Thursday, October 18, 2018

O Reco da Baixa: Sande de Leitão (Suckling Pig Sandwich)

On my recent trip to Portugal, we made a relatively brief trip to the Vila do Conde Porto Fashion Outlet, a chance to do a little shopping. Vila do Conde, located about 20 minutes from Porto, is a coastal city with a rich history. So much of Portugal's cities and towns have such lengthy and fascinating histories. The outlet contains over 150 international fashion brands, all at discounted prices, as well as over a dozen fast food restaurants and cafes, from McDonald's to spots with more traditional Portuguese cuisine.

After shopping in a few stores, I wandered over to the food court, seeking out O Reco da Baixa, a place I'd previously read about. The restaurant specializes in Sande de Leitão, Suckling Pig Sandwiches, which easily beat having a Quarter Pounder. The restaurant was launched by four friends, Tomás Roquette, Rui Paiva, Henrique Pereira Leite and João Pedro Pereira Leite, who wanted to provide quality food in a casual setting. They source their piglets from the Anadia region, preparing them in a traditional manner. They now have several locations in northern Portugal and the outlet location was established in 2015.

The basic menu is simple and inexpensive, with a basic Suckling Pig sandwich for less than 6 Euros. And for only 7.5 Euros, you can get the sandwich with potato chips and a mug of beer (or 8.50 Euros for a cup of wine).

The Suckling Pig sandwich, almost like a sub, is essentially is sliced in half, both pieces fitting inside a cardboard box.

The sandwich is very simple, bread and lots of tender pork with pieces of crispy skin. With two of these sandwich halves in the box, you have a hearty meal. The bread was warm (a big bonus), thinner with a softness to much of it was well as a minor, but sufficient, level of crustiness. It was an excellent vehicle for the pork, making the meat the star rather than overgwhelming you with too much bread. The pork was flavorful and moist and I loved the crunchy pieces of skin. For a fast food restaurant, this was an impressive sandwich and I'd definitely recommend it.

The potato chips were a big hit too! They were clearly homemade, weren't too salty, had a nice crunch and sometimes a softness that comes from homemade chips. I could have easily devoured a large bag of these chips and they were a great accompaniment to the suckling pig sandwich.

Not all fast food restaurants are the same, and O Reco da Baixa shows the potential for quality food at value prices. Now we need a similar restaurant in the Boston area.

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) On Wednesday, November 7, at 6:30pm, Legal Sea Foods in Park Square will host a wine dinner with Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards. Since 1973, Sonoma-Cutrer has been producing the finest quality wines. Its foundation is built in the hillsides and rocky foothills in the region recognized as the Sonoma Coast Appellation. In the 1970s, the company planted several different grape varieties and virtually overnight, Sonoma-Cutrer’s Chardonnay grapes had gained a reputation for exceptional quality and were in high demand by many premium wineries.

Legal Sea Foods will team up with head winemaker, Mick Schroeter, to host a four-plus-course dinner featuring signature cuisine paired with his selections from the Sonoma-Cutrer vine. The menu will be presented as follows:

Pan-Seared Scallop Tart, Shaved Fennel, Lemon Butter
Oyster Pâté, Puff Pastry, Onion Jam
Shrimp Scampi Skewer
Sonoma-Cutrer “Grande Cuvée,” Russian River Valley, 2014
Colossal Shrimp Scallopini (tomato burrata salad)
Sonoma-Cutrer Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2017
Halibut Imperial (wild mushroom ragout, cacio e pepe risotto)
Sonoma-Cutrer “Les Pierres Vineyard” Single Barrel Private Select Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2016
Sonoma-Cutrer “Les Pierres Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 1998
Cedar Plank Salmon (pancetta, baby Brussels sprouts, Peruvian purple potatoes)
Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2015
Bananas Foster (vanilla ice cream, rum caramel sauce)
Sonoma-Cutrer “Late Harvest” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, 2015

COST: $110 per person (excludes tax & gratuity)
Reservation required by calling 617-530-9397

2) On Wednesday, October 24, at 7pm, guests are invited to Meritage Restaurant + Wine Bar to celebrate the beginning of White Truffle season with a one-of-a-kind Truffle Dinner presented by Chef Daniel Bruce. Chef Bruce, acclaimed chef and founder of the Boston Wine Festival, is an experienced forager and truffle expert and presents a special menu featuring the freshest flavors of the season.

