Monday, 26 March 2012

If food could turn back time

Slow cooked Pork belly with Medronho
As Portugal faces the reality of a second bail out one has to brace ones kitchen for producing some austere yet nourishing dishes.The essence of a country and its people is mirrored in its customs, its traditions, its cuisine, as they transform what nature gives them.No more so than here in Portugal.
Ask the older generation what recipes they used to help them survive the depression. You might learn more from them than you ever expected.
If only food could turn back time. In this current recession it is not only Portugal that is rediscovering the hard-times recipes of its descendants. As Portugal and others in the European community re-enter recession, money is tight.
Old recipes are a richness that families treasure, many were perfected during periods of poverty and are a way to come through a crisis well fed.
Offal, stale bread and left-over pulses are the main ingredients in many of these dishes.
My parents experienced war time rationing in England,and I think my mother became a better cook as a result of it. To me, these generations are the true hero’s of the culinary world and I often return to their techniques when I need inspiration. Not measuring, using whatever´s around, adopting leftovers and cooking tough cuts of meat and making them taste absolutely delicious… in a way this is peasant food.
Peasant foods are more often equated with subsistence living. While it’s true that peasant food is eaten by the poor, the food itself is far from what most people imagine. It’s hearty and healthy and tasty, made from local seasonal ingredients.
Beans are a peasant food to which we pay nowhere near enough attention. Like cornmeal and rice, beans can fill every culinary role, even making a Portuguese cake that tastes delicious. Eggs also were the best and cheapest source of nourishment for peasants and the poor all around the world.
Finish off your peasant cookery with seasonal vegetables and fruits, and you can cook delicious, nutritious, gourmet meals inexpensively year round, and have a good stock of survival food with which you are comfortable and happy eating. Grains, beans, dairy, and eggs are more than survival foods, they are everyday foods, and comfort foods, and are easy enough to dress up into gourmet foods that will rival anything ever served in a fancy 5 star restaurant. You’ll hardly miss the huge slabs of meat to which we’ve become accustomed to seeing as the main part of the meal. Meat should rightfully be considered a treat and that’s just the way it is in peasant cookery.
How a feast for a fiver can seem like top dollar dining.
a traditional islamic caçoila in Museu de Arte Islâmica, Mertola
Take for example the Portuguese pork recipe called Caçoila.Acquiring its name from the vessel it was traditionally cooked in,it uses inexpensive cuts of meat and simple ingredients to produce a delicious meal layered with exotic flavors.
Ordinary people could not afford the more expensive cuts, so over many generations they found creative ways to tenderize meats and spice them so that the resulting meals were delicious as well as nutritious.Do not try it with a pricier cut. Pork loin, for example, will not have enough marbling or fat content and will dry out.
The key to caçoila is its time in the oven. Cooking the meat in a slow oven (325°)for two to three hours lets the fat in the pork break down and infuse the meat with the wonderful flavours of the marinade. When cooked carefully, caçoila doesn’t need a knife. It can be broken up with a fork.
Some Portuguese cooks first marinate the pork in spices, for as long as one or two days, then cook it. I prefer to cook the pork and let it create its own juices in the pot. When it comes to seasoning meat this is where Old World cooking and home recipes from the Old Country get troublesome. If you’re a “scientific” cook who measures everything with great precision, this recipe and others like it from may frustrate you.These Portuguese cooks would use a pinch of this and pinch of that.They seasoned by taste. If a pinch didn’t bring out the flavour they were looking for, they would add another pinch until it tasted just the way they wanted.

An Old Portuguese Recipe for 
Simmering a cheap cut of Pork 
(Serves 4) 
3-5 pounds pork shoulder 1.5 -2.5 kg (3-5 pounds ) pork shoulder, cut into 1” cubes 
(by the time you cut off the excess fat you can expect to loose a pound or more) 
2 minced garlic cloves
juice of two oranges
½ tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp pepper
½ tbsp mixed spices (Portuguese cooking uses cumin, but you can mix the cumin with thyme and bay leaf. Add a pinch (Grandma would be proud!) of cinnamon or allspice. These rich spices give the caçoila just a hint of Middle Eastern flavor.
1 cup dry white wine - Some cooks prefer red wine for cacoila. I prefer white with pork because the flavor of the red tends to overwhelm the pork flavor. The wine tenderizes the meat, adds a hint of the wine flavour to the pork, and the alcohol completely burns off during the slow cooking.
¼ tsp piri piri sauce – (optional)

Heat the oven to 325F/160C Cut the excess fat from the pork and cut the remainder into 1” cubes. Put the pork pieces in an oven-proof casserole dish. Mix all the other ingredients in a medium sized bowl.
Pour the seasonings over the pork. Gently mix the seasonings with the pork.Cover the dish and place it in the oven for approximately 2 1/2 hrs.
Now you can sit back and relax while the exotic aromas of a Portuguese caçoila infuse your kitchen. To be sure the pork is properly tenderized and the all the flavours are blending, periodically check the pot. If there is very little liquid left in the pot, add some additional wine or water. The caçoila is ready when you can easily break the meat apart with a fork.
Traditional Portuguese families serve the caçoila with plain boiled potatoes and soak up the wonderful sauce with Portuguese hard rolls.One of the wonderful things about Portuguese caçoila is how easy it is to make. The slow oven does most of the work.
Portugal has survived recessions before and those who are old enough to remember it are the ones who will survive it.It is a sanguine view, a "saudade" perhaps.A longing for the past that is so far into the future it may never happen. This is an older population,the one you meet on a daily basis manning our favourite  market stalls and selling their home grown produce and the eggs they have collected from their hens.When you buy these eggs they are still till warm in the tin bucket in which they were collected.This was a different age. Portugal was "poor"and people knew how to live a simple lifestyle. These people in the campo and serra still live this life style, growing and farming most of their own food.They work all the hours god sends and shop sparingly, very rarely in a supermarket, living on very small means.Not so the modern youth.They will not be seen behind a market stall.They have left behind a tradition,a life in the remote countryside of their childhood.They now go in search of an education and a better life in the cities or even abroad. They have not learnt to live within their means. Many are probably mortgaged at a very young age and have a new car.

 

1 comment:

  1. I have a bone to pick with you, Algarve! I read this yesterday and then had an earworm for the next 12 hours - dodgy 1980s Cher song. Argh! It's taken me until now to recover. Lovely article though, so all is forgiven!

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