It might sound counterintuitive, but George Mendes recalls that part of his motivation to become a chef was his natural inclination toward fitness. “I was very athletic and knew I couldn’t sit down at a desk 9 to 5,” Mendes says. So when he graduated from high school, he opted to attend the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York. “I chose the adrenaline-fueled, stressful environment of the kitchen. Chose to be on my feet.”
Mendes grew up in Danbury, Conn., the son of Portuguese immigrants, in a large, tight-knit Portuguese community. The life of his family and neighbors revolved around shared meals and home cooking. The food “was Americanized a little bit,” Mendes recalls, “but more often than not it was typical Portuguese dishes.” No matter how small the yard, his mother, Fernanda, always kept some vegetables growing in a patch of dirt. Mendes remembers tomato rice, sardines grilled outside in a hibachi, and, unfailingly, a lot of bacalhau, or salt cod. “I hated it as a kid,” Mendes says of the Portuguese staple.
The classical training provided by CIA and positions at French restaurants both modern and classic—including Bouley, Tocqueville and Le Zoo in New York, and Alain Ducasse’s La Bastide de Moustiers in France—initially oriented Mendes away from the cuisine of his upbringing. But stages at the modernist restaurants of Martín Berasategui and Ferran Adrià in Spain urged him to return to his Iberian roots.
“I needed to create my own voice,” Mendes says. “I looked at what these Spanish cooks were cooking: It was a cuisine of the land and a cuisine of their childhood. I started to meld the worlds together. Classical French technique, then modern technique, and applying them to Portuguese rustic dishes.” In 2009, he opened Aldea, describing his downtown Manhattan venue as a modern American restaurant with Portuguese influences.
Portuguese cuisine, like the country’s wines, remains unfamiliar to many Americans, but its presence here is growing. “Many people are intimidated, because Portuguese food is still kind of obscure to them, but they become very familiar once they see how similar our ingredients are to Italian and Spanish cooking, for example,” Mendes says. It shares a rich pantry of tomatoes, garlic, onion, parsley and olive oil with its Mediterranean neighbors. Instead of pasta, there’s rice. Shrimp, clams and octopus appear at every turn. Meat, especially pork, is prepared simply, with light and fresh accompaniments.
“Ninety-nine percent of the recipes we do at Aldea involve very low [amounts of] so-called ‘bad fat,’ ” Mendes explains. “We use a little butter, but most of our cooking is with olive oil. I would label Portuguese cuisine as a very healthy cuisine. I feel the need to listen to the American public and their health concerns.”
A new cookbook, My Portugal: Recipes and Stories (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; Oct. 2014, $35), brings to life the fare that Mendes knows from childhood and now serves at Aldea. The food remains healthy in dishes both hearty and light—and an entire chapter is devoted to salt cod.
Here, Mendes shares a menu taken from his new book. A first course of shrimp explodes with textures of stewed tomatoes and crisp okra, brightened by the national Portuguese hot sauce, piri piri. Next comes a variation on caldeirada, the Portuguese answer to bouillabaisse. The French soup’s traditionally delicate flavors are intensified with tomato and saffron in this dish of red snapper and shellfish. Dessert capitalizes on the richness and fruitiness of high quality olive oil, which forms the foundation of a moist, light cake that is perfect alongside strawberries, cream or sorbet, but also tastes great on its own.
Aldea wine director Doreen Winkler provides beverage pairings for the menu, and the diversity of her suggestions (a craft beer, a California Rhône-style white) shows just how versatile Mendes’ cuisine can be.
So that you can explore the country’s wines, we have provided the option of a Portuguese bottling where Winkler doesn’t. Don’t be deterred if you don’t recognize the names of any of the grapes in the blends: Both the lightly effervescent Vinho Verde—generally one of the world’s great value wines—and the bright, spicy Douro white are easy-drinking, appealing wines that beg for Iberian flavors and textures. For dessert, depart from the Douro and the country’s famous meal-ender, Port, and travel instead to the Portuguese island of Madeira, whose nutty, fortified dessert wines can provide a fitting coda to this meal.
Recipes adapted from My Portugal: Recipes and Stories (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; Oct. 2014, $35)
Suggested pairing: Browerij Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne, Brown Sour Ale Beer, from Burgundy, France
Wine Spectator alternate: Quintas de Melgaço Alvarinho Vinho Verde QM 2013 (88 points, $23)
Of the sour ale, Winkler says, “This layered beer is such a great match with the tomato ragout in this dish, and the bright but round acidity cools off the spice of the peppers in the dish.” For those who want wine instead, we suggest a Vinho Verde, the light, often spritzy, value-priced white wine from Portugal. This subtly rich bottling, from Quintas de Melgaço, has citrus notes to complement the shellfish and accent the citrus zest in the dish, and should stand up to the piri piri’s heat.
1. Prepare a grill by heating a mixture of all-natural briquettes and hardwood lump charcoal until very hot.
2. In a large bowl, toss the okra with the sliced garlic, pimentón and enough oil to coat. Let stand until you’re ready to grill.
3. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Slit an X in the base of each tomato and drop them in the boiling water. Let sit for 10 seconds, then transfer to the ice water until cool. Peel, seed and cut into 1/4-inch dice.
4. In a medium cast-iron cocotte or Dutch oven, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat. Add the onion, minced garlic and bay leaf, and season with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and tender, about 5 minutes.
5. Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste, and season with salt. Simmer until the mixture is thickened, about 8 minutes. Stir in the piri piri and shrimp stock, and bring to a simmer. Continue simmering while you cook the shrimp and okra.
