Monday, June 19, 2006

Portu-goooal! vs. Iran

When I said I was going to pick World Cup games and cook a dish from the winning countries, I did not say I wouldn’t play favorites. The game I picked for Saturday was Portugal vs. Iran. I was rooting for Portugal (they were the favorite, as well) because I absolutely love Iberian cuisine. The food and the food culture of Spain captivates me so much that Mike and I have every intention of living there and spending our days cooking, eating and giving food tours to tourists. Keep in mind that I have never actually been to Spain, but this plan is my heart’s desire, nonetheless. When Portugal scored its second goal with a penalty kick, I went straight for Savoring Spain & Portugal, a big, beautiful Williams-Sonoma cookbook with National Geographic-worthy pictures. The food photography works me into such a frenzy when I flip through the pages that I beg Mike for reassurances that my little Spanish villa is more than just a pipedream.

Portugal, like Spain, is made up of distinct regions with their own cuisines according to what foods are available. Portugal’s entire western border is the coast of the Atlantic, so there is a strong fishing tradition and tons of seafood dishes. I have made simple Portuguese fish stews, so I wanted something a bit more exciting.

Mike and I selected two dishes: Acorda a Alentejana, or Bread Soup with Coriander, Garlic and Egg and Meia Desfeita de Bacalhau, or Salt Cod with Chickpeas. The bread soup won us over with the book’s gorgeous photo, plus the fact that it combines some of the most perfect foods in the world: garlic; thick, crusty bread brushed with olive oil and toasted; and poached eggs with rich, runny yolks. How could we go wrong? Here is the photo of our version:

Bread soup from Portugal’s Alentejo region in the South which includes coastal as well as inland areas.

I could eat this simple soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner any day of the year. The greatest skill you need is timing, as you prepare all the individual elements and combine them just as you are ready to serve.

This is where the flavor’s at…Mike is holding the muddled garlic, cilantro, salt and olive oil. You put this into a warm soup bowl, toss with the croutons, pour in the broth and crown the aromatic liquid with a poached egg.

We finished our soup then took a breather before preparing the salt cod. Actually, we had no choice but to take a breather because salt cod needs to be soaked and re-hydrated. According to my cookbook, this process takes 24 hours of soaking with multiple water changes. Luckily, our box of salt cod offered the alternative method of running the dry, salty fillets under cold water, then slowly heating them, but not to boiling, in a skillet. You heat the fish this way two or three times until the flavor of the cod is not overwhelmed by salt when you taste it.

While the cod was being de-salted, we hard-boiled three eggs. The rest of the dish comes together easily. First we sautéed a chopped onion in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added sweet paprika and 3 cloves of minced garlic. I had never purchased good paprika before, and I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike the standard spice that is simply labeled, “paprika,” this was sweet, earthy and full of flavor. Then we added a can of chickpeas, ¼ cup white wine vinegar, ¼ c. flat-leaf parsley and two of the eggs, chopped.

This simmers in the skillet just until warmed through. To serve, we garnished our bacalhau mixture with more chopped parsley, the reserved chopped egg and some oil-cured black olives. I thought the addition of one more salty element might be too much, but the olives are a great accent, imparting an oily, slightly bitter flavor. According to Savoring Spain & Portugal, this dish originated in Estremadura, the coastal region that juts out a bit further into the Atlantic. Salt cod, however, is common all over the country and in Spain as well. Mike and I had some fantastic sweet peppers stuffed with salt cod at a tapas place in Miami recently, but I had never used the ingredient myself. Happily, this dish was a huge success—hearty, salty and sweet.

World Cup Dinners have been fun so far, and even more educational than I expected. My next pick is Sunday’s game of Japan vs. Croatia. Sushi or Slavic…what will it be?

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