The hot weather broke and today has been largely rainy and gloomy so fish stew was the obvious thing to do. I love this dish. It is something I always make a point of eating when I come to the Algarve. My favourite one is served in a restaurant called Caravela in Burgau.
It is made with chunks of white fish and shellfish in a rich tomato and pepper sauce. The best part is the fried bread sitting on top soaking up the juices. That dish was the inspiration for this recipe. The final result, I am pleased to say, tasted almost the same.
I hardly ever eat meat when on holiday here, not because it is bad, the chicken Piripiri is amazing, but I love the seafood dishes. In fact Portugal is where I started eating things from the sea. I remember the first fish I ate was swordfish, my mum suggested it as the texture is meaty and it doesn’t have a strong fishy taste. I sort of enjoyed it & it made me want to try more.
I was in my late teens at the time & didn’t eat fish previously because as a child I was one of those picky eaters who wouldn’t try anything. Both my sisters were the same. Basically we would eat chicken & chips with ketchup and maybe some carrots and that was it. My parents love to remind us how awful we were. How on holidays we would all have to traipse around looking for somewhere we could eat plain chicken. They hated it & I don’t blame them we must have been really annoying.
These days we are not so limited in our food enjoyment and mum chuckles that we write a blog about food. I will now devour any seafood I can get my hands on. Although the fishing industry is really small in the Algarve these days it is still possible to buy some real treats and the restaurants serve excellent fish dishes.
The highlights apart from the fish stew are the fish soup which is similar but is almost meaty. People here really know how to cook fish and have a deft touch. I have rarely been served badly cooked fish. The grilled whole sea bass is probably my favourite, but it is hard to choose. I also adore the sardines.
Years ago we could go to Portimao harbour & watch the fisherman haul in giant baskets of sardines. They would get them straight onto grills on the quayside. Those sardines were the best I have ever tasted.
The Algarvian way to eat them is on a piece of bread. You lay the sardine over it & eat the meat from the top, turn it over and eat the flesh from the other side and discard the bones (which look like fish bones from a Tom & Jerry cartoon). Repeat this a few times with the same piece of bread & in the end you have a piece of bread plump with the oily juices and salty from the sea. Eating this bread at the end is the best part.
Sardine season is really June & July so I haven’t had them this time. They are usually available all year but are disappointing at the end of the summer. The waters are just too warm for sardines and so they are puny specimens. If you come to the Algarve between January and the beginning of August you really must try them.
Today I went to Lagos market to see what fishy delights they had to put in my stew. Apparently you have to get there before 7am for the really good stuff, I will never know. I arrived at about 11am and found lots of really beautiful fish and there were still some prawns and shellfish about.
One of the stalls was selling chunks of mixed fish for the purpose of making stew. I made a mental note to get some of that & went for vegetables as there were about fifteen little old ladies in a scrum around the stall. By the time I got back there were still about fourteen of the old ladies around the stall all yelling at the harrassed-looking man trying to serve them.
I decided to get some swordfish, call me a wimp but I never take on old ladies in a market.
I am really pleased with the swordfish I got as it is super fresh and lean and beautiful. He must have sold a lot before I got there as there was just the tail end left and the enormous head & sword. I was tempted to ask him how much for the head but realised we don’t have a saucepan big enough for it.
I also picked up a bag of small clams, they call them angel clams here. They were really cheap and I had enough for a stock for the base of the stew and then to cook in the stew.
I couldn’t decide whether to follow a recipe or just make something up. There are a bunch of recipes online which have all kinds of ingredients in them from different herbs to spices such as nutmeg. I have eaten a lot of fish stew here & normally it is really simple and tastes of tomatoes, peppers, fish, potatoes and either fresh coriander or parsley. Occasionally there is a tiny bit of heat from a chili.
Algarvian fish stew is a beautiful, simple and elegant thing and I decided I wanted those clean flavours. I did not, therefore, follow a recipe. I just trusted my instincts and tried to let the natural flavours of the beautiful ingredients come out.