The full menu for the Truffle Dinner is as follows:

“Black Tie” Diver Scallop, Truffle White Foam
2012 Negro Lorenzo Roero Arnies Spumante
Shaved White Alba Truffle, Spinach Paint
2015 Domaine Dublère 2015 Diego Conterno Langhe Bianca Nascetta
Shaved Duck Prosciutto
2017 Francesco Brigatti Vespolina
Fricassee of Wild Mushrooms, Black and White Truffles, Sugar Pumpkin, Petit Rabe Cipollini Onion Confit
2014 G. D. Vajra Albe Barolo
2011 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo
Black Truffle Crémeux, Honey Ice Cream, Citrus Marmalade, Puffed Rice
Marchesi de Gresy La Serra Moscato d’Asti

Tickets to the White Truffle Dinner are $250.00 per person (inclusive of tax and Gratuity) and are available for purchase on Eventbrite.
This dinner is 21+

3) You may not get a chance to dine at Noma in Copenhagen (named Best Restaurant 4 times and one of the hardest reservations in the world to get), but you can hear chef David Zilber, Director of Noma’s Fermentation Lab, talk about some of the magic behind the famed restaurant and their new book, The Noma Guide to Fermentation. He will be in Boston on Friday, October 26th, at 12:30pm, doing an event with Porter Square Books at First Parish Church in Cambridge

At Noma—four times named the world’s best restaurant—every dish includes some form of fermentation, whether it’s a bright hit of vinegar, a deeply savory miso, an electrifying drop of garum, or the sweet intensity of black garlic. Fermentation is one of the foundations behind Noma’s extraordinary flavor profiles. David Zilber is the chef who runs the restaurant’s acclaimed fermentation lab, and in this new book he has co-authored with René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of Noma, they share never-before-revealed techniques to creating Noma’s extensive pantry of ferments. And they do so with a book conceived specifically to share their knowledge and techniques with home cooks. With more than 500 step-by-step photographs and illustrations, and with every recipe approachably written and meticulously tested, The Noma Guide to Fermentation takes readers far beyond the typical kimchi and sauerkraut to include koji, kombuchas, shoyus, misos, lacto-ferments, vinegars, garums, and black fruits and vegetables. And—perhaps even more important—it shows how to use these game-changing pantry ingredients in more than 100 original recipes.

You can purchase tickets here, and tickets include a copy of the book.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A History of Bacalhau: A Portuguese Staple

The greatest delicacy and triumph of the Portuguese cuisine is bacalhau (codfish), which is costlier than turkey, game or the best of beef.”
--Indianapolis Journal, December 24, 1899

Last week, after my plane landed in Porto, I was taken to lunch and there was bacalhau, salt cod, on the menu. During the rest of the week, bacalhau featured on a number of other menus as well. It is a ubiquitous and iconic Portuguese food, commonly referred to as fiel amigo, their "faithful friend." Other European countries enjoy salt cod too, such as France where it is called morue, Italy where it is known as baccalà, and in Spain where it is called bacalao salado. However, none of those countries have made salt cod such an integral element of their cuisine as in Portugal.

How did salt cod become so significant to the Portuguese?

Drying meat and seafood may be the oldest known form of food preservation, extending back about 100,000 years. Around the 8th century, the Vikings are known to have hung fish, which eventually included cod, out in the cold, drying it, and it became known as stockfish, which they would eventually export too. It appears that sometime by the late 10th century, Vikings explored the waters around Newfoundland, harvesting the plentiful cod in those waters and transforming it into stockfish.

