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Portuguese explorers, traders shaped worlds palate

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Sunday, July 4, 2010
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Pasteis de Natas
Tribune Media Services

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Clams a Bulhao Pato
Tribune Media Services

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Salt Cod and Potato Casserole
Tribune Media Services

What would global cuisine be without Portugal? Probably pretty dull.

From spices and fortified wines to seafood and various confections, this pint-sized country on the southwest tip of Europe has introduced the world to a bevy of flavors. To understand how Portugal came to have such a profound influence on what the world eats, one must remember that it was once one of the premier naval empires in the world.

Portugal’s culinary prominence began in the 15th century, when its explorers established an invaluable spice route from their homeland around Africa to India. These intrepid travelers transported a treasure trove of Eastern seasonings, including cinnamon and pepper, to the rest of the world.

The early traders didn’t stop with spices. They brought lemons and oranges from the East to Europe and Ethiopian coffee to the Americas and, most importantly, to Brazil. They also took crops such as maize, potatoes and chilies from the Americas and shipped them around the globe.

As the sailors traversed the seas, their own foods began to infiltrate the countries they visited and colonized. Portuguese pork stews inspired spicy Indian vindaloo, while battered, deep-fried fish and vegetables were the origins of Japanese tempura. Sweet, egg-based custards and salted cod likewise began popping up in the cuisines of Spain, France and Italy.

The Portuguese exerted an equal influence on the world’s taste in drink. Crisp vinho verde and sweet, fortified wines from the island of Madeira and northern Portugal’s Douro Valley won over oenophiles. Strong in alcohol content and flavor, Madeira and the Douro Valley’s port wines were consumed as apertifs, dessert wines or nightcaps.

Oddly enough, given Portugal’s role as culinary trafficker to the world, few outside the country are familiar with its cooking. It often gets confused with Mediterranean fare. Granted, both rely heavily upon olive oil and garlic. Yet, besides bordering the Atlantic Ocean and not the Mediterranean Sea, Portugal possesses a long list of unique, local, non-Mediterranean specialties.

At the top of the list is salted cod or bacalhau. Nicknamed “fiel amigo,” which means “faithful friend,” this salt-preserved fish stars countless recipes. Because of regional variations, locals say that in Portugal you can enjoy a different salt cod meal every day of the year.

This passion for bacalhau. stems from practicality. Caught by Portuguese fishermen off the coast of Newfoundland, the once-plentiful cod had to be preserved or else it would spoil on the long trip home. Salted and then sun-dried, it kept for months.

Its firm texture, non-fishy flavor and wide availability won over and kept the Portuguese populace enamored for centuries. Even a cod shortage wouldn’t end this love affair. The country now imports its bacalhau from Norway.

Bacalhau can be found at seafood and specialty shops and online from purveyors such as Portuguesefood.com. Before cooking, allow the cod to soak in fresh, cold water for 12 to 48 hours, changing the water periodically. Soaking will reconstitute the fish and diminish its saltiness.

At the other end of the taste spectrum is the ambrosial pastry known as the pastel de nata. Sweet and creamy yet endowed with a slight crunch, this small custard tart lines the windows of bakeries and coffee shops. So popular is the treat that at the Cafe Pasteis de Belem, on the outskirts of Lisbon, customers stand in line for up to 20 minutes just to order one.

What makes this pastry so delicious? Perhaps it’s the light shell. Reminiscent of puff pastry, its airy crispness provides the perfect contrast to the velvety custard.

Then again, the custard might be the key. Whipped together from fresh cream, egg yolks and sugar, the warm, luscious filling is blanketed with cinnamon and a smidgen of powdered sugar.

Pasteis de Natas

• 8 ounces light cream

• 2 large eggs

• 4 egg yolks

• 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

• 3/4 cup granulated sugar

• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

• Zest of 1/2 lemon

• 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed

• Flour, for dusting the work surface

• Cinnamon, for decorating

• Confectioner’s sugar, for decorating

To make the custard: Whisk together the cream, eggs, egg yolks, flour, sugar, vanilla and lemon zest in a medium-size saucepan. After ensuring that no lumps exist, heat the mixture over low heat, stirring the entire time. When the custard has thickened and can coat the back of a wooden spoon, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the thawed sheet of puff pastry on a clean, lightly floured work surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the pastry until it is about 1/4-inch thick. Brush water across the top and then tightly roll it so that you end up with a long cigar. Cut off the uneven ends and then slice the pastry into 12 1-inch pieces. Leave 1 piece on your work surface and refrigerate the rest until ready to use.

Lay the first slice on its side and, pressing down, shape it into a 4-inch circle. Fit the pastry over the bottom and sides of a non-stick muffin cup. Repeat these steps for the remaining 11 pastry pieces.

Spoon the custard into the muffin cups. Smooth out the tops and then bake the pasteis de natas until they are golden brown, for about 15 minutes. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool in their pans. Dust the tops with cinnamon and confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm.

Makes 12 servings.

Clams a Bulhao Pato

Named for the 19th-century Lisbon poet and gourmand Bulhao Pato, this clam dish can be used as a first course or a light meal. Before cooking the clams, remember to discard those with broken or open shells.

• 1/2 cup olive oil

• 4 cloves garlic, chopped

• 1/4 cup dry white wine

• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 4 dozen small clams, preferably Littlenecks or Manila, scrubbed and rinsed

• Juice of 1/2 lemon

• 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

In a large, lidded saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until slightly golden. Pour in the wine, black pepper and clams. Place the lid on the pan and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the clams have opened. At this point, remove any clams that did not open.

Spoon equal amounts of Clams a Bulhao Pato into 4 to 6 bowls. Sprinkle the lemon juice and cilantro over the clams. Serve with crusty white bread.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Salt Cod and Potato Casserole

This recipe was adapted from Jean Anderson’s “The Food of Portugal” (William Morrow, 1986).

• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for greasing casserole

• 1 pound salt cod, soaked in water for a minimum of 12 hours and then drained

• 6 cups boiling water

• 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

• 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

• 1 clove garlic, minced

• 2 pounds new potatoes, peeled, boiled until just tender and thinly sliced

• 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

• 1/3 cup parsley, minced

• 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

• 1/2 cup bread crumbs, lightly toasted under the broiler

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart casserole or baking dish.

Place the cod in a saucepan, pour the boiling water over it and then simmer over moderate heat for 10 minutes, until a fork can flake the fish. Drain and rinse the cod and then flake it into small pieces, removing any skin or bone that might come with the fish.

In a large saute pan, melt the butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the onion and saute until golden, for about 10 minutes. Place the onions in a bowl and then add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, the garlic and the sliced potatoes to the pan. Cook for 5 minutes.

Place half the potatoes in the buttered dish and season them with a bit of pepper and a bit of the parsley. Spoon in half the onion and then the cod. Repeat. Sprinkle the top layer with the grated cheese and bread crumbs and any remaining ground pepper.

Bake uncovered for 35 to 40 minutes or until brown on top. Scatter the leftover parsley over the top and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

1 Response

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