Arroz do mariscos - shellfish rice

Armaçao de Pera, Portugal and Topsham, Devon August 14, 2007 We were fortunate to escape the English monsoons this summer as we happened to be on our summer holiday in Portugal during the terrible storms that engulfed Tewkesbury, Gloucester and the Cotswolds and Oxfordshire. Way down on the Algarve, enjoying the usual mid-summer heat and sunshine, it was hard to believe the pictures that we saw in the papers and on television of the devastation caused by the rising waters of the Severn, Avon, Thames and other rivers. Devon, it seems, this time fortunately missed the brunt of the storms, but we know very well how precarious and on-the-edge life by the water can be, idyllic though it usually is.

We had escaped from possibly the wettest summer – May, June and July certainly – that I can remember, and though it was relatively cool in the Algarve by usual standards, with a brisk northerly wind keeping things fresh, it was still good to feel the sun on our backs. We enjoyed the usual mix of activities, swimming, boating, tennis, lazing on the beach and, of course, much eating and drinking.

A summer dish I always look forward to is arroz do mariscos, one of my favourite foods in the world. This Portuguese hotpot inevitably comes bubbling to the table, piping hot and straight out of the oven. It is a magnificent celebration of the sea, a richly flavoured shellfish and fish soup, with enough rice to make it almost a sort of gruel, filled with a wonderful mixture of fish and shellfish, perhaps some chunks of tamboril (monfish), some ameijoas (clams), santola (spider crab), gambas (prawns), lulas (squid) and much else, all flavoured in a rich broth spiked with piri piri and redolent of lots of garlic and coentra – fresh coriander.

It is always difficult to recreate dishes enjoyed abroad once back home. But it’s fun to try, all the same. And this time, I think I have really cracked it! This recipe tastes just like we enjoy it as O Serol in Armaçao da Pera, one of our all-time favourite restaurants. The key, I believe, is the gutsy, richly flavoured fish and shellfish soup in which to cook the rice. On the Algarve, such fish soups are made with inexpensive fish such as carapau – horse mackerel – so I think that our own West Country mackerel gives just the right flavour.

Serves 8-10

250 g raw prawns in the shell (peel and save the shells to make the soup)
250 g squid, cleaned and cut into rings
400 g monkfish, skinned and boned and cut into even cubes
1 small cooked crab, cleaned and dressed (save the shell to make the soup)
400 g clams in the shell (or if not available, then mussels)

A splash of white wine (for steaming the clams or mussels)
*note: just about any combination of firm white fish and shellfish can be used, say cod, crab legs, cockles, lobster, whatever is fresh and available from the fishmonger

For the soup

2 mackerel, cleaned and cut into chunks
About 4 litres of fish stock, or white wine and water
Small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Olive oil
Big handful of coriander stems, coarsely chopped
Piri piri chillies to taste (I like this quite hot but not everyone does!)
4 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper
Prawn shells, crab shell from above

To finish

1 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
Large bunch of fresh coriander
2-3 cups of Carnaroli or long grain rice

First make the fish soup. Sautée the chopped onion and garlic in a generous glug of olive oil. Add the mackerel and sautée briefly, then add the fish stock, or wine and water, or just water. Bring to the boil, then skim, and turn down to a simmer. Add the coriander stems, piri piri pepper, coarsely chopped tomatoes, the prawn and crab shells and any other fish trimmings (skin and bones from the monkfish). Leave to cook down for about 45 minutes. Strain and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Steam the clams or mussels in a splash of white wine until just opened, about 3-5 minutes depending on the size of the shellfish. If small, leave in the shell; if using larger mussels, then take most of the mussels from the shell, keeping aside maybe a quarter in the shell. Strain the cooking liquid to remove any grit and add to the fish soup.

In a large pot, (preferably earthenware or cast iron), sautée the onion and whole cloves of crushed garlic gently in olive oil. Add the strained fish soup and bring to a simmer. Add the rice. Bring to the boil, then cook at a low simmer for about 15 minutes, then add the raw prawns, squid, monkfish, white and brown crab meat and the clams or mussels. Stir well, cover and place immediately in a very hot oven, pre-heated to 225 degrees C, for 15-20 minutes.

Just before serving, garnish with freshly chopped coriander, and bring the bubbling, piping hot pot to the table. The smells that emerge as you take off the lid are simply sensational!

Wine suggestion: We are huge fans of Portuguese vinho verde, especially bone dry examples made from characterful indigenous grapes such as Alvarinho and Loureiro. Favourites include Muralhas and Quinta da Aveleda. Alternatively enjoy with a full-flavoured Portuguese white such as Planalto, or a zesty shellfish favourite such Vermentino di Sardegna.

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