This stockfish was light, easily transported aboard a ship, and nutritious, so much that a kilo of stockfish was thought to be as nutritious as five kilos of fresh cod. It was so well preserved that it had a shelf life of at least five years. Without stockfish, the Vikings probably couldn't have travelled as much, or as easily, as they did by sea.

At some point, and there is a large debate as to the timing, Basque fishermen, from the Pais Vasco in Spain, traveled to the waters off Newfoundland and began a lengthy period of cod fishing, jealously guarding the locations of these rich waters. It is believed that they were the first not only to dry cod, but also to salt them for preservation. The Basque then sold this salt cod to numerous European nations, including Portugal, which seemed to have whet their appetite for salt cod.

Though the Portuguese probably fished for cod themselves by at least the beginning of the 14th century, the first documentation of this activity was in 1353 when Portugal made a treaty with England, establishing the right of Portuguese fishermen to fish in the waters of England for a period of 50 years. Cod could be caught in the North Sea, but primarily on the coast. In exchange for these fishing rights, Portugal provided wine to England, the first documented shipment of wine between the two countries, a trade that eventually led to the creation of Port wine.

Previous to this time, the principal fish caught and sold in western Europe were herring and freshwater fish, with herring being quite a prolific fish. Around the 10th century, herring fishermen, especially in the Baltic region, learned how to preserve herring by salting it in brine-filled barrels. There barrels were transported across Europe and were especially popular in England, where Victorians referred to herrings as “silver darlings.” Herring became popular with both the poor and wealthy, and were a primary staple of armies that warred during these centuries.

However unlike stockfish, herring couldn’t be wind dried with similar results because herrings have an oily flesh that spoils quickly. Herring had to be immediately gutted and then placed between layers of salt and then repackaged in barrels of brine. This cured herring though wasn't particularly tasty and consumers had to work hard to make it edible. The early 14th century was especially bountiful for herring but the latter half of the century saw a mysterious decline, with a minor rebound in the early 15th century and then another significant decline.

With these serious problems in the herring industry, fishermen were seeking an alternative and salt cod offered a solution. The Basque were finally unable to hide the secret of the fishing grounds in Newfoundland, and by 1472, Portugal possessed maps of Newfoundland, referred to it as Terra dos Bacalhaus, “the Land of Cod.” Portuguese fishermen began to harvest cod in the waters of Newfoundland, and it is thought that by 1508, 10% of the seafood brought into their ports was salt cod.

Basque fishermen might have been the first to salt cod for transport, but others soon copied this method. Salting worked much better for cod rather than herring as cod isn't an oily fish, and much of its oil is connected in the guts. By the middle of the 16th century, about 60% of the fish consumed in Europe was cod, an astounding figure that would remain largely unchanged for a couple hundred years. Most of the remaining 40% was taken up by herring.

When Spain seized control of Portugal in 1580, its fishing industry suffered and Portugal had to trade for the salt cod it desired. Even when Portugal regained its independence in 1640, they still found it most reasonable to trade for salt cod rather than attempt to fish for it themselves. As Portugal possessed significant stocks of salt, especially from Setubal and Aveiro, it could trade this resource,  allowing others, primarily England, the ability to make salt cod. By 1620, England was exporting 90% of the salt cod they harvested, selling most of it to Portugal, Spain and some Mediterranean countries.

Cod fishing was an incredibly valuable industry, and it is claimed that from the 16th to the middle of the 20th century, the cod fisheries of Newfoundland generated greater wealth in Europe than the total amount of gold taken from the Americas. The documentation during this period commonly compared cod to gold, noting its vital importance.

If cod were less common, it would be held in as high esteem as salmon; for, when it is really fresh and of good quality, the delicacy and delicious flavor of its flesh admit of its ranking among the finest of fish.”
--Chef Auguste Escoffier

The popularity of salt cod was significantly tied to the spread of Christianity. For early Christians, Friday was considered holy, a day of atonement for the death of Jesus, and Christians were supposed to abstain from consuming meat. Soon enough, Lent also became a holy time of abstinence. It was believed that meat provoked carnal lust, so it was inappropriate on holy days. On the other hand, fish was considered to have a cold nature, decreasing lust.

