A foodie in Portugal
As many times as I've traveled to Italy, France and Spain, and as much as I love the wine, the food and the people of all those warmly Latin lands, I wasn't quite prepared for the fickle ease with which my spirit rushed to include Portugal in this embrace.
From the Alentejo cork forests to the deep, vine-terraced canyons of the Douro, from sunny Lisbon to the historic streets of Porto, I spent a very intense week of wine tasting, eating and touring in this amiable country, and quickly learned to love it.
I also gained about five pounds.
Let me enumerate a few of the interesting things I noticed about Portuguese food. I'm sure I'll learn more on future trips ... and I'm quite certain that this place will lure me back again before long.
Seafood: Just as everyone said they would be, the seafood and fish in Portugal are amazing. A look at the map explains: This country has as many miles of seacoast on the Atlantic is it does land border with Spain. And the seafood here was every bit as good as - and even more abundant than - my experiences with Italy's Adriatic coast. Some of my favorite Portuguese restaurants, including Cafe In on the waterfront in Lisbon and Os Rapazes on the docks in Porto, had the simplest possible "menu" - walk in, examine the fresh fish and seafood spread out on a table near the door, and point to your dinner.
Bacalhau: This Latin delicacy, salt cod, also beloved in Spain and Italy under similar names, represents an early form of food preservation in which cod is heavily salted and dried into something that looks a lot like a piece of bark. Soak it and simmer it, and it miraculously turns back into flaky, white-fleshed tender fish that's hard to distinguish from fresh. We had it in fritters, had it in soup, had it in cream sauce, and I liked it every time.
Simplicity: In contrast with the style of French haute cuisine or even some Italian dishes, I found the consistent pattern of Portuguese fare to be one of pure, unadorned simplicity: Fresh ingredients of fine quality, simply prepared and simply displayed. "Oh, down-home cooking," one friend said when I described this. Well, no. Even the high-end cuisine of Chef Miguel Castro e Silva's Bull and Bear in Porto, rated among Europe's top 25 restaurants, owes more to its clean, fresh use of local ingredients than to any finicky, over-the-top preparations or plating.
Soup: By their own admission, Portuguese are soup-crazy. A bowl of soup as the first course at every meal seems as obligatory for Portugal as does a bowl of pasta for starters in Italy. Soup, beautiful soup: I didn't have a bad one. An orange, creamy carrot or carrot-and-pumpkin soup appeared many times. This one, however, enjoyed with a simple but hearty lunch at the beautiful Monte dos Arneiros in the cork-oak plantation country near Coruche in the Alentejo plain, was one dish that I could hardly wait to get home and replicate. It's a simple soup, a puree of chickpeas and potatoes joined with a batch of fresh wilted spinach and a dash of olive oil. Easy to make, and oh, so good. A bowl of sopa de grão com espinafres (chickpea and spinach soup) and a chunk of crusty bread makes a light meatless dinner; and a taste of it brings back Portugal.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
20-ounce (567g) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
1. Open the can of chickpeas and rinse to remove the canning liquid. (If you prefer, you can use dried chickpeas, soaking and cooking them before use, but for this dish I find the canned version tastes fine and is a lot less effort.) Peel the potatoes and cut them into cubes. Put the chickpeas and potatoes in a soup pot with the water. (Optionally, substitute chicken broth for water to make a richer soup. I decided to go with the option that harms no animals in the production of this dinner.)
2. Peel the onion and cut it into chunks. Peel and smash the garlic. Put the onions and garlic in the soup pot, add the bay leaf and the salt, and bring it to a boil. Reduce heat to very low, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes or so or until the potatoes are cooked through.
3. Take out and discard the bay leaf and, using a slotted spoon, lift out and reserve about a dozen of the chickpeas. Using a stick or stand blender, blend the rest into a smooth puree and return it to low heat. Put in the fresh, carefully washed spinach and the olive oil, cover, and cook just until the spinach wilts down. Add back the reserved chickpeas as garnish, and serve with crusty bread. (VARIATIONS: In the Portuguese restaurant, the spinach had been cooked much longer than I prefer, and this seemed to be consistent with cooked greens in Portugal. I love my spinach fresh and green and barely wilted, but if authenticity is important to you, feel free to cook it until that beautiful dark green color is gone. Also, it might be easier to eat if you chop or tear the spinach into bite-size pieces before putting it in the soup, but I experienced it as whole leaves with stems, and I enjoyed it like that, eating the soup as the Portuguese do, with fork in left hand and spoon in right, using the two utensils to coax the spinach onto the spoon in tidy bites.)
WINE MATCH: Intuitively, I would have gone for a rich, herbal white wine with this dish. But we were served it with a simple regional Alentejo red in Portugal, and I just happened to have a nice dry Douro red on hand. Sure enough, the rich, "meaty" nature of the bean puree came right up to red wine and made a fetching match with Quinta do Portal 1999 Douro Reserva, a ripe and appropriately oaky blend of 70 percent Touriga Nacional with other Port varieties.
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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives
The FoodLetter has been on vacation because of my travels last month. Here's a link to the last edition:
Last week's Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Ultimate Turkey Sandwich (Dec. 1, 2005)
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Thursday, Dec. 22, 2005
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