Oh, Porto!

 

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Porto is a city of serious historical depth with a pleasant industrial edge.  Our apartment, Oh, Porto, is perched on the rocky hillside directly under this Eiffel era bridge.  It might sound uncomfortable, but all of the architectural drama surrounding us is quite thrilling.

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At the same time, Porto is incredibly friendly, just downright loving, and homey.  We discovered this restaurant on our first night and will be having our third meal there tonight.  The food is brilliant, but completely welcoming.  This is the couvert or snacks they bring to your table.  Various house-baked breads and crackers, olives, truffle butter, and fresh tomato creme fraiche.  Everything is served in bakeware or tiny enamelware dishes.  It is sweet and sophisticated at the same time.

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Lunch was corn porridge with fried chunks of spicy sausage, a sous vide egg, topped with peppery greens, parmigiana, and fresh tomatoes.  I can’t wait for dinner.

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The High Mountains

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We drove up and up and up.  The roads became a succession of hairpin turns so close together that they filled the GPS screen with the traversing green lines.  Spring rain turned to hard balls of hail.  The medieval town of Sortelha, stone buildings low to the ground, blended in with the giant  landscaping boulders.

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All the while, we are listening to The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel.  Tomas, the protagonist,  is struggling to coax one of the first cars in Portugal up these mountains to recover a unique religious relic he needs to find. But Tomas is really working through his thoughts of the three people he loved most in the world:  his son, the mother of his son, and his father, all lost in one week to diphtheria.  He thinks that “love is a house with many rooms, this room to feed the love, this one to entertain it, this one to clean it, this one to dress it, this one to allow it to rest, and each of these rooms can also just as well be the room for laughing or the room for listening or the room for telling one’s secrets or the room for sulking or the room for apologizing or the room for intimate togetherness, and, of course, there are the rooms for new members of the household.  Love is a house in which the plumbing brings bubbly new emotions every morning, and sewers flush out disputes, and bright windows open up to admit the fresh air of renewed goodwill.  Love is a house with an unshakable foundation and an indestructible roof.” (Martel, 2015)

This metaphor is meaningful for all of the love relationships I have in my life, but none more than my 33 year long marriage.  Every day, we explore the rooms of this big, old house,  shifting spaces as our moods or necessity urges us.  I never get tired of it, honestly never.  Every day has a fresh energy that intrigues me.

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After exploring the icy cobble-stoned alleys of  Sortelha, we found a local country restaurant and warmed up with a dish of fluffy potatoes and bacalhou with a side dish of braised lamb.  The potato dish incorporated turmeric and cardamom,  reminiscent of Indian spices, but then that makes sense given the fierce way in which the Portuguese engaged in the spice trade.  All of these factors are part of figuring out what Portuguese cuisine means.

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First Day of Spring

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Happy first day of spring from the hill country of Eastern Portugal.  We took a big walk around this estate, Torre de Palma, after a Sunday afternoon rainstorm.  I was singing Joni Mitchell about going to a party down a red dirt road.  The clay soil clung so heavily to our boots that they created ankle weights for an additional workout.

Today is also Palm Sunday.  In the village where we had lunch, mass was just letting out.  The church bells were ringing at noon, and people were walking home with giant stalks of rosemary in their hands.  I think it was their local version of the palm fronds.

We had a light lunch of local sheep cheese, Iberico ham, and thick slices of mushrooms only half cooked in olive oil and garlic.  This was a little revelation to me.  I always slice mushrooms too thinly and cook them too completely.  They should still be raw and springy in the center, more like a slice of artichoke heart.  Keeping things simple and a little raw seems like a good way to head into a fresh season.

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Portugal Road Trip

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Spring break  road trips can be so thrilling.  After months of nose-to-the-grindstone work following Christmas, it feels exhuberently freeing to not only have a week of unscheduled time, but also an open road promising new views and experiences.  The Garmin is charged, and the audio book is downloaded, Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal just to keep up the atmosphere.  We couldn’t have greater expectations.