Until about 1000, most people met their fasting obligations by eating freshwater fish, especially eels. By the 12th century, most of the fish they consumed was dried, salted, or smoked, and herring was a major component. Fresh fish was too expensive for most people and it was difficult to transport it to many areas. As Christianity spread, the number of holy days increased too. By the 13th century, holy days of fasting from meat occupied more than half the year.

As Portugal was largely a Christian nation, they ate plenty of fish during the year on holy days and salt cod became their fish of choice, especially as there were so many ways it could be prepared. And when you have to eat fish so often, more than half of the year, you want a versatile fish so you can vary your menu. Herring wasn't a versatile fish and many people disliked its taste. On the other hand, there is a common adage that there is a different recipe for salt cod for every day of the year. In reality, there are probably enough different recipes for every day of three years! There are Portuguese institutions which have gathered together over 1000 recipes for using salt cod.

Besides the religious reasons, fish was also quite important for armies, especially something like salt cod which could be easily transported, wouldn’t spoil, and possessed lots of protein. And during the centuries of incessant warfare, salt cod became vitally important to many nations. Their navies, merchants, and sailors also had a need for a similar type of food, and salt cod fit that role. Though the religious reasons for salt cod are receive the most attention, we cannot forget these other significant reasons for salt cod consumption.

An old Portuguese adage states that ‘Salt cod wants garlic’.”
--Taste of Portugal: A Voyage of Gastronomic Discovery Combined with Recipes, History and Folklore by Edite Vieira

The Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, has very little fat and contains more than 18% protein. Fattier fish are more resistant to salt, and take much longer to preserve, meaning the flesh could deteriorate before the preservation was complet, When cod is dried and salted, much of the water in its flesh evaporates and chemical changes occur. Salt cod becomes more than 80% protein, which made it a powerful food for warriors and seamen, and its flesh becomes chewier, milder, and almost sweet. The salt cod also contains nutritious potassium, iron and vitamins A, B and D.

Salt cod isn't used as is but needs to be soaked for approximately 24-48 hours in fresh water, with many authorities supporting the higher end of that range, before it is then boiled and simmered. If soaked properly, it is not high in salt and then you can use it in over 1000 recipes, preparing it in a myriad of methods, from grilling to frying.

While in Portugal, we enjoyed salt cod in several different preparations, with the fried/salt cod fritters seeming to be the favorite for most in our group. The broiled/baked recipes weren't as popular, though that seemed to be more due to the presence of tiny bones in parts of the fish. However, one night, our guide Ricardo gave us lessons in how to handle the bones, by starting to cut in the fish in the middle, The bones are generally located closest to the skin so starting in the middle you easily separate the bones from the rest of the fish.

These weren't my first experiences with salt cod and I loved the taste of the salt cod in all its different preparations. Locally, I've even had salt cod on a Francesinha sandwich! It was obvious to me that salt cod is still vitally important to the people of Portugal. It is no longer a dish only for holy days, but rather a staple for their table year round. Fresh cod is rare in Portugal, and they much prefer the taste of salt cod. If you travel to Portugal, you need to taste at least a few different salt cod dishes. Or learn how to prepare salt cod at home.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Iconic Francesinha in Porto: Mission Accomplished!

It's 11:30pm and I'm in Porto, just having finished dinner. What do I do now? Well, I went to another restaurant for a Francesinha, an iconic sandwich of Porto which is sometimes referred to as a "heart attack on a plate." Yes, maybe I was a bit obsessed with this sandwich.

