Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Portugal Details: Lisbon, Coimbra & Porto

Garlic at Porto Market
(Sorry for the delay in posting our trip details!) J and I spent little time planning ahead for our trip in Portugal and other than reservations for our first two nights in Lisbon, our itinerary was up in the air before we arrived. As it was the off season this worked wonderfully--we added an extra night to our stay in Lisbon without difficulty and arrived in Coimbra and Porto without reservations anywhere.

We used the Rough Guide to Portugal, which gave great lodging advice yet fairly unhelpful transport and sight-seeing advice. It was often out of date or unclear. We found the Portuguese tourist offices useful, as well as the Comboios de Portugal (train) website. As far as restaurants, in my last post I mentioned David Lebovitz's Lisbon report, but we mainly took advice from our hosts and wandered the streets 'til we found a bustling spot. In general, every cafe or bar we popped into for a coffee or a glass of vino verde delighted us to no end--low prices, interesting characters, friendly faces.



Bota Alta
Trav da Queimada 37
213 427 959
Traditional Portuguese food perfectly excecuted in a lively, crowded setting. Arrive early for a table.

Adega Santo Antao
Rua das Portas de Santo Antao 42
Rustic spot with the best roast pork and potatoes of the trip. Cheap wine and many old men sitting alone tucking into a bowl of pork and clams.

Confeitaria Nacional
Pr da Figueira 18
213 424 470
Where we at our first nata (traditional breakfast pastry). Beautiful interior. More expensive than the nearby non-descript local cafes.

Pensao Ninho das Aguias
Costa do Castelo 74
This small pension is situated on a cozy street in the Alfama neighborhood. Beautiful views of the city and comfortable rooms. Close to the Castelo de Mouros and a short (albeit steep) walk from Praca da Figuiera. In-room bath costs a bit more. No breakfast. We called from the U.S. to reserve ahead of time.


Jardim da Manga
Rua Olimpo Nicolau Rui Fernandes
239 829 156
A self-service restaurant featuring Portuguese dishes. It's sort-of like a cafeteria but much classier with friendly service people--for example, you order espresso at a separate counter and it's expertly pulled, delivered to your table. Students watch soccer on TV in the corner. Open on Sundays, when many other spots are not.

A Cappella
Rua do Corpo de Deus, Largo da Vitoria
The spot to see fado in Coimbra. This club is housed in a former chapel and the acoustics are lovely. Drinks and snacks available.

Casa Pombal
Rua dos Flores 18
A Dutch-run pension in the old town section of Coimbra. Small but comfortable rooms. We chose the shared-bath option, though we were the only guests for the night. Also, we had a sink in our room. The proprietor was very friendly and gave us good advice for exploring and eating. Excellent, large breakfast.


Dom Tonho
Cais da Ribeira 13-15
Expensive contemporary restaurant serving traditional Portuguese dishes with a modern twist. Had the best octopus of my life here--so fresh and tender, in a limey, piquant marinade. Bustling room overlooking the Douro with a mix of Portuguese and European tourists.

Rua de Sao Joao 46
936 057 340
Excellent port tasting bar featuring small, independent producers. Cozy wood interior and friendly, knowledgeable staff. You can buy port to take home as well.

Grande Hotel de Paris
Rua da Fabrica 27-29
A grand but charmingly shabby hotel. The first TV of the trip. Bathroom included, as well as a fantastic breakfast, with pastries of all stripes. A five minute walk from the main train station and a pleasant stroll or quick cab ride from the historic waterfront.

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Week in Portugal: Pork, Port and Pastries

fish at Lisbon grill
Taking full advantage of my long winter break, J and I snuck off to Portugal last week. Airline tickets were reasonable, and we figured the off season in this small coastal country was the cheapest spot in Western Europe. Of course, the off season meant raindrops and shortened hours at museums, but it also meant very few Americans, the ability to explore magical castles alone, and no hotel reservations needed. We visited Lisbon, Sintra, Coimbra and Porto in a 6 day trip.

Clams, pork and potatoes
We ate and drank more than our share of Portuguese delights--primarily rustic, cozy food perfect for chilly January days. Vegetables were few and far between, though those we had--raw carrots on a salad for example--were vibrant and full of flavor. In addition to pork, salt cod plays a key role in the Portuguese diet. "1000 Salt Cod Recipes"--a cookbook I found in a local bookstore. One of my favorites of the trip was a comforting hash of salt cod, shredded, fried potatoes and onions, held together by a loosely scrambled egg. We also ate multiple lunches featuring salt cod and potato fritters--some excellent, some only so-so.

