Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Wandering Gourmand. Portugal. (Part 2). (Bacalhau and beyond).

I wrote earlier about how I managed to eat inhumane amounts of cod while in Portugal. Probably twice a day. (I was lucky not to have it at breakfast, I suppose). Each time it was cooked differently. There must be millions of recipes for bacalhau, the dried and salted codfish that is a staple of Portuguese cuisine. My most favorite dish was the cakes of mashed potato and cod, fried until crisp on the outside (which I had twice, in Guimarães, and Monte de Santa Luzia). But I also had cod wrapped in phyllo (Guimarães), braised with onions and tomatoes (Bom Jesus), topped with tomatoes and mayonnaise and baked (Monte de Santa Luzia), roasted with potatoes (Crato), in a soup with beans and spinach (Beja). And on and on. Cod is a strange fish, bland and plain, falling apart in thick white flakes. It takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with, and takes beautifully to almost any cooking method or seasoning.

Another thing that I really liked was the chorizo. In Monte de Santa Luzia we ate at a Pousada perched high above the city, with the view of the harbor and the ocean below. As an appetizer I had chorizo grilled until the skin was so crisp that the sausage broke apart and spilled the spicy-sweet, loosely packed filling all over the plate. It was fantastic. And everywhere we went my mother ordered octopus, which was nearly always served with boiled potato, hot or cold. After an unfortunate incident in Spain (which I will describe later), I was unable to eat octopus again for the remainder of the trip.

However, Portuguese desserts remained a mystery to me. Excruciatingly sweet, they all had the violent yellow color of egg yolks, and indeed, tended to be made entirely of egg yolks and sugar. There was usually a wide array of weird puddings and sticky, fruit/nut/cream-laden cakes. I spent a lot of time looking at the dessert table with a confused expression on my face. Fortunately, we were usually too full for dessert (except for one member of our party, who will remain nameless, but was not me, nearly always demanded some ice cream), although in Beja we had an intensely orange-flavored cake, and a moist and sticky walnut cake. In Bélem, I had a plate of incredibly ripe, sweet, mango, sliced and covered with passionfruit seeds, tart and unbelievably fragrant. Sometimes all you need is the freshest, ripest fruit you can find.

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