Visitors are invariably impressed that every morning a little van comes by to sell us fresh bread and cakes. I guess it reminds them of the milkman who delivered daily in our childhoods. It’s a sweet, old fashioned service that trumps the idea that things were better in the old days.
We also have a frozen-things truck that comes on Fridays and a fish truck that comes on Wednesdays. Some villages have more – maybe also a veggie truck. Where I was houseminding the fish truck came three times a week, which really meant you never had to leave the house. And that’s of course why they exist. With the villages of Portugal mostly populated by old people, many of whom don’t drive, these deliveries are more like a necessity. Sure, many of them are also living out of their gardens and chicken coops, but who has sardines in their fish ponds?
It’s one of things my dad would have liked about Portugal had he been alive long enough to visit. My dad loved fish. And while he also liked to make that special, private trip to the fish shop on a Friday evening, I’m sure he would’ve been tickled pink at the sound of the truck’s horn right at his door.
I am, in any case. I love it most when I’ve forgotten it’s Wednesday, and then suddenly there are all these choices for dinner. Will it be sardines, fish soup or grilled salmon? Fish and chips? Vietnamese salt and pepper squid? Fish is so great, my dad reckoned, because you can get away with so few other ingredients. Lemon, butter, salt and pepper, bit of parsley… anything else might be superfluous for a nice piece of fish. I’m sure the Portuguese are of the same school. My neighbours almost always only buy sardines, and they are always just grilled with some garlic, salt and olive oil. They don’t even bother scaling, gutting or chopping off the head! Rustic as hell, and honestly, the way they taste straight off the coals, I wonder why I go to all the fuss I that I do.
Still, I like the versatility of fish. I like making it Asian or Italian or even Cajun. And even though the squid is only about €6 kilo, and the sardines about €3 kilo, it always feels like a bit of mid-week luxury. And the pets love it too. Once while preparing dinner, Mao and I scoffed down a whole steak of salmon, sashimi style, before it could make it into the pan. The neighbours were in shock when I told them – Raw fish?!? Vais morrer! Even The Wookie gets in on the fish guts and heads, provided I’ve fried them up with a bit of garlic and oil, bien sur.
The inspiration for this comes from a great little Italian restaurant called La Locanda, in Clovelly in Sydney. It’s the kind of place everyone would like at the end of their street, a not-too-up-itself but good & authentic Italian bistro.
In winter (and I’m sure this is some culinary faux pas, but I don’t care, it works both ways) I swap the white wine for red, which stains the squid in a nice way when it’s cooking.
2 or 3 squid tubes per person, but it really depends on the size of them…
half cup rice, cooked
a carrot, finely diced
red capsicum, finely diced
half tin tomatoes
cup white wine
some parsley and lemon to serve.
To clean the squid, remove the tentacles and bits from inside the body and peel off the fine skin. Cut off the head at the beak, remove the beak, being careful not to disturb the ink sac, and rinse well in cold water, but don’t leave the squid in the water or they’ll soak it up like a sponge. Chop up the tentacles and mix with all the stuffing ingredients.
I have a trick for stuffing both squid and cannelloni tubes, and it goes like this. Stick the end of a funnel into the tube, put the stuffing in the funnel and poke it through with a chopstick. Be careful when filling squid not to fill them much more than half way, as the tubes shrink as they are cooking and they’ll squeeze out their filling like they’ve vomited into the cooking pan. Not a good look.
Plop the filled tubes and any leftover stuffing into a frypan or a small oven dish and throw on the tomatoes and wine and some salt and pepper. The idea with squid (and their friends octopus and cuttlefish) is to either cook them very fast or very slowly. So, on high on the cooktop for 10 minutes, or on low in the oven (or fireplace as I do) for about 40 minutes to an hour. I prefer the slow method for the flavour.
You could serve it with a salad, but I usually have it as is. Yum.
Pan fried sardines with parmesan crust.
Tia Maria once asked me how I’d cooked my sardines the night before. Once I’d shared this slightly fiddly recipe, she just shook her head in wonder. Sardines and cheese?
First I gently scale the little fish with a steak knife, then chop off their heads and gut them. Then I flatten them out on a chopping board, sometimes removing the spine, sometimes not, depending on how big they are and how chunky the bones. Then I wash them and leave them on a tea towel to drain. I make a 50/50 mix of toasted breadcrumbs and grated parmesan (actually the powdery fine stuff is good for this because it’s dry). I rub in a crushed garlic or two, some parsley, and season it well. Then I dunk the fillets in milk or egg, or if they are still damp, nothing at all, and then dredge them in the breadcrumbs mixture. Then you pan fry them in about a centimetre of hot olive oil (or a mix of olive and vegetable oil to get the oil hot enough for a cleaner, faster fry) and serve them with a salad and lemon wedges.
If they are small sardines, they’d be great for finger food at a party as all the little bones are perfectly edible and very good for you. They are also excellent the next day in a fresh crusty roll from the bread truck.
Apparently my fish soup is all right. I like it for it’s simplicity: just a steamy bowl of broth and some clean fresh fish. This is another recipe in the Saudades for Yens category; when I´m missing the food of a great Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney. So this fish soup, while not a true Phở, has been Vietnam-ised.
for the stock:
a big onion
garlic a carrot and/or stick of celery, finely diced
whole black peppercorns
half cup white wine or sherry (or jerupiga)
A mix of filleted fish – as in a calderada sold by the fishmonger. A mix of pink and white fleshed fish is good, and even better if there are some bones and skin still attached to the pieces.
for finishing the soup:
half an onion, finely sliced in half rounds
150g per person of rice noodles
a big handful of Vietnamese mint or Thai basil, if you can get it, or instead I use a mix of coriander & mint
a shot of fish sauce or nuoc nam
Fry up the onion, sliced leek and garlic. Throw in the rinsed fish, the carrot and peppercorns and a litre of water. Let the stock simmer gently for a hour or so. Drain off the solids, rescuing the fish pieces. Separate the flesh from the bones and return these to the pot with the drained stock and the sliced onion. Cover the noodles in boiling water and then stack the bowls with hot noodles and sprouts. Pour on the stock and fish, and serve with the lime quarter, nuoc nam and a pile of the herb greens. Yum.