I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story and post restaurant locations and travel details in a subsequent post. I was lucky enough to read this post by fellow blogger David Lebovitz right before we left and we followed many of his Lisbon recommendations.

Natas and espresso in Lisbon, Portugal
Nearly every morning began with an espresso and a nata pastry--an eggy, creamy custardy filling in a flaky buttery crust. Our first two days in Lisbon, we ate this breakfast at a tiny stand-up counter in the Praca de Figueroa, the only tourists (and I the only woman) among a handful of older Portuguese men, many drinking a glass of vinho verde or local cherry brandy, ginja. The second morning I also ordered a banana, and then watched the waiter ceremoniously cut both ends off, then peel 1/2 of it and set it on a plate in front of me.

The picture above is from Pasteis de Belem, a bakery known for the best natas in Lisbon. I'd have to concur. Below is a view of the bakery's bustling kitchen.

The nata-making kitchen at Pasteis de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal

Sausages at wine bar in Lisbon, PortugalOur first night in Lisbon, we walked around the Alfama neighborhood and found a tiny wine bar to begin the evening. At this point, our Portuguese vocabulary barely consisted of "obrigado" (thank you) so we struggled to ask if we could get a snack to accompany our wine. The waitress said no, but then a man came out of the back and began arguing with her--as far as we could tell, she didn't want to make any extra effort for the silly Americans while he insisted they could scrounge something up. J and I, embarrassed, tried to say nevermind and thought that was the end. About 10 minutes later, the waitress brings us a plate filled with various sausages and a pile of quince paste in the middle (pictured above). Starving, we gobbled the cumin and olive flecked sausages right up and when she came out again, I thought she asked if we liked it. So we both emphatically shook our heads in affirmation. Well, five minutes later we get another bigger plate with sausages and roast pork chunks. Sheepish, we also polished this off and ordered more wine. Our waitress seemed to have warmed to us by this point and as we got ready to leave, she brought us complimentary glasses of the house white port.

Sausage casings in the Porto Market, Portugal
Pig heads and sausage at the Porto Market, Porto, Portugal
We spent one morning wandering the Porto central market, and found lots of pork products on display, including the sausage casings for home sausage making adventures.

View of port wine lodges across the river from Porto, PortugalTawny Port tasting at Vinologia in Porto, PortugalA trip to Porto would be incomplete without a visit to the port wine lodges across the river from the city in the town of Vila de Nova Gaia. The wine is brought here from the eastern Douro Valley for fortification and trading purposes. The wine used to come down the river on boats but now semi-trucks suffice. Most lodges offer tours, but as it was January few were open. We settled for a tour at the large, Brit-run Taylor Fladgate and a small tasting at Sandeman. The port highlight of the trip, however, was a stop at Vinologia, a cozy tasting bar in Porto itself that specialized in ports from small producers. The extremely knowledgeable staff helped us taste tawnies, rubies and whites--a couple of which we carefully packed and brought home with us.

For more Portugal pictures, visit here. I'll post details of restaurants and other spots soon.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Boozy Bourbon/Whiskey Break

Ingredients for the Oh Henry CocktailAn Oh Henry and its ingredients.

As my regular readers (all three of you) may have noticed last fall, grad school put a serious crimp in my blogging updates. In fact, it put a serious crimp in nearly every activity other than reading, writing papers, and plotting demand curves. Therefore, I've been relishing winter break like a convict released from prison, immersing myself in museum-hopping, bread-baking, and novel-reading (just like your average convict...uh...maybe the metaphor doesn't hold.)

In addition to all these high-minded activities, I've also had my share of cocktails--forgoing last semester's $2 happy hour PBRs for drinks with friends at the cozy speakeasy PDT, a bar one reaches through a phonebooth in the St. Mark's hotdog mecca, Crif Dogs. At this tiny spot, reservations are usually advisable (you can call starting at 3 pm the day you'd like the reso), but my friends Bala, Booker and I sneaked in at 7:30 on a Sunday, reservation-less. The schmancy cocktail menu touts an old-fashioned made with bacon-infused bourbon. Considering my maxim, I had to try it--and truly enjoyed the smoky, peaty flavor.