But before we leave Lisbon, I must say a little something about dried cod or bacalhau.  Like other items from Portuguese cuisine, port wine, for example, it was developed to keep on long ship journeys.  It is shocking how far around the world this tiny country got during the age of exploration.  Bacalhau is undeniably Portugal’s national dish and no one seems to be a bit tired of it.  If you ask a nice Portuguese wine merchant where he would recommend you have lunch, he will tell you, his eyes taking a far-away gaze,  to have the bacalhau at the place around the corner. And this would be an excellent recommendation, the cod coming to your table breaded, then oven baked on a mound of savory onions, in a pool of olive oil.  Now I am getting that far-away look in my own eyes.  This is a good comfort food.

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Une Bon Birthday

DSC_9794A friend recently lent me the memoir of Lynsey Addario:  It’s What I Do, A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.  Lynsey was a war photojournalist in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya, where she was famously kidnapped and eventually released.  Most of the book recounts shoots in intensely hot combat zones where she frequently risked her life to get the photos she posted back to American newspapers, at the end of the day.

She wrote about one conversation, though, that she had with an editor from National Geographic.  He presented Lynsey with a different type of challenge.  This editor advised her “Don’t shoot this story like a New York Times story.  Take your time with it; get into it.  Use the time you have to explore.” (Addario, 2015, pg. 271)  She found this imperative a little frustrating because it meant retraining herself to shoot with “time and patience” which was not her typical style.

I have reflected, lately, that those of us who live in another country for an extended amount of time also have this luxury of time, but also a challenge to tell about our experiences slowly, one small layer at a time.  Sometimes I feel like I am doing that, but there have been gaps of time when I have stopped exploring and noticing and have retreated back to merely living my life in the context of another country without truly being part of it.

For my birthday, Allan took me to the most northern tip of the Cap Bon Peninsula, El-Haouaria,  somewhere we have intended to go since we moved here.  This little village can see some tourist action at the height of summer, but we had the privilege to visit it at the end of winter, something few non-residents experience.

Our splendid inn, Dar Enesma, was cozied up with a fire in the main room and gentle radiator heat in the stylishly designed rooms.  We quickly got onto the rhythm of village life through the sounds of the sea, free-ranging roosters and sheep, and the prayer calls from the tiny mosque.

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DSC_9927For once, I got myself out early enough in the morning to take photos in the day’s best light.  Down at the port, some of the fishermen were selling what they had already caught, while others were just gearing up to head out.

 

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DSC_9825 The best surprise of this visit, however, was this outstanding Italian restaurant, Bellariva.  We were the only customers on Saturday night.  Business is slow in winter,  but from the second we entered, we knew we were going to have a special meal.  There was no menu.  The owner, Dalla Lina, suggested we first have a plate of  house-made tagliatelle with a deep, rich porcini mushroom sauce.  This was followed by a plate of her ravioli, stuffed with spinach and ricotta and topped with a tangy, fresh tomato and basil sauce.  Finally, we had a plate of her long-braised rabbit, served with its own pan sauce of melted vegetables with soy-like richness.  Dalla, married to a Tunisian man for 20 years, loves her seaside home and cooking for her traditional Italian restaurant, based on the local market ingredients.  But whenever she yearns for bella Italia, she just hops on the flight to Milan and is back in 1 hour.

BellarivaAsk the owner of Dar Enesma, Sonia Ouedder, to make a reservation at Bellariva for you.  This will also ensure that it is open.

One-Bundt Dinner

Roast Chicken, Ingredients, 2This post is showing so much skin it could be censored.  What I want to show you, though,  is a new cooking hack I read about in Saveur magazine that I now use all of the time. First, go to your pantry and dig out your bundt pan.  Hey, it’s not a bad pan, is it?  It’s made of pretty high grade aluminum so your cakes don’t burn.  Cover the center hole with a strip of aluminum foil, and place the bundt pan on top of a sheet pan.

Fill the base of the bundt pan with a layer of something starchy like sliced potatoes or pre-soaked beans, like my cranberry beans.  Next, add a layer of chopped vegetables.  I used diced pumpkin, but you could use fennel, zucchini or even sturdy greens.  The top layer will be sliced onions and maybe chopped garlic, along with some herbs or spices.

Take a whole chicken and rub it all over, and under the skin, with softened butter mixed with anything else you want to infuse it with.  I often use harissa in my cooking, but you could use something else or just stick with butter, salt, and pepper.

Now, prop the chicken up on the center tube of the bundt pan.  It’s weird; I know.  It’s kind of like that old beer can chicken that some grillers are fond of making.   Make sure the chicken has a good, solid center of gravity because as it cooks, it will soften and you don’t want it to fall over or off.

