December 6, 2010

A night in Portugal

I always imagine Portugal to be warm, in people and in temperature.  Red roofs, cobblestone roads, a warm oceanside sun, a late sunset and dinner after dark.  I imagine a perfect evening of strolling, with every other couple in Porto, along alleyways and narrow streets oozing old world charm.  Gawking over beautiful blue and white mosaic tile work on the facades of old buildings, stopping for a glass of Port, or wine, if I decide I don’t like port.  Walking slowly down to the Riberia (waterfront) to sit and watch a gorgeous sunset before heading into a restaurant to eat the night away.
We plan to visit Porto, in the northern half of Portugal, during the first or second week of May, we’ll see if that stays true.  The region is known for it’s hills and hard work both in the fields and on the water.  Central to Porto’s, and all of Portugal’s, food scene is bacalhau or salt cod.  Preserved to last a very very long time (a few years I’ve heard!) salt cod was a big business in historical times and lined the pockets of the Portuguese. You can find it many different ways and we plan to try quite a few of them, in sandwiches, scrambled eggs, casseroles and fritters, to name a few.

Last night as we spent a night in Portugal we tried some salt cod for the first time, in these wonderful salt cod and shrimp fritters.  These little gems are widely available in just about every restaurant in Portugal to go along side your glass of wine.  We had them along side a bowl of cilantro and ginger milk “mayonnaise”.

Next we had sopa de couve (kale soup) a rough and hearty soup very widely available in Portugal, thought by some to be Portugal’s national dish.  I can certainly attest to it’s deliciousness, half way through my small bowl I said to Shane “I’ll just eat this all night”  It was the best soup I’ve had in a long time, perfectly balanced, it has chorizo with just a touch of heat, kale and potatoes which are awesome by themselves and beans providing a nice contrast in texture.  This I will definitely make again, on a cold rainy night and eat it curled up with a good book on the couch.  (Yes I eat on the couch...all the time.)  I ate this for lunch today and it was even better then yesterday!  The liquid thickens up from the starches in the soup and the flavour is so good!  

Our main course was sablefish, delicious, amazing Pacific sablefish.  Another name the fish is known by is butterfish, which is very fitting.  Honestly I don’t know why we don’t eat it more. Shane made it with fennel and orange, smashed potatoes (he did something amazing to these, they were like butter too!) and broccoli rabe with garlic oil.  Sorry I can’t be more descriptive, my nose was all plugged (lovely, I know) and I couldn’t taste very much of this plate.

Finally, I made these pasteis de nata or baked custard tarts, which are said to have been invented by catholic nuns at Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon during the 18th century.  From the pictures I’ve seen, these nuns knew what they were doing, but since the recipe is a secret the only way to taste the authentic version is to actually go to Lisbon, something I’m not sure we’ll do.  I made two totally different recipes claiming the same end result, but both disappointed.  The first one I made the texture was thick and creamy, but baking did nothing for it and it was essentially just a thick stove top custard that tasted only of lemon.  The second had a tough texture but a wonderful flavour, cinnamon, lemon and vanilla all in perfect balance.  When we finally eat one in Portugal I’m sure we will experience something totally different.
For this entire meal we went straight to one book, The New Portuguese Table by David Leite.  I bought the book on Boxing Day 2009 and didn’t cook much out of it, feeling guilty every time I noticed it’s pretty red spine.  When we decided to do Portugal though, I knew a trusty resource was waiting.  And what a wonderful book it is, informative and pretty, every recipe was delicious!
Kale, Sausage and Bean Soup

Serves 8 or so
1 1/4 c red kidney beans (you can use dried, we never do)
2 T olive oil
12 oz spanish chorizo, cut into 1/4 inch coils (we used the only chorizo we can find here)
2 large yellow onions, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 t crush red pepper
4 cups beef stock
1 1/2 lbs red potatoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 lb kale, thick fibrous stems removes, sliced very thinly
Heat olive oil in a pot until hot, toss in sausage and cook until browned 5-10 minutes.  Fish out the slices with a slotted spoon and transfer to paper towels.  Keep or add totaling three tablespoons of fat in the pot.  Add onions and bay leaf, lower heat, stirring until the onions are a deep golden brown, 20-25 minutes.  
Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook for 1 minute.  Pour in the beef stock and 5 cups of water, add potatoes and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered until the potatoes are cooked, about 10 minutes.  
While the soup is simmering, spoon one third of the drained beans and a bit of the soup broth into a food processor.  Pulse to make a loose paste.  Strain the paste through a sieve to get rid of the skins.  
When the potatoes are cooked, stir in the kale, sausage, bean paste and beans.  Turn off the heat and let the soup sit for 10 minutes to settle the flavours (or you could wait up to 24 hours for it to be spectacular.) 
Remove the bay leaf, season the soup with salt and pepper and ladle into bowls.