Despite its rich and varied flavors, Portuguese cooking goes mostly unnoticed, while neighboring Spain takes all the culinary glory. Sure, we all know the Portuguese are crazy for bacalhau and that port is from Porto, but there's so much more to explore, and so much more to eat.
George Mendes's My Portugal (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35) is not an encyclopedic introduction to the Portuguese kitchen. It's something much better. It's a deeply personal journey into the heart of a culture and its cuisine, as experienced by a first-generation Portuguese-American chef who's earned multiple James Beard nominations at Aldea, his Portuguese-inspired restaurant in downtown Manhattan.
To write My Portugal, Mendes traveled and ate his way around his family's home country, including Ferreirós do Dão, the small village where many of his relatives still live. This trip was the source of many of the recipes and charmingly told stories in My Portugal, but the book also includes dishes Mendes's parents cooked after settling in Connecticut, along with the chef's childhood memories of food and family. Mendes also shares some of the more elaborate creations that have earned him serious praise at Aldea.
This mix of home-style and restaurant recipes means that some dishes are more accessible than others. Professional equipment and hard-to-find ingredients are kept to a minimum, but a certain comfort level in the kitchen definitely comes in handy. When cooking from My Portugal, I found that I needed to heed the chef's cues carefully and stay close to the stove.
With briny shellfish and a sauce made from the country's beloved wine, Clams Steamed with Vinho Verde, Garlic and Cilantro is a like a trip to the Portuguese coast. Watch the garlic closely and be ready to lower the heat if necessary. If you're the type who seasons liberally, taste first. This dish is plenty salty and full of flavor. Follow Mendes's lead, and serve it with crusty bread to soak up every last drop of the garlicky sauce.
Cauliflower and Bacon Migas, Mendes's take on an Alentejo specialty, offer a completely satisfying mix of flavors and textures: The bread is soft in some spots, crisp in others; the cauliflower is earthy and tender; and the bacon is salty and just slightly chewy. As a cauliflower fan, I bumped up the amount to a full cup. I also pulled back significantly on the stock, so that the dish had more structure and less mush. You need to make Refogado, which is Portugal's answer to soffritto and used frequently throughout the book. Homemade stock elevates the migas, but a high-quality store-bought version also does the trick. I was a bit skeptical of the lemon zest and juice, but Mendes is a pro and knows that a final hit of acid adds brightness and balance.
Cinnamon-Sugar "Doughnuts" are airy clouds of fried dough rolled in cinnamon and sugar. At Aldea, Mendes serves them with caramel and other dipping sauces, but as he notes in the recipe, they're more than delicious enough on their own. The dough is similar to French pâte à choux—the base for cream puffs—and requires beating a stiff mixture by hand for several minutes. My arm was exhausted, but it's super important to dry out the dough. Patience is also essential. Make sure each egg is fully incorporated before you add the next. When it's time to fry, thoroughly chilled dough is helpful, but don't worry too much about dropping perfect balls of dough into the hot oil—even my most oddly shaped doughnuts puffed into adorable little rounds.
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