two similar recipes for Portuguese Bread and opted for the Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread in The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl.  (In my house, I call it the yellow kitchen bible.)  I chose this recipe after reading that breads made with wheat flours and cornmeal are common in Portugal
The only problem I had making this bread is the same problem I have every time I make bread in Florida…finding a warm draft-free place for the bread to rise.  After ninety minutes of waiting for my dough to double in size, I started looking for tips online.  (I knew that the problem wasn’t the yeast, because I have made enough bread to know how “proofed” yeast looks.)  I discovered a tip that worked brilliantly.  Heat your oven to 100 degrees F.  Open the oven door and let it cool until you can touch the inside racks without burning yourself.  Place the dough in its bowl covered with a kitchen towel inside the oven with the door open half-way.  It creates the perfect environment for rising.  My bread doubled up within thirty minutes. 

As you can see, the loaves were beautiful.  The flavor was similar to sourdough bread, but the texture was much tenderer.  It was the perfect accompaniment to the meal. 

Cilantro and Garlic Soup
While reviewing soup recipes, I found that “green” soups lead the category.  Caldo Verde is the most popular, which is a kale soup thickened with potato puree.  It is sometimes flavored with chouri├žo, which is Portugal’s version of the more popular Spanish chorizo.  I also found another green soup in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World called Cilantro and Garlic Soup.  Since everything I read about Portuguese flavor profiles consistently mentioned cilantro and garlic, this recipe piqued my interest.  It sounded interesting and a little more flavorful than the traditional caldo verde, so I opted to make it.  I am confident I made the correct choice, because it was so delicious that my husband couldn’t get enough and started offering up ways that I could use the same flavor profiles to make better chicken noodle soup.
The basic premise of the recipe is to make a paste of fresh garlic, fresh cilantro and olive oil.  Then, add the raw garlic/cilantro paste to simmering stock.  (I used Imagine Vegetable Stock, because I had it in my pantry.  Of course, homemade stock would improve the flavor.)  The resulting aroma of the raw garlic & cilantro melding with the simmering stock was heavenly. 

To serve the soup, place a thick slice of toasted bread in the bottom of a soup bowl.  (I used my homemade Portuguese Cornmeal White Bread, but the recipe calls for French or Italian bread.)  Place a poached egg on top of the toast.  Then, ladle the broth over the egg and bread.  This is peasant food at its highest form.  I could make a meal out of this soup alone.

Clams Cataplana
Although Portuguese cuisine includes meats and poultry, I felt like a seafood dish would be more representative of the whole.  Bacalhau is clearly the most prized choice in Portugal, but I just wasn’t feeling up to that.  I discovered two common threads among the numerous seafood recipes I reviewed.  Most dishes are stews or one-pot meals, and many incorporate meats into the dish to add flavor.  The two most popular are caldeirada, which is a stew of fish, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes, and cataplana, which is a layered “one pot” meal of shellfish, vegetables, and meat.  Cataplana is also the name of the vessel used to cook the dish.  It is generally a hammered copper pot with a hinged lid that looks like a giant clam.  The dish’s origin is from Algarve, the southernmost region of mainland Portugal.
I chose to make a cataplana called Portuguese Clams from The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl.  Since I don’t own a cataplana, I used my All-Clad Stainless Steel 3-qt casserole, and it worked perfectly for a half-recipe.  I chose this dish because it included a large variety of the vegetables commonly found in Portuguese cuisine, and I wanted to experience how the whole of the flavor profile works together.  The dish is layered with clams, onions, garlic, tomatoes, roasted peppers (red, green, and yellow), fresh parsley, potatoes, and Spanish Chorizo.  White wine and tomato sauce are added to sauce the dish.  Basically, you just put a lid on the layered dish and simmer it for about fifteen minutes.  The final result was a hearty, fresh-flavored entree with beautiful colors and perfectly cooked clams, and the soaking up the last plate juices with the fresh Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread ensured that even the last bite was delectable.
On the day before I was planning to prepare this meal, it occurred to me that I should be able to find a nice Portuguese wine to complement it.  Jeffrey Wolfe from Wolfe’s Wine Shoppe helped me out with a great bottle of Auratus Alvarinho Trajadura 2009 for under $20.  This bright, crisp wine was perfectly paired with the rich chorizo and the fresh flavors of the clams and vegetables in the cataplana.
Portuguese Custard Tarts
I have never been a fan of rice pudding, so Portuguese Custard Tarts (Pasteis de Nata) were my choice for dessert.  I used an online recipe with high-praise reviews.  For me, it was just okay.  Excellently-average at best.  I mean, it’s just some egg custard in a puff pastry shell.  Admittedly, they were much better warm out of the oven than after they cooled. 

All in all, I had a successful Portuguese dinner, and I certainly know more about Portuguese Culture and Cuisine than I did before this week’s project, which is exactly the point.  I will definitely make the Portuguese White Cornmeal Bread, Cilantro & Garlic Soup, and Clams Cataplana, again.  Stay tuned for next week’s dinner in my South African kitchen!


  1. The Cilantro and Garlic soup sounds amazing! I think cilantro in soup adds a great flavor, and the garlic puree sounds like a good foundation for this soup as well. I look forward to reading more from your blog to learn new recipes !

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