Our eldest had just finished school, my husband had a reservoir of vacation days, and I, I thought, could cook and write anywhere. So when we got the offer to spend three months with the whole family on an old quinta on a hill in a tiny village in the Algarve, we didn’t have to think twice about it. It’s been sixteen years now, but a reader’s request to pay attention to a classic Portuguese cataplana brought back vivid memories of that time.
For example, how much I loved going to the market early in the morning in one of the nearby towns. The smell of large bunches of fresh coriander mixed with that of countless species of fresh fish. Trays full of shells in fifty shades of white, beige and gray. The sight of buttery, aged hams from the Alentejo and the countless varieties of small cheeses made from goat’s or sheep’s milk curdled with thistle extract.
I kept on shopping, because in addition to the quinta itself, we also had three holiday homes under our care, one of which was rented out to friends every week. And guess who was usually cooking for all those people? Almost every evening we sat with a large company on the terrace under the blossoming almond tree, drank dirt cheap but refreshing local white wine and ate sardines, and sea bream, and horse mackerel, and cuttlefish, and a meter long shiny silver fish called peixe espada and in Dutch black swordfish.
And we ate shellfish. Lots of shellfish, which I prepared in a pan that was created for cooking seafood: the cataplana. Such a cataplana consists of two half, copper (or aluminum, or stainless steel) spheres that are connected to each other with a hinge and that you can clamp closed so that a hermetically sealed pan is created from which no wisps of steam and therefore not a penny of taste can escape. Then you only open the cataplana at the table so that your guests are engulfed by the aromas that have developed inside it.
Tradition has it that the pan is turned over halfway through the cooking time. This, of course, to allow the ingredients to mix well. After all, it is difficult to stir in a closed pan. Among the notes I made during that Portugal period – I not only cooked there, but also wrote a bit – I found the following comment: ‘Our quinta-cataplana closes so badly that turning it into a drama, with the contents of the pan almost disappeared into the sink.’ If I remember correctly, I left that reversal after that.
Which brings me back to the reader who asked for a cataplana recipe. He wrote that he had recently switched from cooking on gas to an induction hob and that his cataplana had since been relegated to an ornamental object on the cupboard. That’s a shame about that beautiful pan, of course, but it certainly doesn’t mean that cataplana can no longer be cooked. The dish – which, like a tagine, is named after the pan in which it is prepared – also works well in a wok or large sauté pan with a tight-fitting lid. No, you can’t turn things around. But shaking the pan vigorously, like you shake a mussel pan, works just as well. In fact: guaranteed no mess.
For 4 persons:
1.5 kilos of clams;
2 tbsp lard or olive oil;
2 large onions, sliced in half rings;
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped;
1 red chili pepper, with or without seeds, sliced;
100 g Serrano ham, diced or sliced;
100 g chorizo, in small pieces or crumbled;
200 ml of dry white wine;
1 can of peeled tomatoes (400 g), roughly chopped;
a handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Leave To start, desand the shells for at least two hours in a large bowl of cold water and a good handful of salt.
Sets the cataplana, wok or large sauteuse on the fire, add the lard or oil and let the onions fry gently for 10 minutes. Turn the heat up again, add garlic, chili pepper and bay leaf and fry for a minute. Add the ham and chorizo and cook for a further 2 minutes.
joint Add the wine and peeled tomatoes and bring to the boil. Turn the heat to low and let it simmer gently for 10 minutes.
coil the shells under cold running water and let them drain briefly. Put the shells in the pan and close the lid of the cataplana or put the lid on the wok or pan. Cook the shells for 3 – 4 minutes until they are all open. If necessary, turn the catapana halfway through, or shake the wok or pan vigorously a few times so that the ingredients cook evenly.
Open the pan only at the table and sprinkle the dish with parsley. Add plenty of bread to cover the liquid.