18. Aug, 2017

Grilled fish, a Portuguese National Passion

Everyone that knows me well is aware that I travel extensively around the world and I always try to eat more fish than meat were available. It’s clear that throughout the world there are fantastic locations were one can find excellent fresh fish. But my most amazing experience was the visit I carried out at 5.30 am, together with my dear friend Eduardo ( both dressed in suits, we were going to a meeting at 10,00 am) to the Tsukiji Tokyo fish market, a “Great Wonder of the World,” Some 480 different kinds of seafood, with $14.6 million worth sold daily. Japan’s iconic fish market is still booming after 82-years. I can also mention that there are fantastic fish markets in Lisbon, Porto, Paris, Madrid, Vigo, Bilbao and many more, that have excellent fish and all kinds of seafood. But has Fernando Pessoa (a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher, described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century) used to say: that nothing made him more happier than to walk through a Portuguese fish market. It it is difficult not to agree with him, who can say that in Portugal we do not  have "the best fish in the world". Having the best fish in the world does not mean that the product of our fisheries has a higher quality than the fish product of all other seas. That is not it, because much of our fish are caught in foreigh waters, and traditionally it has always been so. It is true that the recent reduction of our fishing fleet has brought many fishermen back to traditional fishing. It is also true that the fish caught today have a high gastronomic and commercial value, with demand coming from all over the world, competently satisfied with great rigor by Portuguese companies that specialize in the transportation and distribution of fresh fish. But this is not just because in Portugal there is still a taste, a fondness and a demand for quality fish that rivals most other markets, even the most powerful ones. Portugal has a per capita fish consumption of over 55kg per year, the third on the planet. And if most of the international fish market is based on auctions, the Portuguese market is able to compete and win in many of these auctions during the summer, becoming the main destination for many of the species caught here.

The Portuguese are happy to have available excellent fish at very good prices, such as sardines or horse mackerel. The chefs of the best restaurants value the origin of the fish very much, and prefer to work with Portuguese fish, but according to fish distributers, the final customers are divided between those who decide for the price and those who choose the origin. This is also the opinion of the owners of one of the top Lisbon fisheries where, on a  good day they can sell a ton and a half of fish. Customers are interested and seek the origin, and in these difficult times they prefer to buy less, but to buy good quality . More than 30 species of all sizes, prices and origins spread over meters and meters of ice bedded counters. When the hotter weather arrives, they sell a lot more fish for grilling: fatter fish of a good size, are the most sought after. Customers grill preferably on charcoal, but can also use electric or gas grills. The sardine is a national obsession, and from June until mid-August the demand is enormous. Outside the sardine season, customers, when grilling, are very much focused on sea bass, gilt-head (sea) bream, silver or black scabbard fish, horse mackerel, Red bream etc.

The fish for the barbeque has to be immaculately fresh, and this is one reason why the culture of grilled fish in Portugal has developed. With an extensive coast line with good accessibility to the sea, Fishing has allways been an important part of  Portugal's food supply, starting with coastal and ending in distant fishing with sophisticated techniques. The Portuguese have become accustomed to constantly disposing of good fish, and to enjoy it in the simplest manner: salt , apply heat a dash of olive oil and that’s it . The flavors and textures of the various fish thus express themselves in the purest form. With no fuss or fidgeting, the only  sophistication of the cpreparation is thus concentrated on the grill point, an art developed slowly, and disseminated with patience and affection throughout the country. The huge variety of species available in Portugal is due to the richness of organic matter outcrops that are specific to our huge exclusive economic zone. Here meet, various different species of tropical origin with others more typical of the North seas, which guarantees a great biodiversity. Visiting any of the  countries fish markets, this variety can clearly be observed. But not all these fish are meant to be grilled. The driest fish only with a very good will and iron hand would withstand this treatment. In practice, hake, snapper, rooster fish, pout, are some of the fish that do not usually go to the grill.

