A short guide to the cuisine of Portugal

Cozinha Portuguesa Book

In one of the letters collected in the volume Lettres Provinciales, published in 1657, the philosopher Blaise Pascal writes that “I have made this letter longer than usual because I did not have time to make it shorter.” Brevity is a virtue that requires time, skill and effort. This is the reason why we appreciate so much a small volume titled “Portuguese Cuisine: a Brief Look” recently published by the Portuguese Academy of Gastronomy.

Summarizing the astonishing diversity of ingredients and preparation methods of the Portuguese cuisine is a herculean task. But with 11 recipes carefully written and beautiful illustrated, this book succeeds in this difficult endeavor.

The collection opens with Portuguese meat pies with collard-greens rice. It is an inspired choice because this staple of home-cooked meals is a test of a cook’s skill. Different  people following the same recipe can produce results that vary from adequate to sublime.

The second recipe, Setúbal-style grilled red mullet, is a simple preparation that starts you off on a journey to master the fine art of grilling fish. The freshness of the fish, the amount of salt used to season it, the hotness of the coals, the distance from the coals to the fish, and the timing of the grilling all determine the final results.

Brás-style codfish is a brilliant recipe: an implausible combination of thin, fried potatos, eggs and codfish that surprises and delights. The preparation is quite forgiving, so even a novice can produce great results.

Making Algarve-style fish requires a cataplana, an oval pot that traps the steam to keep the fish moist. This device also collects the delicious juices and reduces them to enhance their flavor. The result is pure magic.

Marinated partridge uses a vinegar-based sauce called “escabeche.” The idea of marinating with acids is thought to come from Persia. It produces a wonderful dish that you can prepare in advance and serve at a dinner party.

Chicken with “cabidela” rice is a traditional recipe that uses the blood of the chicken to make the sauce for the rice. Combine it with a great red wine and you create a symphony of bold flavors that is deeply satisfying.

Roast kid goat is often served at family lunches on Easter Sunday. It is great comfort food that always creates harmony at the table.

Sweet angel hair pasta and honey cake are two easy-to-make, crowd-pleasing desserts.

Pudim Abade de Priscos is an unusual mixture of eggs, sugar, port wine, bacon, and spices invented by an abbot who was an exceptional cook.

The book ends with pasteis de nata (custard tarts). It is a time-consuming, difficult recipe. But if you take the time and effort to master it, you will earn the unending admiration of your dinner guests.

This precious little book can set you off on a culinary journey through the flavors of Portugal with recipes that you can enjoy right away and that you can perfect and refine every time you gather friends and family around the table.

The story of Portugal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Travel is like so much else; we get what we put into it.  You’ll enjoy a trip to Portugal much more if you learn a little about the rich history of this small corner of the world.

But what should you read?  Travel guidebooks reduce centuries of history to a few lines, leaving us with little more than a boring list of names and dates. History books, on the other hand, are often so dense with scholarship that it is easy to get lost.

Luckily, John dos Passos, a great American writer whose father was from the island of Madeira, produced a highly readable account of Portugal’s age of discovery. His book introduces us to the main protagonists that shaped this golden era. Through their triumphs and defeats, their joys and tears, we learn the story of Portugal.

John Dos Passos, The Portugal Story: Three Centuries of Exploration and Discovery, Doubleday, 1995.

The art of traveling

FrancesMayes

Travel is like many other things in life–we get what we put into it. So much of the pleasure of travel is anticipation: plotting the route, learning about history and culture, imagining the sights, preparing the senses for new tastes and aromas. Travel guides help us with the planning, but they often urge us to rush from site to site, accumulating tourist points until we’re totally exhausted and eager to return home.

There’s so much we can learn about the art of travel from the writer Frances Mayes. In chapter 2 of her book “A Year in the World,”  Mayes describes how she navigated through Portugal without compass, astrolabe or GPS. She knows when to slow down to enjoy the scenery, how to spot a good restaurant that no guidebook has noticed, how to be open to happenstance. And her writing places us on location, enjoying our vacation before it even starts!

The joy of cooking

Happiness researchers find that emotional peaks, moments of great joy or sadness, have a lasting impact on our happiness. Travel vacations give us a chance to collect nuggets of joy that we can savor in the future. A great way to relive a vacation in a foreign country is to cook some of the food we tried. Tastes and smells have the power to put us in another place and time.

So, how can you cook some Portuguese dishes after vacationing in Portugal? The Portuguese cuisine is an intuitive affair and recipes are notoriously vague, with instructions like: “follow the usual procedure,” or “use sugar qb.” The ubiquitous cooking expression qb is an abbreviation of “quanto baste,” which means “just the right amount.”

We are lucky that a talented American cookbook author, Jean Anderson, wrote detailed recipes for many classic Portuguese dishes. With her book “The Food of Portugal” in hand, you can cook food that will remind you of dining in a medieval city, a Port-wine quinta or a beach-side restaurant. These memories will bring you happiness, qb.