Today the crisp and cool spring weather reminded me of the day I traveled through the Serra da Estrela mountains in northern Portugal several years ago. This mountain range is really the only true one that Portugal has, and on that day it seemed perfect to me. I remember that, and the most perfectly delicious trout I ever ate while there! The Portuguese are masters of fish preparation, but this non-ocean fish dish was beyond mastery.
We drove on small paved roads through the Natural Park of Serra da Estrela that twisted in between pine forests--not the big, tall pine trees I am used to seeing in northern New England, but smaller and more twisted ones. We drove past sparkling clean brooks. It was the kind of day that was warm when you stood in the sun, but chilly the moment you stepped into the shade.
When lunchtime rolled around, we stopped at the Pousada de Manteigas, São Lourenço. The Pousadas of Portugal are wonderful hotels, often built inside of historic castles. This one was newer construction, but had been built to look like a typical mountain shelter of the region.
Upon being seated we were immediately bombarded by waiters and our host who fussed and cooed over my then infant daughter, Adelaide. This happened in almost every restaurant we visited while in Portugal. Sometimes waiters would even sit down and feed her so that we could eat unencumbered!
I wanted to eat something representative of the region, so after hugging and kissing the baby, the waiter recommended the trout, caught from one of the bubbling mountain brooks we had driven past. We started off with Vinho de Verde and some soup, which I am sure was delicious, but was so completely overshadowed by the dish that followed, that I can't even remember what kind it was.
The trout, when it arrived, was deceptively simple looking. It appeared to be a plain piece of filleted trout, next to a lemon wedge and a bed of rice. But then I bit into it and could not believe the gorgeous flavor! It seemed to be to be the quintessential trout preparation. It was moist, hot and delicately flavored with garlic. I ate every last bit of it.
I asked the waiter to tell me the secret to its perfection. "It's just olive oil, salt and garlic," he told me. "Nothing else!"
When I got back to the U.S. it wasn't long before I tried to duplicate it at home. After a couple of tries, I think I came up with a pretty good copy! Check out my recipe for Broiled Trout, Serra da Estrela Style.
While traveling up to New Hampshire to attend a workshop (that had absolutely nothing to do with Portuguese food), I had one of those lovely serendipitous experiences that add spice to life--pun completely intended!
The town of Claremont, New Hampshire is small and has a somewhat depressed downtown area. But I had a few hours to kill on the afternoon I arrived, so I wandered around anyway. I went into a small used book store, which normally captivates me completely, but on this occasion I just felt too restless to sink into it.
A few doors down I came across Claremont Spice and Dry Goods and decided to step in.
The store had that new-ish look to it, with clean lined shelves down the sides and the center. I said hello to the man behind the counter. He asked me if this was my first time in the store. I said it was and he said, "Could I tell you about our products?"
The concept, it turns out, has to do with a "philosophy" about using and storing spices. He and his wife, both passionate cooks, wanted to find a way to sell spices in smaller quantities and properly packaged so that the spices would not lose their potency. This was quite a coincidence, because I had just written about the Top 5 Spices Used in Portuguese Cooking, and in my article I admonished the reader against using supermarket spices in big jars. They just don't last and the difference between old spices that have sat in your cupboard for years and fresh ones is huge. Claremont Spices and Dry Goods created their own packaging system. You can purchase the spice in small quantities in a bag that is specifically created to keep the spices fresh for longer. To demonstrate, the proprietor held up one of the bags of cinnamon and asked me to sniff it. I couldn't smell anything. He then held up spices stored in a zip-loc baggie and asked me to smell that. I could definitely smell the scent of the cinnamon. After an exhaustive search of the store, I bought a few of the spices I tend to use the most, including the cinnamon and some hot, smoked Spanish Paprika. I also bought some incredible, potent vanilla. Although adding vanilla to Suspiros and other Portuguese desserts, is not traditional, my daughter loves the way it tastes, so sometimes I do it anyway! Best of all, I asked him if he might be able to locate Piri Piri, the spice that the Portuguese cook can't do without. This little pepper was originally brought to Portugal by Portuguese explorers from the coast of Africa and has now become an essential staple of their cuisine. He was confident that he would be able to find it for me. The next time I am up there I will stop by and see if he had any luck. I'll keep you posted!
While tweaking my recipe for Molhos Fritos today, I had a flashback to being a little girl and sitting in my grandmother's kitchen in the early morning. She took a shallow cooking bowl out of the refrigerator that had some yellow rubbery looking stuff in it.
I asked her what it was, and she reminded me that we'd had some corn porridge with peas the day before. This was some of the leftover corn mush that she had stuck in the fridge. She cut it up into slices and fried it in a skillet. We had it for breakfast, along with some eggs and toasted Portuguese bread from the local bakery. They were a sort of Portuguese version of fried grits.
Many years later, while visiting Madeira, I was served the Molhos Fritos in one of the many restaurants that makes Espetada (meat on a skewer). The molhos are little squares of deep-fried corn mush and are used a lot on Madeira as a side dish. You don't see them in any other part of Portugal. They were crunchy and delicious.
But it was only today that I made the connection that Grandma was duplicating them with leftovers. My grandmother was actually from the Azores, but Grandpa was from Madeira and must have taught her how to make this.
The way I cook the codfish is this way...I've been looking for more of my family's recipes, so that was a thrill. And cooking dried salted codfish is one of the backbones of Portuguese cooking, both on the mainland and on the islands, where my family comes from. Here is Grandma Adelaide's method for cooking Basic Bacalhau.