There are many ways to grill fish, but usually the most preferred is charcoal. Grilling fish requires a series of procedures and wisdom that is only perfected with many  years of experience. Charcoal grilling can turn out to be a complicated and messy activity, It`s usual in Portugal to do it outside the house ( in various suburbs of Lisbon it’s still common to see people grilling fish in the street outside of their houses)  or  in restaurants. Here some recommendations for correctly  grilling fish: First, of course, the quality of the fish, make sure the one you chose for grilling is 100% fresh, even if it as cheap as sardines. When salting you should use coarse and less refined salt. It is essential to use a medium to large grill, with space to manage the coals with care. Clean and well-lubricated grill grates represent one of the golden rules of grilling, no matter what you’re cooking. This rule is especially important for fish; not only to keep it from sticking, but also to create a perfectly seared crust. Give your grates a thorough brushing, then swab them with a high temperature cooking oil like safflower or sunflower oil. After seasoning your fish, be sure to brush it lightly with olive oil as well to further prevent sticking and to promote better searing.

One of the most important components in grilling the perfect piece of fish is a piping hot fire. Preheating your grill to its absolute hottest temperature is the best way to avoid sticking. Years of grilling fish on a wood-fired grill taught me one very valuable lesson: throw a piece of fish on an under-heated grill grate and it’s guaranteed to stick. So how hot is hot enough? You should only be able to hold your hand over the grate for a few seconds. Any longer than that and your grill isn’t hot enough. Also try to keep your fish out of direct flame. Remember when using a charcoal grill to be sure not to place your fish on any part of the grate that has flames actually rising up through it. While you want your grill super-hot, putting a piece of fish into direct flame will cover it in creosote, which can taste less than appetizing. It’s always a good idea to keep a close eye on what you’re cooking, especially with fish. Do not stir the fish too soon - once you've placed your handsome, lightly greased fish on the grill, leave it there. It will take a few good minutes for the grill to seal the skin and flesh of the fish to the point where it can be turned. So, even if you do not like the angle the fish is placed at, or you think that if you push it a little more to the side you will have more space for the next fish, resist! Leave it  exactly in the same place until it is ready to be turned; Be firm and decisive when turning the fish - turning the fish is always a time of tension. Even the best greased fish can stick a little. But if you followed the above rules, any adherence will be superficial and easily remedied - so do not despair. The best way to turn a fish is to slide a metal spatula between the grill and the fish, giving small thrusts - a little stronger when you feel some grip. Before turning, a small greased on the side not yet roasted is a good idea. If you have asbestos fingers, use them, otherwise a kitchen brush will work. Remember: little olive oil, without dripping. Now turn or roll the fish on the grill. You can use your asbestos fingers to help with the task. Remember: Do not touch the fish. Wait patiently. Test with a knife to see if it is ready. The meat should be opaque and separating into small flakes. Remove from heat and let stand for several minutes. If you notice that the center is still a bit raw, do not panic. Put it back in the fire, the part with less intense heat..

I have often argued that grilled fish should be considered the Portuguese national dish. The reason is simple. In any restaurant of any price level in any region of the country, we can always a grill and a grill that ensures great quality, adding to the freshness the rigor of the point of preparation. Of course, this is easier along the coastal region, but the distribution of fish in the interior of the country is very well organized. It is common to hear that the Portuguese over grill the fish and that those who experience the grill arts know how difficult it is to prevent this from happening. But my experience is exactly the opposite. As a general rule, the grill master is an experienced and caring person, who takes care of the fish with mastery and appreciates the customer's requirement. In many other coastal countries, we have the opposite: slaughtered fish, destroyed in the coal. The grilled fish is our passion, a national success story of our cuisine. Its apparent simplicity should not obscure the immense knowledge contained in the details, in this relation to three between a fish, a man and a grill.

