It’s the antithesis of the gourmet food industry — rich in artery-clogging fat globules, containing levels of sodium that would make even the salt flats of Nevada cry, mass-produced on a scale and with a speed never before imagined. It’s fast food. And it’s the food world’s Next Big Thing!
I’m sure that, right now, you’re thinking that I’ve been enjoying a little too much vino with my hash browns. Not so. Even I know that coffee, tea and juice are the best accompaniments to that breakfast staple. Just for a minute, stretch the imagination, and (more importantly) the definition of fast food. Think Portuguese barbecue. Think churrasqueira (shoo-rash-kay-ra). Fast food just got a makeover.
Family-owned and run, churrasqueiras are the Portuguese grill houses that dot the landscape in every Little Portugal across Canada. Let the ubiquitous burger and fries have their day. But the next time you’re craving something fast, fresh and healthy, think churrasqueira as your destination of choice. Most of these establishments are small outlets that focus on two or three main dishes. Occasionally, they’re large enough to offer other specialties, like roast suckling pig, grilled steak, cod and octopus. In any case, chicken is the star attraction.
It might seem as if Swiss Chalet and KFC have cornered the market on chicken. But churrasqueira chicken is decidedly different. Get it grilled (traditionally over hot coals) or rotisserie. Each style features unique flavours. Grilled chicken is split in half, flattened and rubbed with an assortment of spices and herbs. Then it’s cooked over open flames until it’s seared, caramelized and tasting of spice and smoke. No two restaurants use the same flavourful rub. Garlic, paprika, brown sugar and parsley are the stars in every rendition with support from myriad other herbs and spices. But that’s as detailed an ingredient list as you’re likely to get. Recipes are closely guarded family secrets, as I discovered when the usually talkative owner of my local churrasqueira suddenly clammed up when I asked for the recipe. At first, I thought he hadn’t heard my question. But, one shrug of his shoulders coupled with a dismissive glance confirmed otherwise. He was divulging nothing to no one.
Looking to spice up your life? Try the rotisserie chicken, cooked on a spit, covered with thick brush strokes of piri piri sauce and served whole. As hot as it is red, piri piri is made from the scorching hot peppers of the same name originally hailing from Angola and Mozambique. The peppers are chopped and mixed with salt, olive oil and vinegar. This sensation could easily be called the national sauce of Portugal. Aficionados daub it on practically everything, from rice and vegetables to seafood and meat. Piri piri sauce is as spicy as Tabasco sauce, but with an intense heat that’s slightly delayed until after you’ve savoured its inherent flavours of salt and citrus.
Just like all fast food outlets, churrasqueiras offer classic accompaniments to their chicken. Steamed cauliflower and broccoli alongside rice and roasted Parisian potatoes are typical offerings. (Parisian potatoes are called such because they’re formed into elegant little round balls using a Parisian scoop – a.k.a. a melon baller. Look for bags of Parisian potatoes at your local grocer, or take a few potatoes, peel them and scoop some out yourself.)
Made up of the islands of Açores, Madeira and Porto Santo and a mainland that sits on a chunk of the westernmost edge of Europe, Portugal has developed an amazing variety of tastes in an area only slightly larger than New Brunswick. How is it possible that such a small country can be home to so many dishes of diverse flavours? The answer lies in the annals of history. Portugal has an amazing record of conquest and invasion. Those ancient Portuguese seafarers travelled constantly to parts unknown in the hopes of finding a rich source of spice and fish. They found what they were looking for in Africa, Canada, Japan, India … just name a country, and the Portuguese probably landed on its shores at one time or another. They brought back cod, cinnamon, saffron, pepper, cloves and nutmeg. Being occupied over the centuries by the Greeks, Romans, French and Spanish had its advantages, too. Each respective invader left behind wheat, garlic, onions, olives, grapes, lemons, oranges and almonds.
