18 May 2011

Frango na Púcara at Frei Bernardo

Alcobaça is a town with an amazing monastery.

Stunning, right? One of the best examples of gothic architecture in Portugal, it was founded by the first king of Portugal in the 12th century and back in the day used to house over 300 hard-drinking, big-eating monks.

But do you know what else Alcobaça is famous for?

Frango na Púcara.

The "púcara" is that clay vessel you see there.  It comes in many varieties, as Google will show you, but basically it is a covered terra cotta jug in which cook to the chicken and the sauce. If the mention of a clay jug makes you think of moonshine, you are not too far off: the sauce is based primarily on the alcohols of Portugal: Vinho Verde, Port, and Aguardente brandy.

This dish is not very old by Portuguese standards.  It was invented not by the monks, but by the Café Aguia d'Ouro in Alcobaça and took second prize in a national cooking contest on RTP (Portuguese television) in the 1960s.

Bacalhau Boy and I tasted it at an amazing restaurant in Alcobaça, Frei Bernardo.  It was Sunday afternoon at 2 pm, and when we walked in it was like crashing someone's wedding reception.  Long tables full of people eating, drinking, laughing, and chatting over plates full of food.  More times than not, that food was served from red clay pots.

So what could we do?  We talked our way into a tiny table in the corner and ordered the frango na púcara for two. It was spectacular.  I couldn't stop making noises of appreciation, and what I really wanted to do was whip out a tupperware container so that I could take the remaining sauce home with me and eat it over every dinner I made all week long.

Please excuse the fuzzy picture quality, I was overcome by delicious aromas.
Although I remain committed to my quest to master the bacalhau (how could you doubt me?), I have a side quest that has emerged.  I MUST master the frango na púcara.  I have to figure out how to recreate this smoky, savory, smooth, slightly sweet sauce in my own jug.

I have not embarked on this yet, but I already know where my starting point will be: my trusted friend, the cookbook Food of Portugal by Jean Anderson.

In case you happen to be a fan of tender, delicious chicken in a sauce that will make you smack your lips and sigh at the dinner table: here is the recipe from that book.  I have already adapted it a bit, since the chicken was served in pieces for us, and in the púcara itself-- two things the cookbook does not suggest.  I doubt the restaurant broiled the chicken to brown it, since the skin was very soft-- but I like crispy skin, so I have kept Jean's suggestion there.  If you wanted to save time, though, it would be just as authentic if you skipped it.

If you try it out and have any tips of your own for improvements, let me know!!  I will be conducting my own delicious experiments in the meantime...

Frango na Púcara
(Chicken in a Jug)
from Food of Portugal 
serves 4

A small broiler-fryer about 2 1/2 pounds (with the giblets if possible)
1 tbsp olive oil
12 small white onions, peeled and whole
3 medium cloves garlic, peeled
5 large branches of Italian parsley
1/4 pound presunto or prosciutto, finely diced
2 large bay leaves
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded, and chopped (I plan to used peeled and canned)
2/3 cup vinho verde or other dry white wine
1/3 cup Port wine
2 tbsp aguardente (or other brandy)
1 tbsp dijon mustard
pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).  Rub the chicken all over with olive oil, then stuff the body cavity with 3 of the onions, 1 garlic clove, and 1 parsley branch; set aside.  In a bowl, mix together the tomatoes, vinho verde, Port, brandy, mustard, and pepper.  Set aside.

2. Scatter half of the presunto over the bottom of a 3 1/2 quart earthenware jug or any heavy, deep casserole dish with a lid. Add 2 parsley branches, 4 of the remaining onions, 1 garlic clove, the chicken giblets (if you have them), and one bay leaf.  Place the chicken in the jug headfirst (if using a casserole, simply set the chicken breast-side up).  Tuck the remaining onions around the chicken, scatter with the rest of the presunto, drop in the remaining garlic, parsley, and bay leaf.  Pour in the tomato mixture, evenly over all.

3. Cover the jug or casserole and bake for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours, or until a drumstick moves easily in the socket.

4. Remove the jug from the oven, carefully fish out the whole onions on top, and reserve.  Next, drain the liquid from the jug into a large, heavy skillet.  Lift out the bird and cut it into 8 pieces: legs, thighs, breasts, and wings.  Place the pieces on a broiler rack.  Preheat the broiler.  With a slotted spoon, lift the whole onions out of the bottom of the jug and add to the onions already reserved. Discard anything else from the jug (giblets, parsley, etc.), rinse the jug, and set aside for serving.

5. Set the skillet over a high heat and boil uncovered for about 10 minutes to reduce the liquid by about half.  Keep an eye on the skillet and stir often.  Lower the heat if the mixture is reducing too fast.  When it is reduced, turn the heat to its lowest point and keep the liquid warm.

6. Meanwhile, place the chicken about 6 inches under the broiler and broil 3-4 minutes until nicely browned.

7. To finish, place the chicken, reduced sauce, and whole onions back into the jug or casserole, and serve. You could also plate it separately for each person, chicken and onion over rice and potatoes with sauce spooned on top-- but I can't imagine not bringing the rustic púcara to the table, if you go to all the trouble of using it!

8. Suggested sides: fries AND rice, and broccolini. Those were the side dishes at Frei Bernardo, and I wouldn't change a thing!


  1. Wow, what a beautiful monastery --so impressive.

    This looks like an extra yummy, maybe more complexly-flavored coq au vin--but in a jug!

    In my exp w/ coq au vin (I *have* made Ina Garten's recipe twice now, so I"m practically running my own bistro over here) is that even with browning the chicken ahead of time, the skin will become soft during the braise. Still, I think it's a good step for sealing in the juices?

    Anyway, this looks SO delicious --share the results when you do make it, please! Er, on the blog, I mean, if in-person can't be arranged.

  2. All over it like a rash!! I'm off to strangle a chicken just for the recipe, it sounds delicious

  3. Ha! Well, Reba, I think you are completely right, it IS a spin on coq au vin, although I am not a bistro veteran like you, so I didn't spot it! I wonder if they did braise beforehand? I think I am going to go with the after-braise for my first attempt, just to see if Jean knows what she is talking about... lol. And yes, I will share it virtually once I finish!

    Estrela-- You are the real deal, amiga! At the helm from bird strangling through to delicious jug-o-meat. I guess that's how you roll on the emerald isle?! :) Send a pic if you make it. You know I live for that stuff...