I did add the fried bread because it is the best bit. The bread stays crunchy but absorbs lots of the fabulous broth from the stew. It adds a taste and texture that I adore so my gluten free diet is a casualty again.
This is great rustic cooking which is forgiving as long as you have quality ingredients. The fish must be really fresh but you can use whatever type you prefer. They often use sardines here, oily fish give real depth to the stew. The tomatoes should be very ripe and soft and bursting with flavour. If you can get your hands on Portuguese bread then definitely use that but a really crusty artisan loaf will be a perfectly acceptable substitute. It should be stale but if, like me, you usually cook on a whim then you can use fresh bread.
Algarvian Fish Stew
Ingredients (Serves 4)
1/2 kg shellfish
Olive oil to fry the onions and peppers
2 bay leaves
1 green pepper
1 red pepper
6 large garlic cloves
Pinch Piripiri (or any hot chili powder such as Cayenne)
1kg very ripe tomatoes
200ml white wine
300ml fish stock
Fresh flat leaf parsley
4 slices crusty bread (preferably stale)
salt & pepper
How to make the stew:
The most important thing which will affect the flavour of the end result is how you prepare the base for the stew. Once it is ready the fish will cook in a few minutes.
1. Finely slice the onions and begin to soften them in a generous glug of olive oil.
2. Finely slice the peppers and add those and the bay leaves to the onions after about five minutes.
3. Slice 4 cloves of the garlic, saving two for later. Add this to the pan once the peppers and onions are really soft (about 15 minutes).
4. Cook the garlic through for a few minutes and add a pinch of chili. This should only be a small pinch, the stew should not be really spicy.
5. Finely slice the tomatoes and add these to the pot with a pinch of sugar. Let them cook down for five minutes or so.
6. Add the wine & fish stock and a crack of pepper. At this point I like to cook the stew for about half an hour to forty five minutes. This allows the flavours to develop and the vegetables will almost melt away. When it is ready check the seasoning and add salt, pepper and chili as required.
7. Peel and add the potatoes and simmer until they are cooked through. In Portugal they always peel the potatoes even if they are new and have thin skins because when peeled they absorb the caldo (broth).
This is a good place to stop if you need to as the next steps are the final ones before serving. This first part can be prepared in advance. I reckon it would freeze really well too.
8. If you did stop the cooking, reheat the broth to barely simmering and add the fish. This is really the part of the recipe where instinct needs to kick in as you want all the seafood to be perfectly cooked.
I used swordfish and this takes about 6-8 minutes to cook through. Some parts were thinner, so I removed those as soon as they were ready as it becomes tough if over-cooked. Obviously if you are using fish on the bone this will take longer, whereas a thin cod fillet would cook in a few minutes.
If you are unsure about the fish you have check out how to poach it on the internet, the cooking time will be the same. Also, watch over it like a hawk and keep checking. The rest of the recipe is forgiving but this part is not.
9. The shellfish should be the final addition as they cook in a minute or so. Please see my note at the end about preparing them as you do not want them polluting your carefully prepared broth.
10. Meanwhile heat some olive oil in a frying pan. Crush the remaining garlic cloves and rub them all over the bread slices. Then fry the bread in the olive oil. It should be golden and crispy.
11. To serve the stew, place the fried bread in the bottom of your serving dish and ladle the stew over the top so that the bread begins to absorb the liquid. Sprinkle with plenty of freshly chopped parsley. It is best to work quickly at this stage so that the fish does not overcook.
If you are unsure about how to clean the particular shellfish you are using I suggest you look it up on the internet. If you don’t clean them properly they can ruin the stew. In the seas they open and close and end up with particles of dirt inside. The method varies for different types of shellfish. Some need their shells scrubbed, some not.
I cleaned these clams by immersing them in salted water so that they think they are in the sea. They then start to open and close and move around and the dirt comes out. I changed the water twice and left them for an hour in total and they were fine. I was amazed at how much dirt came out of them. The process is easy it just takes a little time. It is totally worth it as they add a real punch of sea flavour to the stew.
Of course if you really cannot be bothered with any of this, I highly recommend you take a trip to the Algarve and eat lots of it. It’s beautiful here.