Talk about a cornucopia! It’s no wonder that the Portuguese have created some of the best fast food to be found. In fact, you’d be doing yourself quite the disservice if you didn’t follow that spicy churrasqueira chicken with some traditional, tasty sweets. If the extensive variety of desserts is any indication, the Portuguese certainly have quite the sweet tooth. Ranging from simple deep fried dough sprinkled with a sugar-cinnamon mix to rich cakes filled with cream and fruit, the Portuguese dessert counter is where you want to be standing when the baker rolls out the cart of freshly baked sweets. Granted, it’s not by any means the healthiest of fast food fare, but it’s definitely worth a nibble or two.
The quintessential Portuguese dessert is pastéis de nata. Mention this little confection to anyone of Portuguese heritage and you’ll see a dreamy look cross his or her face. Eggs and sugar, once primarily confined to the realm of the wealthy, form the basis of the filling for these tarts. Pastéis de nata are baked in a very hot oven, which gives the custard the same wonderful burnished look of crème brulée. Then, they’re sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and served warm with a glass of Port, or the other national drink of Portugal — espresso!
Pastéis de nata are part of a set of desserts with a particularly interesting provenance. By the 1700s, egg yolks were in great supply because so many egg whites were needed to clarify Port and to starch the habits worn by nuns. So, the Portuguese devised a clever way of dealing with that leftover bounty by incorporating them into desserts. In the 1800s, the convents had, quite literally, been put out of business by the liberal revolution, and pastries became the nuns’ economic lifeline. If nothing else, Portugal’s political, economic and military history had a tremendous hand in the creation of the country’s cuisine. The force of the liberal revolution overturned the powers-that-had-been and put a constitutional democracy in its place. The nuns found themselves forced to sell not only their delicious pastries, but their coveted recipes, too. To this day, the pastries’ names pay homage to the nuns’ inventiveness. Try barriga de freira (nun’s belly), papos de anjo (angel’s double chins) and toucinho de céu (bacon from heaven). These desserts are, ahem, habit-forming.
The next time you find yourself eyeing the drive-through up the street, do as the Portuguese do. Duck into the nearest churrasqueira instead and take in some of the tastes and smells of sunny Portugal. You’ll be glad you did.
calda de pimenta
Makes 3 cups
This pimento paste, adapted from Uma Casa Portuguesa — Portuguese Home Cooking by Carla Azevedo (Summerhill Press), is a popular alternative to piri piri sauce. The recipe calls for hot banana peppers, which are considerably easier to find than piri piri peppers. Spoon it onto meat, rice or vegetables for true Portuguese flavour.
8 hot banana peppers, yellow or red
4 sweet red peppers
1/4 cup coarse or kosher salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Core and seed all the peppers, and chop into 1-inch pieces.
Blanch peppers in boiling water for 5 minutes; let cool.
Place peppers in the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth. Spoon peppers into a bowl. Add salt and olive oil; stir. Cover and refrigerate for 3 days, stirring occasionally.
Ladle into 3 8 oz jars, leaving 1 inch head space. Seal and refrigerate. Keep for up to 6 months.
pastéis de nata
Azevedo calls for homemade puff pastry to hold the custard filling. But, you can easily turn these tarts into a quick dessert by using store-bought puff pastry shells.
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups cold milk
2 tsp finely grated lemon rind
8 egg yolks
2 lbs puff pastry shells
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine 2 cups sugar and water. Boil for 10 to 12 minutes; set aside.
In another saucepan set over medium heat, blend flour and a 1/4 of the cold milk. Gradually blend in remaining milk and lemon rind. Bring to a boil, stirring continually until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk egg yolks. Add sugar syrup and milk mixture. Stir. Strain through a fine sieve and set aside.
Place puff pastry shells onto a baking sheet (or into muffin cups if you’re making them yourself). Prick all over with a fork. Fill half full with custard filling.
Set baking sheet in second-highest position in the oven. Bake at 450°F for 30 minutes, or until pastry is golden and filling is bubbly.
Immediately sprinkle tarts with cinnamon and sugar (optional). Cool tarts on a rack for at least 1 hour.