A regular diet of $12 cocktails is too swish for my grad student budget, so J and I have mixed up our own concoctions at home as well. Thanks to my friends at Married...With Dinner I bought a bottle of Benedictine, following my fellow bloggers' instructions for the wintry Oh Henry. In a similar vein, I cracked open my cocktail cookbook, The Art of the Bar, and mixed myself a Bobby Burns. Less sweet than the Oh Henry, Bobby's a stiffer drink -- nearly too stiff for my tastes, though it helped push the thought of 2nd semester out of my mind.

Bobby Burns
2 oz. Scotch
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes Benedictine
lemon twist

Combine all liquid ingredients in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Stir, and strain into a glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

PDT (Please Don't Tell)
Inside Crif Dogs, thru the phone booth to your left
113 St. Marks Pl
New York, NY, 10009
(212) 614-0386

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Oops, I Killed the Yeast: Quick Bread to the Rescue

Savory Zucchini BreadThe savory zucchini bread that saved the day.

Thursday was cold in New York, as WNYC kept reminding me: "It's currently 20 degrees but FEELS LIKE 100 below." Perfect weather for bread baking. Over Christmas, I sampled my increasingly domesticated sister's fantastic sourdough and was determined to put the oven to work when I returned to New York. Unable to take some of her starter with me on the plane, I opted for a plain loaf of milk bread from Joy of Cooking. This recipe requires you to heat the milk to 110 degrees before adding it to the dough. Of course, I wasn't paying attention and heated it well beyond the 110 degrees. Instead of allowing it to cool, I unthinkingly dumped it directly into the yeast-filled bowl. As I felt the metal bowl heating up below me, I knew I'd made a stupid mistake. Any temperature over 120 degrees kills the yeast and prevents the bread from rising. I persevered with the recipe, hoping a few hearty yeasties survived, but it rose nary a millimeter and baked into a rock hard mess.

Making Milk BreadSniff. After the yeast died.
Fortunately, my bread-making afternoon was not a waste. Throughout the fall school semester, I've sneaked a glance or two at fellow foodblogs, bookmarking recipes for some later date. The savory onion zucchini bread at What Geek's Eat has had me drooling for months, and it more than made up for the yeast bread failure. Chock full of shredded zucchini, onion and parmesan cheese, I ate about 1/2 a loaf within the first few hours it was out of the oven. No kneading, no rising time, no chance you'll kill the zucchini. Pure savory bread-making bliss.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Pork Noodle Soup With Cinnamon

Pork Noodle Soup with Cinnamon
The best winter recipes make your home smell as good as the dish tastes. This soup shines in both categories. As the pork ribs cooked in a blend of water, soy sauce, brown sugar, sherry, cinnamon sticks and star anise, our tiny apartment flooded with fragrance. As I cut the meat off the ribs, I couldn't resist snatching pieces of tender pork, sweet and dusky.

Click here for the soup recipe on Epicurious.

A few notes: The soup needs some spice--I'd try a crushed, dried chili or two next time. Also, I didn't like the somewhat gelatinous texture of the bean thread noodles. In the future I'll use soba, udon or rice noodles. Make sure you have plenty of time--prep is fast, but the soup needs to cook for nearly 2 hours.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Feasting At XO Kitchen

New Year's Feast at XO Kitchen

J and I hoped to kick off 2008 with some sandwiches at Banh Mi Saigon Bakery, but it was one of the few restaurants closed in Chinatown on the 1st. No matter--we continued to explore the bustling streets and happened upon XO Kitchen, a packed, divey joint claiming Hong Kong as its culinary home. The expansive menu (plus the patchwork of "special" signs on the wall) ranged across Asia with a few strange leaps to Italy such as spaghetti with tomato sauce.

Not the most amazing food, but it was cheap, flavorful and fun. Highlights included the rice noodles topped with the restaurant's own XO sauce, studded with pungent dried mushrooms, and the crispy shrimp dumplings (not pictured). The "house special" pancake stuffed with sesame paste was so rich that a few bites satisfied, and J and I were quite convinced it was dusted with a coating of Parmesan cheese. If we had had hangovers from the night before, I'm sure XO Kitchen would have cured them.

XO Kitchen
148 Hester Street
(between Bowery & Elizabeth St)
New York, NY 10013
(212) 965-8645