The house came without an electric stove and in my new-found penny-pinching peasant state of mind I took to cooking over an open fire. Once I had worked out through trial and error just what this fire stove required to work efficiently (my happiness now depends on a secure supply of pine cones) I have really become addicted to the whole rustic gourmet thing darling…
I’m not new at this rudimentary cooking game. Actually I’m something of a connoisseur of roughing it. I love to camp but I have to eat well. I remember the first time I ate wild garlic. I was camping in chilly Tasmania and I made a lasagne using the whole head of garlic sliced like a (larger) vegetable between layers of tomato and bechamel. It was baked in the ground covered with coals – sort of hangi style. Later, tucked up in sleeping bag under the stars I was treated to a glimpse of a rare Tasmanian Devil when he came to clean up the scraps. Mmmm it was good. Garlicky little Devil.
I can almost still smell a delicious asian style noodle soup I cooked up in a trangia while sneaky-spot camping in a Roman ruin in Tunisia. My trangia and I had some great adventures on that trip. Cooking on the open deck of a ferry on a Mediterranean crossing. Making hot chocolate for new friends while waiting for the sunrise on Mount Sinai. And then entertaining the pilgrim masses with the Miracle of the Burning Wall when I decided to add more fuel to an already flaming canister – oops.
I was also once a cook on a safari through the oases of Western Egypt. We roasted whole sides of lamb, barbequed freshly caught fish, but also made simple pastas with olive oil, fresh local cheese and roasted pine nuts. Yum.
So just give me a pile of sticks and some matches, and I can whip up something tasty from whatever is at hand. Forget fancy pants recipe instructions like “gently simmer for 3 minutes” or “dry in a slow oven” and forget rare & exotic ingredients. No kaffir lime leaves or galangal in Central Portugal. Curry just comes as curry, not as 24 different endangered spices. One has to make do.
… is Cod. It’s an ugly meaty fish but inexpensive and versatile. They say the Portuguese have 365 recipes for bacalhau. It’s a staple, you might say. The national dish.
And it’s convenient! I still think it’s funny when I bring home a dried cod carcass and put it in the cupboard and forget about it for a while. There’s a fish, in the cupboard, for weeks. I think it’s novel.
Dried bacalhau needs to be rehydrated by placing it in a cold water bath in the fridge for two days. You should change the water at least 3 times each day, and if I forget to then I’ll leave it for a third day. Any less then your fish will be very salty.After the bath, I dry the pieces on a clean teatowel and cut them into large bite-sized chunks. Then I put the chunks in a bowl with garlic and olive oil.In a large frypan or casserole dish, fry a large onion. At the same time start warming about a litre of fish stock, hopefully fresh. If you only have cubes then you can improve them by adding sliced leek, carrots, onions and parsley to the warming stock water. To the onion pan I add the rice – I usually use carolino if I cant get arborio – and stir until all the grains are coated and transparent. Then I add the fish and garlic to the pan with the onion and rice, gently turning the fish so that it doesn’t break up.At this point I might add some vegies – sliced leek, tomatoes or carrots all work well. Also good in this dish are peas and beans – but I wouldn’t add these until the end as I don’t like them well cooked.
Add a cup or so of white wine and let it reduce.
Then gradually start adding the stock, a ladle full at a time until it’s almost completely absorbed. I check the base of the pan to prevent sticking, but otherwise I don’t over-stir.When the rice is al dente I then add some chopped parsley, piri-piri and lemon juice. And then taste for saltiness. I don’t add extra salt until I’ve tasted it as the saltiness of the stock and the bacalhau is variable.
Sometimes I omit the lemon and add a slurp of cream, for an extra decadent comfort-food experience. Yum!
Couve, a portuguese cabbage
More like a spinach than a cabbage, couve is one seriously popular plant. It is everywhere! There are hundreds of types of cabbages in Portugal but probably the most famous is the couve-galego which is used specifically in the classic portuguese soup caldo verde. Country people are passionate about their couve, and before I grew it myself the neighbours would proudly land huge bunches of the stuff on me. Generally speaking I’m not a big fan of green leafy vegetables, but they are one of life’s necessities and so I gave the couve a go. It packs a vitamin rich punch, (it’s actually one of the most nutricious foods you can eat) and now I like it so much I make this dish at least once a week. I’m converted.
This is my super-simple-fast-and-healthy recipe for when you can’t be bothered thinking about what to make. And one I always have the ingredients for as couve produces leaves all year round.
Pasta couve portuguesa.
While the pasta is cooking, fry the onion & garlic in a frypan with a generous quantity of olive oil. Place the finely chopped couve leaves on the top with a spinkling of salt and pepper and put on the lid. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the pan. Serve with grated parmasan. That’s it!
One thing I really like about Portugal is the variety of meat and seafood available at the local supermarket. I can’t get other things I consider ordinary, like fresh milk and peanut butter, but I have a choice of 25 fish varieties, rabbit, quail, turkey, game like venisen and wild boar, and infinite types of sausages and dried and smoked meats.
And there’s goat. There’s a traditional goat & red wine stew here called a chafana, but I don’t claim that this is anything like it, I just wish I had a more exotic name for this dish than Goat Stew.
Dredge the goat pieces lighly in flour and brown them on all sides in a pot. Add onions and garlic and finely diced carrot and let them sizzle for a bit. Deglaze the pot with 1/4 cup of balsamic vinegar, and 1/2 cup of red or rose wine and let it reduce slightly. Add quartered potatoes, a tin of tomatoes and a maybe some water or stock so that the meat is covered at least half way. Season with salt & pepper, a bay leaf and some rosemary or marjoram and then cook slowly for four hours. I do the slow cook on the top of the salamandra (pot belly stove) in the living room, as then I can watch TV, work on the web site, nurse the cat and cook dinner all while keeping cosy on the sofa.When it’s cooked (the meat should be falling off the bone) I serve it topped with a pile of rocket leaves from the garden. A crunchy bread roll is essential for mopping up the juices. When you’ve eaten all the solid bits but there’s still some sauce left, it’s great for lunch with an egg tagliatelle or torn lasagne sheets. Mmmm, very wintery.
While on the subject of stews cooked on the salamandra, this little invention of mine has become a bit of a favourite this winter. Turkey (Peru in Portuguese – interesting country name switch don’t you think) is cheap, but the cuts are chunky and therefore not well suited to pan frying or anything else really but a slow braising. My mother used to make a yummy apricot chicken and the morrocans are fond of fruit in a tangine (see, the arabs have pretty names for stews as well), so with these things in mind, here’s what I’ve come up with.
Have the butcher chop a couple of legs across the bone as in osso bucco. I usually remove the skin on turkey and chicken to reduce the fat. Fry onion and garlic with a few teaspoons of Caril (curry powder), a teaspoon or two of piri-piri (red pepper), a pinch of nutmeg, ground ginger and cinnamon, until the spices are well blended and darken slightly. Brown the turkey pieces and then add a cup of white wine or sherry. Let it reduce a few minutes then add a tin of peach halves. The liquid should be at least half way up the meat, but if not then you can add a cup of chicken stock. Cook slowly for 2-3 hours. I taste for seasoning at the same time as checking to see if the turkey is cooked through to the bone by inserting a small steak knife and watching if the juices run clear or pink. Sometimes I add little olive-sized new potatoes and carrots to the pot about a half hour before the end. Otherwise I serve it with with salad and rice and a blob of plain yoghurt.