A noble crab soup

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Almost three decades ago, a friend took us to a new restaurant called Nobre in the Ajuda neighborhood. The name, which means noble, came from the surname of the chef, Justa Nobre. We recall with fondness the meals we enjoyed there. After a successful run, Nobre closed so that the chef could pursue other projects,

Last week, the same friend invited us for lunch. We were delighted to discover that we were going to a new restaurant that marks Justa Nobre’s return to Ajuda. It is called “À Justa,” an expression based on the chef’s first name that means “just right.”

The menu offers a cuisine without foreign accents that has the satisfying taste of authenticity. The recipes are grounded in the cooking of Justa’s grandmothers. But they are not a copy of the past. They reflect years of refinements shaped by the personality and creativity of this self-taught chef.

The restaurant was full. The Portuguese like to flirt with contemporary food trends but they always come back to their one true love, which is the traditional cooking of Portugal.

We had a great meal that included bright green fava beans, chickpeas with codfish, codfish “pataniscas,” and fried cuttlefish. These delights were preceded by a classic of Justa Nobre’s repertoire: the spider crab soup. Its aristocratic taste makes all other seafood soups in Lisbon look common by comparison.

Many chefs keep their secrets, but Justa generously shared some of her recipes in a book titled Passion for Cooking. We translate her recipe for spider crab soup below. But you must try the original at À Justa where they make it just right.

 

Justa Nobre’s spider crab soup

Ingredients: 2 large spider crabs weighing about 1 kg. each, 3 liters of water, 3 tablespoons of sea salt, 150 grams of margarine, a large onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a parsley bunch, a sliced fennel head, 4 tablespoons of tomato paste, half liter of cream, 0.1 liter of dry white port, one teaspoon of powdered ginger, one teaspoon of saffron, 2 tablespoons of potato starch.

Preparation: Boil the crabs in the salted water for 8 minutes. Remove them, let then cool off and extract all the meat. Return the shells to the pan. Add some shrimp shells and let them boil for 10 minutes. In a large pot, melt the margarine and add the sliced onion, fennel and garlic. Let these ingredients cook briefly and then add the white port, the cream, the tomato paste, the spices, and two liters of the crab broth. Mix the potato starch with some cold water and add it to the soup. Check the seasoning and strain the soup. Add the crab meat and serve the soup it in the shell of the spider crab.

À Justa is located at Calçada Ajuda 107, in Lisbon. The restaurant seats only 36 people, so reservations are a must. Call 21 363 0993 or email reservas@ajusta.pt. Click here for Justa Nobre’s web site.

 

Tranquility at Quinta de Guimarães

Quinta de Guimarães

The best way to experience the magic of the Douro valley is to sojourn at a local farm. It was this possibility that attracted us to Quinta de Guimarães, an estate that dates back to the year 1720. It offers rooms in an ancient manor house and in two beautifully restored country homes surrounded by vineyards.

We loved the tranquility of the quinta and the sumptuous meals that Fernanda Pinto, the property caretaker, prepares with produce from the farm. Breakfast includes country breads, homemade sausages and prociuttos, eggs from happy chicken, and traditional desserts. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner composed of spinach soup, baby goat with roasted potatoes, followed by the farm’s luscious fruit. The meal was accompanied by a bright “vinho verde” (slightly sparkling white wine) produced on the property under the label Cazas Novas.

A visit to Quinta de Guimarães is a journey to a place where time has stopped because it found perfection.

Quinta de Guimarães is located at Lugar de Miguas, Sta. Marinha do Zézere, tel. 912 915 699. Click here for the quinta’s website.

 

Artistic pots and pans

 

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Silampos (“seelumpoos”) is a Portuguese brand of cookware that has produced great pots and pans since 1951. Joana Vasconcelos, a Portuguese contemporary artist, used these pans to build giant high-heel shoes. These sculptures were given pride of place in the Room of the Throne when Vasconcelos showed her work at the Ajuda Palace in Lisbon.

What would D. Maria Pia, the queen who lived in this palace, think about Vasconcelos’ work? We like it. And we always liked Silampos pots and pans, even before they mingled with artists in the royal court.

