Something is cooking in Lisbon!

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau

It is still morning when Chef Sara Verissimo takes us for a stroll to the 31st of January market, far away from touristy Lisbon. Locals have been shopping here for their fresh vegetables, cheese, meat and fish since 1878, and so do we on this sunny day to get the best ingredients for some typical Portuguese dishes.

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Colourful vegetables are displayed along the long aisles and proud vendors have us taste some of their sweetest peaches and slices of melon, kindly presented on the blades of their large knifes. After purchasing tomatoes, green and red peppers and lots of fresh coriander, Sara leads the way and takes us to the extensive fish section as fish has been indispensable in many traditional Portuguese dishes. “Do you know how to recognise fresh fish?” Sara asks me when we come to a halt. Apart from the absence of a foul odour, I am not too sure what else to pay attention to. She explains: “The eyes need to be clear and when you poke the fish the flesh should still be elastic and come back up right away! And for the smell, it should smell like the sea and not like fish”. We choose a few white fishes for the Cataplana that we will cook a bit later today. I cannot help but stop by the cheese section where I taste a Portuguese specialty, the Azeitão sheep milk cheese which is soft inside.

Upon return from the local market, we put our aprons on in the extensive kitchen of Cooking Lisbon. In case a bit more motivation is needed before starting to cook, Chef Sara takes out the chorizo that she has just bought at the market and puts it on a clay dish that she fills with spirit that she sets on fire. Keeping an eye on it while she grills it, she pours us each a glass of Vino Verde. No, the wine is not green! And no, it is not harvested early as many think talking about “green wine”. The refreshing wine named after the area where the grapes are grown is aged for one month in stainless steel, bottled and drank young. As Sara describes the wine, she notices the chorizo is starting to crackle. “It’s almost ready to taste, she exclaims enthusiastically. Contrary to its Spanish counterpart, the Portuguese version of this pork sausage is not spicy and instead flavoured with only paprika powder and salt. An ideal combination with the Vino Verde!

Chef Sara introduces today’s menu that changes with the seasons at Cooking Lisbon. “We will start with a Portuguese gazpacho, followed by a cataplana and an orange cake for dessert.”

As we start on the gazpacho, the recipe is a bit special: “I am going to reveal my family’s recipe that I got from my grandmother”, Chef Sara explains as she lists the ingredients needed:

  • Tomatoes,
  • green peppers,
  • cucumber,
  • garlic,
  • red wine vinegar,
  • olive oil,
  • dried oregano,
  • red grapes,
  • salt and pepper.

“The secret of a good gazpacho is that the tomatoes need to be really ripe,” Sara explains as she provides each of us with some of the ingredients on our individual chopping board. “Make sure to cut the tomatoes and vegetables in really small dices, as contrary to most gazpachos we are not going to blend them!” When all the ingredients (apart from the grapes that Sara keeps for garnishing) are mixed together in a large bowl, she covers the bowl and puts it in the fridge. “It needs to cool down for a minimum of two hours, and then it will be just perfect!” she exclaims.

As our dessert also needs to cool down, we get started on the “Torta de Laranja”, the orange roll.

Sara preheats the oven as I mix 250 grams of sugar and 25 grams of corn-starch, plus 5 eggs and whisk it all together into a smooth cream. Chef Sara adds the juice and zest of one orange to my bowl, and 25 grams of melted butter. We then pour the batter on a sheet of parchment paper on the baking tray to put it in the preheated oven. In about 15 minutes, we will be rolling it and let it cool down in the fridge.

Chef Sara manages her amateur kitchen brigade perfectly, and focuses us on the main dish, the cataplana, a traditional fish stew inspired by the Moors.

As I am reproducing in a clumsy – yet efficient – way the dexterous gestures Chef Sara has just performed to debone the fish, I am quite satisfied with learning this new skill and now being able to fillet. Growing up in Macau, Sara’s influences are not only Portuguese, and the way she prepares the freshly bought squid with a diamond-shaped pattern is clearly Asian. We also cut some potatoes, tomatoes and peppers in slices before she heats up some olive oil in a wok-shaped pan, and adds onion, garlic, a chilli pepper and bay leaves. The next stage is to arrange the prepared ingredients in layers in the pan: onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and repeat. We top it off with lots of coriander and add the fish heads for flavours and let it all simmer in the specific pan with its firmly-closed lid, letting all the flavours blend. Later, we will replace the fish heads by the fillets and squid to not overcook the fish.

As it is all getting ready, Chef Sara adds an appetizer to the menu, and proudly explains that the Japanese tempura is indeed a Portuguese influence from the first western sailors that arrived in the archipelago. The green bean tempura is fast to prepare, coating the vegetables in a batter based on rice flour, egg and water before frying them.

By now, our kitchen brigade is quite impatient to taste the results of this hard yet fun work. Glasses are filled up. The dinner table gets colourful with the refreshing Portuguese gazpacho – a real discovery that tastes deliciously fresh and crunchy –, the flavourful cataplana and the tempura. The slice of orange cake presents very nicely and concludes deliciously this entertaining and interesting cooking class, an authentic insight into Portuguese culture and influences.

Travel tips:

  • To experience this cooking class first-hand during your trip to Lisbon, make sure to book your spot at Cooking Lisbon.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)! The black pins will lead you to other articles:

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