The term "francesinhas" is said to most often translate as "little French girl" though it could also mean"little Frenchie" or the "little French one." The sandwich apparently originated in the city of Porto and its exact origins are murky, though one theory seems to be dominant. The most common tale is that the sandwich was invented in the 1950s by Daniel David da Silva, a Portuguese man who was born in the municipality of Terras do Bouro. Seeking work, he traveled to Belgium and France, eventually becoming a barman. When he eventually returned to Portugal, he started working at A Regaleira restaurant.

He was considered to be an inventive cook and one of his experiments was a sandwich which was inspired by the Croque Monsieur, the famous French sandwich made from ham and cheese and commonly topped by béchamel sauce. Daniel David added more layers of meat and topped the sandwich with a spicy sauce, allegedly made with tomato sauce and beer. Why did he call it a francesinha? The reason is uncertain, some claiming he did it to reflect the robust, spicy women of France as opposed to the more sulky Portuguese women.

In Porto, you'll find many variations of the francesinha, though it commonly is a stack of different meats between two pieces of bread with melted cheese atop it (and sometimes an egg) which is then covered by a spicy tomato-based sauce. The recipe for the sauce is usually a big secret, though beer and sometimes even Port, is used in the making. The quality and flavor of the sauce can make or break a francesinha. In Porto, they also state you need to drink a beer with the sandwich, and a number of restaurants offer a special deal on a francesinha & beer. As I'm not much of a beer fan, I had to forgo that combination.

In the Boston area, you can find the francesinha at Tasty Cafe On the Hill in Medford. Their sandwich is supposed to be based on a family recipe that is 30-40 years old, and you can find five different versions on their menu. They might be the only restaurant in Massachusetts to sell the francesinha. I like their francesinha but knew that I needed to have one at the source, in Porto, to truly  understand the essence of this alluring sandwich.

When I learned that I would be traveling to Portugal, visiting the city of Porto, I did research, trying to discover the restaurants which might offer the best francesinhas, and compiled a short list of six options. When I reached Portugal, I found my time in Porto limited and started to think I might not have the opportunity to eat a francesinha. However, on the last night of my trip, it seemed the fates favored me and I found a way to fulfill my desire for a francesinha! It didn't matter that I'd just had dinner, I knew that I could eat such a large sandwich. It also helped that my traveling companions were fully supportive of me fulfilling my mission to have a francesinha.

I ended up at Capa Negra II, which actually had been on my short list of best places for the francesinha. Owned by Amândio Fontes, the restaurant has been around for around 40 years, and takes its name, "black cape" or "black cover," from the black suit and cape worn by local college students. The restaurant is diner-like, a simple place to grab a casual bite to eat, a place for locals and those tourists aware of its reputation.

The sandwich (about 10 Euros) was delivered quickly and seemed to contain steak, linguiça, ham, and melted cheese, accompanied by an ample portion of French fries. The ingredients in the sauce are a closely held secret, which is common for many Porto restaurants. It looked enticing and I eagerly dug into the sandwich, as well as the fries.

Here, you can see the inside of the francesinha. I found the sandwich to be fresh, hearty and delicious, with plenty of tender meat, lots of gooey cheese, all enhanced by the slightly tangy and flavorful sauce. Each bite brought immense pleasure to my belly and soul and my traveling companions mentioned that I looked like a happy kid in a candy store. The fries were crisp, and soaked with the sauce they were even better. This was a damn tasty francesinha, and I understood how the restaurant earned its worthy reputation. I finished off the entire sandwich, sharing a couple bites with my traveling companions. Cape Negra II earns a hearty recommendation for their francesinha.

Mission accomplished! And a fitting way to end my amazing trip to Portugal.

I can't say the same for the other francesinha I ate. In the Porto Airport, I had some time to kill and wanted a bit of lunch before my flight. How could I then resist a restaurant named A Francesinha? First, the sandwich didn't come with French fries. That seemed a strange omission. Second, it had more melted cheese than the sandwich at Capa Negra, though I liked all the extra cheese. Third, the sandwich itself actually wasn't bad but the sauce was a fail, being too watery and lacking a good depth of flavor. If the sauce had been better, this would have been a decent sandwich.

