07 August 2011

Portuguese Surf n' Turf: Clams and Chouriço

Legend has it this dish was invented in Portugal during the Inquisition as a particularly diabolical taste test for non-Christians.  Between the shellfish and the pork it broke dietary laws for Muslims and Jews, so in Lisbon in 1552 you had best not decline the offer of this dish with an "I'm not hungry, thanks."

On the other hand, this dramatic and dark story smacks of urban legend to such a degree it leaves me 87% dubious.  And Snopes says nothing on the matter.

Therefore I prefer to think this pairing of clams and chouriço emerged in a more likely way: because little bits of this and that and the other can be combined economically to make a more substantial dish than any one item on its own.  Indeed, all the ingredients here are fairly common, cheap, and complement each other in a fulfilling rustic way.  Summery but hearty.

Lobster and steak?  Sure, sure, that may be more traditional surf and turf.  And I love me a nice lobster dipped in butter on the docks at Abbott's.

But if you aren't spending "special occasion" amounts of money, this amêijoas na cataplana is a satisfying and easy summer dinner that needs nothing more than a big hunk of crusty bread for dipping in the spicy, garlicky, briny broth.

(And with the smell of the surf and the sand and a sunset?  Perfection.)

Amêijoas na Cataplana
(Clams and Chouriço in broth)
adapted slightly from Food of Portugal

*note* The cataplana in the title is a type of dish which is part wok, part pressure cooker.  It is copper with a hinged lid which seals closed, allowing you to shake and steam the dish in the traditional way.  If you don't have one, no worries: I made mine in a regular covered saute pan and it still turned out great.

4 dozen small clams in the shell
2 gallons cold water
3 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons cornmeal
3 medium onions, peeled and sliced into thin half moons
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 large red sweet pepper cut into thin strips
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large bay leaves
1 can of water packed tomatoes, peeled and chopped roughly
1 8-oz can of tomato sauce
red pepper flakes and coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 pound presunto or prosciutto chopped into small dice
1/2 pound chouriço, cut into thin rounds
1/2 cup vinho verde or dry white wine
1/4 cup roughly chopped Italian parsley

1. To clean the clams, pile them in a large kettle with the cold water, salt, and cornmeal to purge them of grit.  Let them stand in the water for about an hour.

2. In the meantime, get the sauce going in a large, deep saute pan with a firm-closing lid.  Add the oil and keep over medium heat until it is shimmery.  Add the onion and green pepper slices, reduce the heat to low, and cover.  Cook for 3 minutes, add the garlic, and cook for 5-10 minutes more until the onions are limp and golden and the peppers are soft.

3. Add the bay leaves, canned tomatoes and their juice.  Season with just a shake of the red pepper flakes and a half teaspoon of black pepper.  Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cover and cook over a low heat (just barely bubbling) for about 20 minutes.

4. Add the tomato sauce, presunto, and chouriço. Mix it together well, then re-cover and let cook 30 minutes over the lowest heat.

5. Once the clams are done soaking and the sauce is done cooking, uncover and bring the heat up to medium.  Dump in the soaked clams and give it either a vigorous, lidded shake or a few quick stirs with a wooden spoon.  Then, cook the dish tightly covered over a medium heat for about 10 minutes.  Do not open the lid during this time.

6. After 10 minutes, uncover and add the wine.  Stir or shake once more, and cook over a low heat for 15-20 more minutes until the clams are open.  Discard any which remain closed.

7. To serve the dish, sprinkle with the chopped parsley and bring to the table, ladling portions into shallow bowls and dunking with crusty bread.  (Don't forget a bowl for empty clam shells.)

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