Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cataplana in the Algarve

Cataplana  is a word that can can refer to a recipe, or to the copper pot in which this recipe is cooked. It's famous and typical in the Algarve or the southernmost region of Portugal. I thought it was similar to a zarzuela de mariscos, but then chef Fernando Fonseca, of the Restaurante Santa Eulalia, immediately said "noooooo, definitely not!"

Maybe the difference is in the recipe or list of ingredients, but chef, it sure looks like a zarzuela de mariscos to me. For that matter, it was a sarsuelang laman dagat! Well, whatever it was similar to, the impressive part was the way it was presented. Our big group of 70 was already seated in round tables of ten that each had a tapas spread laid out in the middle for all to share. These were "Chef's Tapas" as printed on the table menus: fresh oysters, codfish fritters, shrimp turnovers, marinated olives, octopus salad, sauteed cockles and more.

Then for the main course, a huge copper "flying saucer" was being used to cook seafood. Being one of only five women in this big group of men (who were all busy talking business to each other, and not really aware of what was happening at the other end of the dining room), I approached the chef and watched closely.

Chef Fernando eagerly explained to me what he was doing, happy that someone was paying attention to the live cooking. His seafood line up included different kinds of white fish, clams (when I asked what kind of clams, he answered "hmmm, I don't know the name in English, but you know where the salt water meets the sweet water---that's where they live."  Okay, that's too specific), big shrimp, and prawns. It started off with minced garlic and chopped red and green peppers sauteing in olive oil, then layering of the seafood with fresh cilantro, flat leaf parsley and oregano and then additionally seasoned with "award-winning" sea salt from the Algarve.

For showing interest, chef gave me a pack of this salt which won a gold medal in a food trade show

After chef Fernando and his assistant layered all the seafood in the giant cataplana, it was covered and left to steam for about 20 minutes. He peeped in a couple of times, to check and to stir. Then it was finally ready to be plated and served. I thought it was an interesting way to serve all those people efficiently.

The chef explained to me that they don't usually cook a cataplana for a huge group of people. The usual cataplana pan is made for 4 to 6 people.

It was served with a side of steamed rice

Of course I was eager to buy a small copper pot, but  when I saw it in a store today, visions of my overstuffed kitchen cabinets flashed in my mind reminding me that I recently resolved not to hoard recipe-specific vessels anymore (with the exception of a paellera.)

And then I remembered I received a beautiful red-orange Le Creuset dutch oven from my mil this last Christmas. I'm positive this dish can be done in my new pot (I can hear the chef saying "noooooooo!")  Well chef Fernando, thanks for the demonstration. It was delicious! I'm definitely going to try this cataplana in my non-cataplana pot.

Restaurante Santa Eulalia
Grande Real
Santa Eulalia
Resort and Hotel Spa
Albufeira, Portugal

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