(We’re thrilled that this recipe is being featured at Oprah.com’s roundup of holiday recipes for 2009. For more of our featured posts, visit Oprah.com today.)
I imagine Portugal is warm most of the year. That’s probably not true, and I’m worse in meteorology than I am in geography, so don’t trust me. That’s only how I imagine it.
I imagine slowly sloping wooden boats docked alongside rocks in tiny towns with sun-washed houses perched on blue water. There are European-looking cathedrals, with worn walls and faded stones. Green fields are dotted with trees that lean toward the ocean. Enormous piazzas stand empty, surrounded by architecture vaguely Spanish, sort of Italian. Craggy cliffs loom, daunting, over sparkling oceans.
Actually, I’m not telling the truth. Before this week, when we cooked out of David Leite’s incredible cookbook, The New Portuguese Table, I never imagined much about Portugal. How often did your fourth-grade teacher bring up Portuguese history? No one ever talked about Portuguese writers in my college classes. And in popular culture? My only references have been Portuguese water dogs, those shaggy dogs with hair over their eyes. And that cheesy late 80s movie, Mystic Pizza, where Julia Roberts had bushy eyebrows and a tangled mop of a mane of hair (hm. kind of like a Portuguese water dog, really). She and her screen sisters were supposed to be Portuguese American, so they talked in brazenly bad accents.
I’m not proud of this.
The New Portuguese Table illustrates lavishly just how well the Portuguese must eat. Grilled beef kebabs with Madeira, bay leaf, and garlic. Duck risotto with ham and sausage. Salt cod in potato jackets (and oh, the ooze of milk mayonnaise tumbling from the top of that potato). Sweet lemon and black olive wafers. Everything, and I mean everything, in this book will leave you hungry for days, until you leave the imagining behind and step into the kitchen.
The photographs left me breathless (and a little jealous, if you want to know the truth. Oh that I could ever capture food like Nuno Correia has here). The char on the lemon slice on the front cover made me hungry. The food looks that enticing.
(And it’s the photographs Correia took of the Portuguese countryside, the ones that are splashed throughout the book along with pictures of food, that inspired my writing at the top. Later note: I just discovered that David Leite took all the country photos in the book. David!)
However, I know why the photographs turned out so beautifully, besides the photographer’s skill. David Leite’s meals invite us all to the table. Plates of black-eyed peas with onions and red pepper, casserole dishes filled with braised partridge and roasted root vegetables, grilled chicken with crisp bits of skin, the warm orange of pumpkin soup in a soothing blue bowl this is family food. These are dishes meant to be shared with a big group of people, elbows on the table, hands waving in the air while stories are told, spoons plunging in, and the only silence the sigh of happiness at the taste of that kale and sausage soup.
If you look through this book, and you aren’t hungry by the end of your perusal, I suggest you have your pulse checked.
That green olive dip on top? The one with anchovies, milk, cilantro, and green olives? I had to restrain myself from eating the entire bowl over the course of the evening I made it. We were having friends over the next day for a Halloween celebration, and I wanted them to taste it. I had to shove it in the back of the refrigerator to make myself forget it. (I couldn’t, though.)
And the chorizo tortilla up there? Danny stood next to me as I tried to snap that shot, late at night, in bad light, and he grew more irritated by the moment that I wasn’t done so we could just eat, already.
Little Bean ate three slices for breakfast the next day.
David Leite writes recipes impeccably, with meticulous care, without seeming uptight. Some writers craft recipes painfully, like a math problem to be solved, and there are plenty of quadratic equations involved. David is clear in his instructions because he wants you to make these dishes successfully. But there’s personality in there too. “If the potatoes aren’t tender, toss again, bump up the oven to 450°, and finish roasting them.” You feel like David’s standing next to you in the kitchen, not watching over your shoulder to make sure you do it correctly, but leaning back against the counter with a glass of wine in his hand, encouraging you to trust your instincts.
(Maybe I’m partial to this because that’s how we have tried to write the recipes in our cookbook too.)