The extraordinary salt of Castro Marim

Castro Marin Composit

The Romans loved salt. They used it to cook, to preserve food, and as a form of currency (the practice of paying soldiers in salt is the origin of the word salary). So, it is not surprising that the Romans settled in Castro Marim. This small town on the marshes of the Guadiana river produced great salt.

During the 20th century, this production became industrialized. The salt was harvested with heavy machinery that leaves plenty of chemical residues. It was then washed and processed to turn its grey color into white, striping the salt of magnesium, potassium, and other important minerals.

Artisanal producers abandoned their salt ponds and so did the fish and birds that used them as habitats. Centuries of knowledge about producing great salt was on the verge of being lost.

But then, the tide turned. In the late 1990s, a cooperative called Terras de Sal revived the artisanal salt trade. It invited a French certification body to establish the strictest certification norms to ensure the highest standard of quality. It created the conditions to attract a new generation of producers who left their city jobs and came to Castro Marim to produce the best salt in the world.

These producers harvest the salt manually with wooden tools, a slow process that is essential to avoid chemical contamination. They do not wash the salt, to ensure that it retains all its important minerals. Since rain muddies the water, they only harvest when the weather is dry, between May and September.

One of the cooperative’s producers is called Água Mãe. Their salt is amazingly white and flavorful. Their “fleur de sel,” made of fine crystals created by temperature differentials between water and air, is exquisite. Água Mãe also bottles liquid salt, which is low in sodium and high in magnesium. When we spray it on our salads it gives them layers of delicate flavor.

The Romans were prescient in their love of salt. An amazing fact about our bodies is that, because life began in the sea, the composition of our tissue fluid resembles that of natural sea salt.

The ordinary act of seasoning our food becomes extraordinary when we use salt from Castro Marim. It is a privilege to nourish our body with the same pristine salt prized by the Romans 2000 years ago.

You can find the Água Mãe salt store on Travessa dos 3 Marcos, n.º 11, Castro Marim, Algarve, tel. 961380503, email  aguamae@aguamae.pt . Click here for the Terras de Sal web site. To buy the wondrous salt of Castro Marim in the U.S., click here.

A meal with friends

CL Logo In France they call it “pot au feu, “ in Italy “bollito misto,” in Spain “cocido Madrileño.” In Portugal we call it “cozido.” The concept is the same, but the taste differs remarkably from region to region. Cuts of meats that require long periods of cooking are combined with sausages, potatoes, chickpeas, cabbages, and other vegetables. There are no gimmicks, no complex sauce reductions, no overpowering spices, only great ingredients.

In the island of Azores, they prepare the cozido by burying the pot in volcanic soil, where it cooks slowly in geothermal heat. There are no volcanos in continental Portugal, so we have to use regular stoves to do the cooking.

One of the best cozidos is served every Sunday by Companhia das Lezírias, near Vila Franca de Xira, 50 Kms from Lisbon. It is a posh cozido made with wild game that imparts a unique taste to the preparation.

Trying this delicacy requires planing, since it is indispensable to make reservations  in advance. Call the Companhia das Lezírias to book a table for a group of friends and, when the time comes, you’ll enjoy a very satisfying meal in the company of very happy friends. CL cozido

Click here for the website of the restaurant and here for directions. You can make reservations by calling 263 654 985 or emailing rest.coudelaria@clix.pt. 

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.

How to cook fresh octopus

When you eat octopus in a Portuguese restaurant, it is always tender and delicious. But, when you buy fresh octopus and cook it at home, it often turns into a rubbery disappointment.

Portuguese chefs stage an elaborate disinformation campaign to keep secret their cooking technique. They tell you to cook the octopus with an onion, a cork, or a nail; or leave it in the pot until the water is cold; or cook it in red wine or in red vinegar; or beat it three times on the kitchen counter; or “scare” it by raising it from the boiling water. All these tricks produce inedible, chewy octopus.

So, how do you tenderize this eight-armed mollusk? You freeze the fresh octopus before you cook it! That’s all. But please don’t tell anyone; it’s a secret.