6. Coat the shrimp with oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the shrimp and okra on the grill grate in a single layer. Cook, turning occasionally, until the shrimp are just opaque throughout and the okra blackened in spots.
7. Fold the shrimp and okra into the simmering sauce; discard the bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper, and top with the zests and cilantro. Drizzle with oil and serve with more piri piri on the side. Serves 4.
Mendes writes, “I love the heat and fragrance of hot Portuguese piri piri chilies, but they’re hard to find here. The closest approximation is dried or fresh Thai bird’s eye chilies. You can experiment with different chilies, but make sure you choose hot ones.”
1. Heat a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add enough oil to coat the bottom, then add the onion, garlic, bay leaf and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden and tender, about 7 minutes.
2. Add the dried chilies to the pan with enough oil to cover them. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer gently until the dried chilies are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the bell pepper and fresh chile and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes.
3. Stir in the Bourbon and pimento, and bring to a boil. Boil hard, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Stir in the vinegar and remove from the heat.
4. Discard the bay leaf. Transfer to a blender or food processor and puree to the desired consistency. I prefer my piri piri smooth, but you can also make it more rustic and chunky if you like. Season to taste with salt. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 month. Makes 3/4 cup.
Suggested wine pairing: Clendenen Family Viognier Santa Maria Valley Le Bon Climat 2012, from California
Wine Spectator alternate: Conceito Vinhos Douro Contraste White 2012 (90 points, $18)
“This Viognier is very bright and rich, but elegant, and it picks up on the aroma of herbs, garlic and anise,” says Winkler. The Douro white that we recommend, meanwhile, has an intense savoriness to match the roasted tomato and saffron flavors in the caldeirada, with enough spice and acidity to keep the match interesting.
For the caldeirada sauce:
1. In a small skillet, heat the coriander and fennel seeds over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until toasted and fragrant. Transfer to a piece of cheesecloth along with the parsley, thyme and bay leaf, and tie securely into a sachet.
2. Heat a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Coat with oil, then add the onions, fennel bulb, garlic and saffron. Sweat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft. Deglaze the pan with the wine and Pernod, stirring until the liquid evaporates.
3. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until they release their moisture and become dry. Add the pimentón, then the sachet and enough stock to just cover the mixture. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
4. Discard the sachet. Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until very smooth. Press the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and return the liquid to the blender. With the blender running, add 1/4 cup oil in a steady stream until emulsified.
For the vegetables:
1. Heat a 4-quart rondeau (a very large, wide, shallow pot) over medium-low heat. Add the oil, then the fennel. Season with salt, and sweat, stirring occasionally, until just tender, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, saffron and a pinch of salt. Sweat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is tender, about 10 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the Pernod, stirring until the liquid evaporates. Add the wine and cook until the liquid evaporates. Add the stock, bring to a simmer and adjust the heat to maintain a slow simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, cover the potato with cold water. Season generously with salt, heat to a simmer and cook until tender. Drain and add to the vegetable mixture.
For the fish:
Special equipment: immersion circulator (optional), vacuum sealer (optional), immersion blender
1. While the vegetables cook, score the skin sides of the snapper fillets with four diagonal slashes. Season one fillet on both sides with salt and pepper. If using an immersion circulator, place the filet in a heavy-duty ziplock plastic bag with 1 1/2 teaspoons of olive oil. Press out all the air and seal the bag tightly. Use a vacuum sealer if you have one. Repeat with each remaining fillet. Cook for 10 minutes in an immersion circulator set and held at 140° F. If an immersion circulator is not available, heat 1 1/2 teaspoons of olive oil in a pan of water. There should be enough water to fully cover the fish. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce so that it is barely simmering. Add the fish, and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes or until done.
2. After 8 minutes, gently heat the vegetables and the sauce if they’ve cooled. Stir 1 cup of the sauce into the vegetables. Remove the pan from the heat and fold in the crab, then the parsley and chives. Divide the mixture among four serving plates.
3. Remove the fish fillets from their bags and center on top of the vegetable mixture. Use an immersion blender to blend the remaining sauce until frothy and very smooth. Spoon the sauce around the fish and vegetables. Garnish with the reserved fennel fronds and dill, and drizzle olive oil all around. Serves 4.
Suggested wine pairing: Barbeito Freitas Signature Madeira Verdelho & Bual Reserva Lot 3 NV, from Portugal
Wine Spectator alternate: H.M. Borges Madeira Rainwater Medium Dry NV (90 points, $16)
Among the bounty of rich dessert wines from Portugal, Winkler loves how the creamy texture of a Madeira in the middle of the sweetness spectrum complements this mild cake. Her pick has a soft red-fruit aroma, which suggests strawberries for a cake garnish. The Borges Madeira, with notes of pastry, brown sugar and butterscotch, should bring out the cake’s subtle richness, as well as the accents of ripe and dried fruits in the wine.
1. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Lightly coat a 13-by-9-inch cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper and spray again.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the oil, milk and eggs until smooth.
3. In a large bowl, rub the zest into the sugar with your fingertips. Whisk in the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Continue whisking while adding the wet ingredients in a slow, steady stream. Whisk just until smooth and well combined, then pour into the prepared pan.
4. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, until the top is golden-brown and springs back when gently pressed with your fingertip, about 30 minutes.
5. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into pieces to serve. The cake can be stored in an airtight container overnight. Makes 1 13-by-9-inch cake.