And so we both felt comfortable playing. When David’s recipe for cheese-stuffed pork tenderloin called for the tenderloin to be slathered with red-pepper paste, and we didn’t have any in the house, we threw in some spices we thought might echo the taste. And when the recipe called for a firm cheese, and we had just run out, we used our new favorite semi-soft cheese, Kurtwood’s Dinah cheese. Okay, so David was right. The hard cheese would have oozed, and this buttery wonder we love melted everywhere. Still, with some roasted parsnips and onions, plus boulangere potatoes just out of the oven? This was our favorite Sunday supper in weeks.
As David writes, “Pork is the undisputed king of meat in Portugal.” He discusses different types of Portuguese bacon, dried beans, various cheeses, cured meats, garlic, olives, and salt cod, among other vital ingredients in an essay called “The Portuguese Pantry.” I appreciated that he lay out the ingredients that mamas know how to pull out of the pantry and make into a familiar spread for the family. More than that, I was surprised to find that the essential ingredients of Portugal, a country I don’t know well at all, are pretty much the ingredients in our pantry. A few new purchases will give us new tastes. But we could cook out of this book without a trip to the city for bags full of ingredients we might not use again.
On top of all this, we found our new favorite Christmas cookie by adapting one from The New Portuguese Table. Need I say more?
We are putting the finishing touches on final edits for our cookbook this week. (I’m glad you can’t see the frazzled mess I am at the moment, as I type this.) Going through this arduous, incredible process has given Danny and me both an enormous respect for anyone who writes a cookbook. And The New Portuguese Table is one of the best I have read in years.
Maybe someday we will see Portugal with our own eyes. But until we reach those shores, I’ll take duck breast in black olive sauce, spicy pumpkin seeds, and eggs simmered in tomato sauce any day.
We think you’d love The New Portuguese Table too. Clarkson Potter sent us a copy of this one, and they have kindly offered to send two copies to readers here. Tell us stories about Portuguese food, if you have them. Or sitting at the table with your family. We’ll take comments until Saturday, November 7th.
Spicy Molasses Cookies (biscoitos de mel), adapted from The New Portuguese Table
I knew immediately that I would like these cookies when I saw that David threw in ground fennel. Danny teases me about how much I love fennel, but the curious combination of sweet and savory, slight licorice smell drives me wild in every form. In a molasses cookie? You bet. (In fact, I have bumped up the fennel here, because I couldn’t taste it enough in the first version, which called for a pinch.)
We made three different batches of these until we found the version we like best. (oh darn.) The dance of spices with the shuffle of molasses was perfect right away. But our first cookies spread a bit, a little too soft for my liking. I wanted a thick cookie, crisp on the edges and soft in the center. That’s why we settled on a bit of cornstarch. I’m normally not a big fan, but it seemed to tighten the dough the way I wanted.
(If you are allergic to corn, you might try arrowroot powder here.)
Crisp against the teeth on the edges, these slowly become a soft molasses love in the middle. The next day, they lose the crisp and become softer. As our friend Matt wrote to us the day after trying them, “Those cookies were hands down bloody amazing cookies. Seriously some of the best cookies I have eaten, and let me tell you – I have eaten a fair few in my time.”
We’re clearly making these for Christmas this year.
3/4 cup sorghum flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/3 cup potato starch
1/4 cup sweet rice flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon guar gum
1 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup dark molasses
Combining the dry ingredients. Whisk together the sorghum flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, sweet rice flour, and cornstarch in a large bowl. Add the xanthan and guar gum, the spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk them together. Set aside.
Creaming the butter and sugar. Using a stand mixer (if possible), combine the softened butter and sugars. Mix them together well until they have nuzzled together to become one. Do not beat them for longer than 1 minute or so, because over-creaming the butter and sugar can cause gluten-free cookies to spread. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, and then drizzle in the molasses. When everything is incorporated, stop the mixer.
Finishing the dough. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing on low between additions. Resist putting your finger in the dough to take a bite until you have added all the flour mixture.
Waiting, patiently. Refrigerate the dough for at least 1 hour before baking. Overnight is best.
Preparing to bake. When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350°. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper or a Silpat.
Baking the cookies. Roll dough about the size of a tablespoon (if you were measuring fast, then adding more to make sure the cookies are big enough) between your palms and place about 2inches from each other on the baking sheet. Bake until the edges have browned and the centers are firm but still yield a bit to the touch, about 15 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack and allow to them to cool for at least 15 minutes before eating.
Now, dive in.
Makes about 24 cookies.