15. Portugal

My boyfriend Rodrigo and I spent a fortnight driving through Portugal on holiday a couple of years ago, and I have fond memories of the landscapes, the architecture and the food from that time. One of my favourite places in Portugal (and in the world, perhaps), is the city of Sintra. Sintra is relatively small, and almost completely green. There are breathtaking gardens, plants and trees absolutely everywhere, and anyone who has been to my house knows that I have a bit of a “thing” about plants, so I was in heaven. There are many historic manors and castles, and even the architecture of the day-to-day houses is old and beautiful. Suffice to say, of all the places on earth that I have visited, that place was the most “me”. We also had a surreal experience in a small beach town called Lagos, which has some of the most beautiful coastal rock formations and landscapes I’ve ever seen. On entering Lagos, we both commented on how much it reminded us of Australian coastal landscapes and beach towns. Then, as I walked through the city centre on the first day, I thought I was surely having some sort of neurological malfunction, because I kept hearing Australian accents everywhere. It all reached a terrifying pinnacle when I saw a shop selling boomerangs and didgeridoos: I turned back to find Rodrigo, and desperately tried to confirm that I was, indeed, not hallucinating. It turns out that I was perfectly lucid, and that Aussies just naturally flock to this town, which has some of the best surfing in the northern hemisphere, and is purportedly the best Byron-Bay-away-from-Byron-Bay. I had already been travelling for a few weeks by this point, so it was nice to hear a few Aussie accents… until it wasn’t anymore.

Arroz de pato

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Those of you paying close attention may remember that the beginning of my culinary journey marked my discovery of the wonders of duck and instant passionate love affair. I don’t speak Portuguese, but I know enough Spanish to recognise that “arroz” means “rice” and “pato” means “duck”. I needed no further convincing. Arroz de pato is sort of like the Portuguese version of a paella, using the same variety of rice, called Calasparra. I first made the rice base, with chicken stock, onions, carrots, leeks, celery, garlic, tomato, saffron, bay leaves, cloves, parsley, pepper and lots of thyme. I’ve noticed that people from the mediterranean and latin America prepare rice differently from those in Asia and Australia. My Chilean boyfriend Rodrigo calls plain steamed white rice “hospital rice”, because only those on their death bed would eat something so bland. Over there, even plain rice is prepared by frying up a bit of onion, garlic, salt and pepper, then frying the raw rice in the same oil, which apparently imparts flavour to it and also helps to make the grains separate and not glue together in the final product. They then add water or stock to the pan and put the lid on, and wait until the rice is just cooked before serving. I agree that it is definitely a much tastier way to prepare rice. I cooked the rice for this dish in a similar way, except that there were many more vegetables to begin with. I then added confit duck leg and crispy duck skin throughout the rice, and layered fried chorizo and medium-rare duck breast on top. I once heard a comedian make a comment to the effect of “if you eat chicken undercooked, you die, but duck? Delicious. What’s up with that?”. I have to say, I quite agree, it’s very confusing when you first realise that medium-rare is the only acceptable way to cook duck. Nevertheless, it renders the duck very tender and juicy, and nobody who ate it got sick, so I’m more than willing to comply. I tried a secret technique for cooking the duck skin that I had heard furtively whispered in dark corridors, but never truly believed. Once I’d finished cooking the breasts in a hot pan, and then a medium oven (which is purportedly the “right” way), I pulled off the mildly-crispy skin and put it on a paper towel in the microwave. I then pulsed it for 10 second intervals, checking and turning the skin in between. What resulted was perfectly crispy skin, crunchy but still a bit juicy, and not at all burned. I was so impressed, I will always use this technique, and I have a feeling it would also work the same for chicken skin, pork crackling and bacon, although don’t quote me on that… I’m a little afraid of what this knowledge might do to the world.

Polvo a lagareiro

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“Polvo” means octopus, and “lagareiro” means a person who works in an olive oil mill. You can therefore be sure that there is a reasonable amount of octopus and olive oil in this dish. It is usually made with large octopus, but at the time I could only find baby octopus, so that’s what I used. I flash fried potatoes and onion in generous amounts of olive oil until they were getting crispy, then added the garlic and octopus, then white wine, fresh parsley and coriander. Have I mentioned how much I adore white wine with seafood? I struggle to think of a better combination. I also particularly love octopus, so this dish was a winner for me.

Frango Português with baked chips and salad

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Of course, I had to make Portuguese chicken. This is probably the best-known culinary export from Portugal, first and foremost because of the fast food chain “Nando’s”, which specialises in Portuguese chicken. Portuguese chicken is usually large pieces of chicken, cooked over hot coals and basted with a piri piri marinade. Piri piri sauce is made with chillies, onion, lemon, paprika, basil, oregano, and pepper. The sauce is a nice mix between salty, sweet and acidic, and goes really well with the beautifully roasted chicken. I served the chicken with chips because, really, what goes better together than chicken and chips? I remember reading a fact in my teens that the most popular lunch in France is chicken and chips. This still jars me, as it clashes violently with my image of French people having long lunches eating sophisticated stews and wines and cheeses. Also, how the hell are they all so skinny? Having a distinctly un-French metabolism, I opted for baked chips, rather than fried, which I think are still pretty tasty. I also made a great salad, which was a nice was to cut through the heaviness of the chicken and chips, and salads just tend to provide the best colours in life, don’t they?

Bacalhau com natas with migas

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I have a dear Italian friend who spent some time in Portugal years ago, and she was very excited to hear that I was entering Portuguese week. The first thing she said to me was “you HAVE to cook bacalhau com natas”. I had already been researching enough to realise that bacalhau means dried, salted cod, and natas means cream, but I hadn’t planned for this dish. “I had a salted cod dish on the menu” I countered “but it’s bacalhau a brás: salted cod with eggs and potatoes”. My friend insisted that, while my plan might be more typical, her suggestion was much better and, indeed, her favourite. What else could I do? She’s very hard to refuse. I invited her over and cooked bacalhau com natas, which consists of salted cod baked with onions, potatoes, cream, and topped with shredded cheese. She pronounced it authentic and delicious, but she’s also the sweetest person I know, so I can’t be 100% certain if it’s true. I found the salted cod in a Mediterranean deli, boiled it in milk, then deboned and skinned it. The flesh stays fantastically firm, without being rubbery or gelatinous, and has a great salty flavour. I loved this dish much more than I expected, it tasted a bit like seafood mornay, except that the texture of the salted cod was more suited to the preparation than anything I’ve had before. Migas is a salad made with kale, garlic, black beans, chorizo, and fresh bread crumbs. I think it has a great mix of healthy bases, as well as flavours and fats for a perfect salad. One thing I would say about this culinary adventure that I’m undertaking is that there aren’t enough typical salads in the world, and sometimes I miss a really hearty salad with “lots of stuff in it”. I therefore loved the migas, but not as much as the bacalhau com natas…