17 July 2011

Petiscos of Portugal

I am a fan of tapas.  A huge variety of bite-sized morsels that makes a meal out of appetizers?  Sign me up.

Nowadays, though, I live in Portugal.  A place where tapas is a word used by the country who historically plays Marsha to Portugal's Jan: a country also known as Spain.

So we don't eat tapas in our house.  We detest tapas.  We avoid tapas and their shiny perfect hair and adorable miniskirts and effortless popularity with guys named Doug and Charlie. Tapas, tapas, TAPAS!

Instead, we choose to eat petiscos.

Petiscos are like tapas insofar as they are served in a large variety of small portions, ordered for a group and shared.  They are not, however, like Spanish tapas in terms of recipes and taste.  Think of petiscos as a tour of the best of Portuguese food products.  Chorizo, bacalhau, presunto, buttery goat cheese, giant shrimps, fresh eggs... they all have their place in these tasty dishes.

What dishes, you ask?  Okay, okay, I will get to the food:

1. Chouriço Assado (Flaming Chorizo)
This is my favorite, and I think you will see why.  It is flashy and dangerous, sure.  It is also embarrassingly simple to make.  Basically, you set fire to a piece of chorizo.  At the table.

Can you believe that?  The trick is that you need to have one of these handy dishes, called an assador de chouriço.  You have a slotted top section where you lay the partially sliced chorizo, and underneath is a place to pour your alcohol.

Now if you are classy, you can use the Portuguese firewater, aguardente.  Or you can go with Bacalhau Boy's less fancy method and use rubbing alcohol from the medicine cabinet. (He swears this is how they do it in restaurants!)

On the one hand, it gave a strange clinical smell to our dinnertime while it was burning.  On the other hand, it burned really easily, left no trace of the taste (or smell) on the cooked chorizo, and saved us from buying a whole bottle of the expensive stuff just to burn a few tablespoons of it.  The choice is yours.

Chouriço Assado
Good quality chorizo
Assador de chorizo

Slice the chorizo with deep cuts in 1/2 inch intervals, careful not to cut all the way through.  Place the chorizo on the assador, and carefully pour a couple of tablespoons of alcohol into the bottom of the vessel. Light a match, light the alcohol, and watch it go!

As you can see from the video, you should be careful not to do this with a breeze coming through the house, or with anything within burning range of the assador (besides the chorizo!)

The chorizo is done when it is toasty, somewhat charred and black on the outside, and heated to sizzling all the way through.  It may take a few rounds of burning to achieve this state.

2. Sopa de Meloa com Presunto (Melon Soup with Cured Ham)

This is the very green soup pictured in the first photo.  While technically not a traditional petisco, it certainly uses the best products of Portugal and works great as one small part of a larger meal.

It is a spin on the classic melon wrapped in prosciutto.  In the Portuguese summer heat, however, I can attest that this is one of the most genius tweaks ever.  Refreshing beyond reason, and easy as anything to whip up.

Sopa de Meloa com Presunto
1 ripe melon (honeydew is closest to Portuguese meloa, but cantalope would work as well)
4 slices of presunto

Cut the melon in half, remove the seeds, and scoop out the insides into a blender.  Add about a 1/4 cup of cold water, and blend until the mixture is mostly smooth, but still has some texture to it.  Not too watery, not too thick.

Pour the mixture into 4 small glasses or dessert cups.  Chill for at least an hour and serve immediately from the fridge.

Roll each presunto piece and secure it with a toothpick.  Serve one piece with each portion of "soup".

3. Gambas ao Alho (Shrimp in Garlic)

Yes, this is a common tapas as well as a common petisco.  The reason for that, I suspect, is because it is seriously delicious.

I chose not to use the smaller gambas in this dish, but found some amazing jumbo shrimp (camarãos) which looked perfect as a duo, one for each of us.  If you want to go the traditional route, you can use smaller shrimp and heat them to sizzling in the garlicky oil, letting everyone pick them off straight from the pan with their forks.

Gambas ao Alho
1/2 pound of shrimp
3 tablespoons of butter
6 cloves of garlic, sliced
salt and pepper
hot chili sauce (I used sriracha, but a few drops of tabasco would work)
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 fresh lemon

If cleaning the shrimp yourself, remove the head and all the shell except for the tip of the tail.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter with the sliced garlic over medium high heat.  When the butter stops foaming, add the shrimp.  Season with salt, pepper, and hot sauce to taste.  Top with the wine and let it sizzle and boil until the liquid is mostly evaporated and the shrimp is fully cooked, no more than a few minutes depending on the size of your shrimp.

To finish, take the dish off the heat and add the rest of the butter, stirring it in to melt it.  Squeeze the half lemon on top.  Serve either sizzling in the pan, or arranged on a hot plate with some nice bread to sop up the buttery sauce.

4. Ovos com Farinheira (Eggs with farinheira sausage)

This is the dish in the background of the picture above.  It is one of Bacalhau Boy's favorite things in the world, so I have to include it even though I am a bit embarrassed to write it down as a "recipe".

Do you know how to scramble eggs?  Then you can make this dish.

Outside of Portugal, the only real trick is getting a hold of the distinctive sausage called farinheira.  In the US, you can find it online at Portuguese Food, Inc.

Ovos com Farinheira
6 eggs
1 tbsp butter
1/2 horseshoe of farinheira

Melt the butter over a medium heat.  Cut the farinheira out of its casing and add it to the pan in pieces.  Let the sausage melt a bit into the butter, about 3 minutes.

Beat the eggs lightly in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and add to the butter and sausage.  Scramble until soft-set.  Serve immediately.

5. Pataniscas de Bacalhau (Bacalhau Fritters)

Aha!  You didn't think you were getting out of a night of petiscos without some bacalhau on your plate, did you?  Those tasty crispy morsels sitting in front of the ovos in the picture above-- those are pataniscas de bacalhau.

They have a texture that is perfectly like the clam fritters I remember from growing up in New England.  Chewy, hot dough with morsels of seafood nestled inside.  All I needed was a paper bag to carry them in, and I may as well have been back at the St. Michael's summer fair...

Although they do need to be fried in hot oil-- a definite downside for my kitchen and my thighs-- as a summer treat eaten fresh and piping hot I think they are well worth the trouble.  And if you want to use something more available in your own area, you can try clams, crab, or any kind of sturdy seafood that tickles your palate instead of the bacalhau.

Pataniscas de Bacalhau
1 pound of bacalhau, cooked and shredded
4 eggs
1 1/2 cups of flour
1 cup of milk
salt and pepper and parsley to taste
2 cups of vegetable oil in a sturdy, deep pan

In a large bowl, mix together the bacalhau with the eggs and the flour.  Add the milk and stir forcefully by hand, until you get a creamy mixture.  Season with salt and pepper and fresh parsley, and leave in the fridge to rest for at least one hour before frying.

Heat the oil to 180C (360F), and make sure to keep it there to ensure the best results.  (I had a thermometer in the pot the whole time and adjusted the heat as I went along).  Gently drop heaping tablespoons of the batter into the oil, no more than 3-4 at a time to prevent overcrowding in the pot.  Let fry for about two minutes per side, or until golden brown and cooked through.

Remove from the oil to dry on paper towels.  Serve immediately-- they do tend to turn rubbery if they sit for too long.

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