The next time I'm in Porto, I hope I can try a francesinha from another restaurant on my short list. And if you're traveling to Porto, you need to enjoy one of these sandwiches too. It is a hearty dish, sure to sate any hunger, and should appeal to any meatlover. If the size of the sandwich seems too threatening, some of the restaurants offer a half-portion, or you could just share it with someone else.

Monday, October 15, 2018

My Return From Porto & The Douro

There is something about the longevity of port that naturally helps to vinously place our lives in perspective.”
--Andrew Hawes

Last night, I arrived home in Boston, returning from an amazing journey to Porto and the Douro region. I'd long yearned to travel to Portugal and that desire became a reality last week. As I mentioned last Monday, I visited Portugal as part of a FamTrip, accompanying both a small group of people from the Boston area and a second small group from Brazil. The trip was lots of fun, fascinating and educational, exciting and delicious, informative and beautiful. I want to make some brief comments and observations here, though please note I will be providing much more detail in the near future in a series of articles about my experiences in Portugal.

We had a full itinerary, most days the activities ranging from 9am to Midnight. We saw and experienced so much, yet it was like a chef's tasting menu, enticing small plate tastes, showing the great potential of the chef and making you yearn to experience all that the chef had to offer. I still want to know and explore more about much we saw. I am far from being sated of Portugal, desirous of sampling all that fine country has to offer.

I traveled through the Douro region by van, train, boat and on foot, ranging from Porto to Bragança. There were so many highlights, from the Castle of Bragança to the Sephardi Interpretive Center. We stayed at superb hotels, from the Douro Palace Hotel to the Pousada de Bragança. And the scenery was breathtaking, one of the most beautiful vineyard regions in the world. As the foliage had turned, there were wonderful colors everywhere, spread across the steep, terraced vineyards and mountains. No photo can properly do justice to the beauty of the Douro.

I was especially excited to visit wineries including Quinta do ValladoQuinta de Covela, Caves de Murganheira, and Cockburn's Port. Portuguese Sparkling Wines, wines from the Vinho Verde DOC, Port wines, and more! In the two photos above, you can see my purchases, a couple 30 Year Old Tawny Ports, a 30 Year Old White P ort and a Sparkling Rosé. I easily could have bought several cases of wine but the logistics of getting them home with me weren't easy or inexpensive. I know what to seek out in the U.S. though, and hopefully can find them here.

So much delicious food, from multi-course dinner to ample platters, and this certainly was not a region for vegetarians. Lots of pork, like the above platter of various pork parts, like ears. There was also plenty of beef, venison, wild boar and more. As expected, salt cod was ubiquitous though at certain points in our trip we also enjoyed some amazing local seafood, from razor clams to pike. We also devoured lots of various sweets, from the famous pastel de nata to other tasty concoctions. I only gained about 3 pounds in Portugal, a miracle considering how much I ate but which is likely due to all of the walking we did.

The people of Portugal were wonderful, so genuine, welcoming, knowledge and and filled with passion. Marta and Ricardo, our two main tour leaders, did a great job of guiding us through our travels, answering all of our questions, and assisting us in anything we needed. Our main drivers, including Rui, Alandro, and Miguel, not only transported us around the region but also knew much about the history and culture of the area. Each tour guide was had was a font of valuable info and helped to imbue a passion within us. I also need to give a shoutout to Sarah, Jennifer, Joyce, Denise and April, fine and fun women, other attendees from the Boston area, who traveled with me in the same van for much of the trip. They helped to make this an enjoyable trip

Well, I now have a few thousand photos to sort through, lots of notes to review, and I have plenty of story ideas worthy of a myriad of articles. I'll certainly be busy, but reliving so many fantastic memories of Portugal.

I'm also fortunate that I'll be making new memories next month, as I will be returning to northern Portugal! I don't have much detail yet, but I'm sure it will be another amazing journey.