I actually remember where I was the first time I tried pastéis de nata. While still at school I got a job at Pandoro Panetteria, which at the time was the artisan bakery/café in Auckland and one of the only places to buy proper sourdough and other European breads, pastries and cakes (it started as a weekend job which on graduation turned full-time and managerial, fully sucking me into the hospitality world for a while). I haven’t been in there for years – as anyone who has worked in cafés or restaurants knows, you get to the stage where you can’t face the food served there, and I believe it went downhill after the original owners sold the business, too – but my time at Pandoro was a culinary education and it was there that I was introduced to the pillowy, crispy yet chewy, creamy and not-too-sweet Portuguese custard tart.
I have to admit I only picked up this cookbook because we have friends who are on holiday in Portugal and their foodgrams have been making me hunger for the perfect pastéis de nata. I knew that they were quite a palaver to make, but I wasn’t expecting two whole pages of recipe method, all tightly packed text in paragraph style rather than numbered, or at least spaced, steps. Too much effort for this busy Saturday.
Instead, because we were going to an ‘Indian subcontinent’ potluck dinner*, I made the Caril de Peixe à Moda de Goa, or Goan Fish Curry. Goa was a Portuguese colony for a few hundred years until as recently as the 1960s, and a lot of cultural and culinary exchange took place between the two places, so this collection includes quite a few Indian dishes including spicy onion bhaji and samosa alongside other curries.
The fish curry is straightforward but a little fiddly (though not as much as the tarts); instead of using coconut milk, you combine 500g desiccated coconut with the spices (freshly ground black pepper corns, coriander and cumin seeds and turmeric powder and dried chillies) and a little water to make a paste, then blitz it in batches in a blender. You then squeeze out the liquid in batches, and discard the solids. It always feels like a waste to me to discard ingredients (especially $5 worth of coconut), and I was tempted to sneak some of the spice-infused coconut into the sauce, but the fact that the recipe tells you to strain the liquid into the saucepan to further separate out any solids made me think that perhaps the coconut would make the sauce gritty, so I did as I was told for once.
Once this liquid, with the addition of grated onion, has cooked out for 15 minutes, you add the seafood. I stuck to the recipe, using prawns and firm white fish (snapper) but I imagine it would be good with whatever seafood you had on hand. I added some red rice to the basmati for interest, and topped it with fried curry leaves and mustard seeds sizzled in coconut oil until they started to pop. Just before serving, I sprinkled lots of coriander over the curry.
You could just use coconut milk for this recipe, but making it the traditional Goan way was kind of fun – I enjoy recipes that involve getting my hands dirty, and this one certainly delivered, with my hands stained yellow from the turmeric. Unfortunately the book, and my whole kitchen, got rather dirty too. This method does result in a slightly watery sauce, so if you want a richer result, coconut milk or cream may be the way to go. I often find Indian food too rich and filling, but this curry is very light and doesn’t overpower the taste of the seafood so I’d leave it as is.
I haven’t been to Portugal and my grasp of the geography, culture and cuisine is pretty sketchy really – for some reason it’s never been top of my wanderlust list but there’s a page of ‘Places to visit’ (all food-related) at the back of the book so that could be a handy reference if you were planning a trip, and like me, base holidays largely around what’s good to eat. The colourful illustrative cover and chapter openers and luscious food and location photography are a welcome burst of sunshine in midwinter Auckland; maybe as I try more of the recipes it will inspire me to visit Portugal next time I’m in that part of the world. And I might just be tempted to invest the time into making custard tarts.
Lisbon: Recipes from the Heart of Portugal by Rebecca Seal (Hardie Grant, 2017)
*Winter is a time for cosy dinner parties, and I love a good potluck, especially if the host picks a theme that brings you out of your usual cooking repertoire. I don’t cook a lot of Indian food at home, so it was great to sample everyone’s offerings, which ranged from a hearty lamb curry to a highly fragrant vege curry and little stuffed, spiced pancakes.