Grilled Carapau:

The Atlantic horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus) is a species of jack mackerel in the family Carangidae For those that don’t know about carapau, don’t worry, it’s not some weird fish that you’ve never heard of. It’s in all actuality, mackerel.It gets its common name from the legend that other smaller species of fish could ride on its back over great distances. Other common names include European horse mackerel (in the U.S.), common scad, scad, and saurel. The Portuguese call it  Carapau the Spanish Jurel, Jurelo or Xurelos in Galician, this fish is commonly found in all Portuguese and Galician households. Besides being a fish that can be found  almost all year round in the markets, its also a fish that sometimes  can  be found at a good price. The Atlantic horse mackerel can be found in the eastern Atlantic from Norway to South Africa, including Iceland, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and Cape Verde, and also in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The two main populations are the west stock which spawns in the eastern Atlantic off the coasts of western Europe, and the north stock which spawns in the North Sea.The Mackerel is one of the most popular specie of the Atlantic ocean.

The Atlantic Mackerel overwinters in deeper waters and moves closer to shore in spring. A medium-sized female has between 300 000 and 400 000 eggs per season and increases with size, spawning occurs in batches and maturity is at an age of 2 or 3 years. The maximum lenght is 50cm. Juvenile Atlantic mackerel feed on zooplankton, small fish and crustaceans. Mature mackerels are caught by tunas, sharks and dolphins. The Atlantic Mackerel is schooling pelagic specie with very high content of Omega 3. Portuguese grilling is pretty easy. All that’s needed is a sprinkling of salt and some olive oil before slapping a good fish on a hot grill.

During a Portuguese Summer there is only one way to cook: grilling. Well, that’s only partially true. You can bake or roast, stew or boil, saute or fry or any of the countless other techniques that are used everywhere else in the world, but then your home will turn into a sweltering oven and you’ll probably cook yourself in the process. Let’s just say, it’s not the best idea, making grilling outside the best option.As with the rest of the world, there are some top things that go great on the grill here, but my favorite is the peixe e marisco (fish and seafood). Maybe that is because I’ve always loved both, or maybe it’s the fresh variety you can get here that it seems silly to do much else. It’s also easy and uncomplicated, but oh so good. Take for instance the carapau, an inexpensive and tasty fish that you can find just about anywhere.

Now, as I said, Portuguese grilling is pretty easy. It doesn’t need complicated spices or marinades, though it is done. Usually all that is needed is a sprinkling of salt and a drizzle of olive oil before slapping a good fresh fish on a hot grill. Squeeze some lemon juice and add some fresh coentros (cilantro/coriander) on top and you’re good to go!

Grilled carapau, or mackerel, is a Summer favorite in Portugal because of it's delicious flavor and low cost. Serves: 4
  • 4 fresh carapau (mackerel)
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • 1 lemon (optional)
  • cilantro (optional)
Rinse carapau under cool water to remove any loose scales and pat dry with paper towels. Place fish in a tray before seasoning. Sprinkle each side of fish with salt and drizzle with olive oil. Cover and set aside while you get the grill ready. Clean and oil the cooking grate.
Make a hot fire for grilling. If using wood or charcoal, wait until the fire has died down to red hot coals before cooking over them. Lay carapau (mackerel) on the oiled grill grate and cook 4-10 minutes each side, depending on how big the fish are.
When carapaus are fully cooked, they will be firm and inside meat will be opaque. Squeeze lemon juice on top and sprinkle with cilantro.

Boiled potatoes in their jackets:

Wash the potatoes well. If you only have large potatoes, cut them into halves or quarters. Place potatoes in a large saucepan with water almost covering them. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover pot and bring water to a boil. Cook  for about 20 minutes or until a fork pierces the potatoes easily. When they are done, drain water, then place the saucepan and the potatoes back on the hot burner without the cover, and steam dry for a couple of minutes, shaking the pot a few times so the water evaporates. Peel the potatoes with a knife and fork, and place them in a serving dish. If your meal is informal, place potatoes in their jackets in a serving dish and let your diners peel them themselves.

Cut garlic in thin slices, add chopped parsley and 3 tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil into a small bowl mix well and  pour mixture onto the carapaus. Potatoes and slices of tomato in the serving dish and serve. I hope you really enjoy this, very traditional Portuguese meal.