Add water to the base of the pan, at least enough to cover the starch element.  Place the entire set up, carefully, in a 400 degree oven and cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  If the chicken starts to get too brown, but the beans and vegetables aren’t thoroughly cooked, yet, just cover the chicken part with some foil.  The same can be done if the onions start to get too brown before the other vegetables and chicken are cooked.  What is going to happen, though, is that the chicken fat and juices are going to drip, drip, drip into the base, soaking those ingredients with… well, schmaltz.  You know that umami secret of Jewish mothers?  In the end, you will get both a delicious braise and a crispy roasted bird, two in one.

Serve the dish right from the oven, if you like,  or else swathe the top of the dish in aluminum foil and put it in the refrigerator over night.  The next day, you can skim off some of the fat, then serve the vegetables and roasted bird plated and reheated.

Harissa ChickenWhy is it so radio-actively orange, you ask?  This orange took on a life of its own.  I did rub the chicken down with harissa, but placing it next to the pumpkin caused both of them to trend toward the electric side of the color spectrum.  I’m just going with it, though when I look at this photo, all I can think of is the Seinfeld clip The Butter Shave.  I’ll bet it was ringing a bell for you, too.

Springtime in Tunis

Shy DaffodilsWell, it’s right on the verge, at least.  These daffs are literally peeping out.  One of the delightful things about renting a grandma’s house, this year, is discovering what she has been tucking into her garden for decades.  We just finished with the miniature jonquils.  Now, we have full blown daffodils and flowering apricot trees.DSC_9671Before we head into a new produce season, though,  it is a good time to look at using up food that I preserved last summer and fall.  It is one thing to get enthusiastic about canning and freezing during an abundant season.  The second part of that act, however, is creatively using that product, later on.  When I talk with Gabe each week, I often ask him what he has been cooking and if he is using up his food stores.  Sometimes, I note a tinge of irritation in his voice.  I know that it takes some more intentionality to use the food you have tucked away, especially if it is starting to sound a little repetitive.  But I also don’t want to spend my cooking days next summer trying to use up preserved food from last summer.  I want him to chow it down, now.

I put away this giant jar of kohlrabi kimchi last November.  You can see the fiery chili paste sediment waiting at the bottom of the jar.  We aren’t that excited about a side of kimchi with our meals, at the moment, but this recipe takes the heat and vinegar and crunch and turns it into a base for a different kind of dish.

KimchiKimchi-Braised Chicken
with Bacon

1 Tbsp. olive oil
4 oz. slab bacon, or chorizo, sliced 1/4″ thick, cut crosswise into 1″ pieces
4 lbs chicken pieces
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
8 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups kimchi, with juices, divided
6 oz. pasta
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

 

Heat oil in large Dutch oven or skillet over medium and cook bacon or chorizo, turning occasionally, until brown and lightly crisped, 5-8 minutes.  Transfer to a plate.

Season chicken generously with salt and pepper.  Cook, skin side down, in bacon drippings, until skin is very deep golden brown, 12-15 minutes.  Transfer to plate with bacon, placing skin side up.

Add garlic and tomatoes to same pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly browned and tomatoes have burst, about 5 minutes.  Add wine, scraping up browned bits.  Bring to a boil and cook until reduced by three-fourths.

Add half of kimchi and nestle bacon and chicken, skin side up, into tomatoes (make sure chicken skin is above surface f liquid to keep it crispy).  Bring to a simmer and cook, reducing heat if needed, until chicken is tender and cooked through, 45-60 minutes.

Transfer chicken back to plate and bring  braising liquid to a simmer; cook until slightly thickened, 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta until a dente.  Drain, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking liquid.

Return pasta to pot and add butter and 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid.  Toss, adding more pasta cooking liquid as needed, until pasta is coated with buttery sauce.  Season with salt and pepper.

Stir remaining kimchi into chicken braising liquid; season with salt and pepper.  Place chicken, skin side up, in braising liquid.  Toss noodles to combine.

Serve chicken and tomato-kimchi sauce over buttery noodles or remove chicken from the bone and shred it, stirring it back into the sauce.

 

Adapted from
“Kimchi-Braised Chicken with Bacon.” Bon Appetit Feb. 2016: Web. <www.bonappetit.com>.