Friday, September 28, 2012

This Month's Flavor: Portugal

When a cousin of mine embarked to spend her fourth sojourn (or was it the fifth, I’ve lost track) in the Algarve region of southern Portugal, my curiosity peaked.  There are so many nations around the world that merit exploration by vacationers, I can’t fathom returning to the same location over and over again.  Is it the azure waters and temperate climate?  One can find these things in a vast array of other locales.  Ah-ha, I considered, perhaps it’s the food!  The cuisine of the coveted destination would have to really impress me above that of all others.

 Portuguese cuisine certainly exhibits some variation from region to region, one constant appears to be the consumption of fish and seafood.  The country is, after all, bordered by the Atlantic on its entire western and southern coasts.  Its neighboring country, Spain, borders the Mediterranean all along the east coast.  It’s no wonder that various types of fish figure so prominently on the Portuguese menu.  Portugal was a sea-faring nation, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries marked by numerous expeditions that resulted in the return of various ingredients that became mainstays of today’s Portuguese kitchen.  Even earlier than this, the Romans introduced garlic, which features prominently in Portuguese cooking, and the Moors presented Figs, lemons and almond trees.

So there is most definitely something fishy in Portugal, at least in Portuguese kitchens.  One of the most predominant fish preparations is bacalhau, or dried salt cod, which is a must for any Portuguese celebration.  When fisherman reached Newfoundland, they would salt and sun dry their catch to preserve the fish for the lengthy trek home aboard their vessels.

Other popular fish dishes include arroz de marisco, a rich rice dish featuring shrimp, lobster, oysters and crabs.  Caldeirada is the Portuguese seafood stew comprised of various types of fish.  The Portuguese are fond of the combination of pork and clams, and there are numerous recipes that highlight this combination.

Cozido a Portuguesa, a thick stew of vegetables and various meats, is another popular entrée of Portugal.  The meat of choice in Portugal is pork, undoubtedly to the horror of one devout Moslem with whom I was once acquainted whose stringent dietary laws prohibited the savoring and consumption of the succulent snouted beast.  One of my favorite sausages of all is chourico, similar to another Portuguese sausage called linguica.  One of my favorite dishes is a tomato-based stew that boasts chicken, chourico and clams, three C’s that form a winning combination.  One of Portugal’s most popular soups is called caldo verde, which translates to green soup; its primary ingredients include potatoes, kale and linguinca or chourico.  Potatoes and tomatoes, for those stuck on Dr. Seuss and who love rhyme, are both widely used in Portuguese cooking.

The most widely used seasonings in the Portuguese kitchen include garlic, coriander, parsley, saffron, vanilla, cinnamon, olive oil and a hot pepper sauce called piri piri.  This sauce can be used as a seasoning or a marinade, and is an integral part of Portuguese cooking as well as that of Angola, Mozambique and South Africa.

To summarize the experience of Portuguese culinary fare, the most popular dishes are simple to prepare, satisfying, in two words, comfort food.  It is the essence of country home cooking.  Try this recipe below, served with a good, crusty bread as the Portuguese insist on with all meals, enjoy a glass of port, and see if you can argue that this isn’t a hearty, warming dinner to enjoy on one of this fall’s first chilly days.

Chicken, Chorizo and Clam Stew

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 chicken thighs
4 chorizo sausages, sliced crosswise into ½-inch discs
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, diced
12 garlic cloves, sliced
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
½ teaspoon crushed saffron threads
4 cups chicken stock
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 dozen littleneck clams
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper.  Add the chicken to the pot and brown on both sides.  Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.  Saute the chorizo until it browns, then transfer to the plate with the chicken.  Add the onion and pepper to the pot and sauté until the onion is golden and the pepper is tender.  Add the garlic and sauté for about two minutes, and stir in the tomato paste.  Once the tomato paste is mixed with the onions, peppers and garlic, add the crushed tomatoes, the saffron and the chicken stock.  Bring mixture to a boil, add the chicken and chorizo back into the pot, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 40 minutes.  Add the beans and the clams, cover the pot and simmer until the clams have opened, usually about 10 minutes.  Stir in the cilantro and parsley and serve.  Makes 4 servings.

Food for Thought
Due to the fact that my husband and I are passionate about Italian cooking, I have mentioned frequently in past blogs the favored food-shopping haunt known as the pork store.  However, if you are fortunate enough to live in an area where diversity of culture thrives, you will likely find specialty grocers for a number of ethnic gastronomic delights.  A Spanish grocer is a likely venue for finding ingredients such as chorizo, linguica, salt cod, piri piri and other staples of Portuguese cooking.  These shops generally boast an inventory of ingredients to complete meals that hail from various nations of Latin influence, including Spain, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.  There is one such market very close to home, where I know I can always count on them for fulfilling such required ingredients as chorizo, linguica, tomatillos and jicama.

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