steamed littleneck clams - ameijoas a bulhao pato

The Poetic Portuguese Clams: Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato

Portrait of Antonio Bulhao Pato

It’s this guy’s fault. Kinda.

The first and, sadly, only time I visited Lisbon – some 10 years ago – I really enjoyed the food. Maybe a little too much. I had traveled there with my friend Teresa to speak at a translation symposium. The night we arrived, I ate an unforgettable appetizer of clams cooked in garlic-infused olive oil with a hint of cilantro and fresh lemon juice. It was sublime.

If you love seafood, you most likely know Portuguese food. If you don’t know it, do yourself a favor and go try it. Those guys know their seafood.

steamed littleneck clams - ameijoas a bulhao pato

Teresa was born to a Portuguese mother and Cape Verdean father in the Brava Island (which loosely translates as “the feisty one.” If you knew Teresa, you’d say, “Ah, that explains a lot”).

We met working as medical interpreters at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She interpreted Portuguese and Cape Verdean Creole; I interpreted Spanish. But because I also spoke Portuguese, sometimes I helped her out. We became instant friends. She basically adopted me as the son she never had. I adopted her as my mom in America.

A few years later, Teresa urged me to submit an abstract to a translation conference in Lisbon. It got accepted, and we started planning the trip. Since she knows the city well, she offered to take care of making the hotel reservations. When we arrived, the hotel keeper said, “Ms Teresa, your room is ready. I’m afraid Ms Jordane’s is not.”

We laugh about it to this day. I never got to the bottom of whether she purposely made my reservation under “Ms Jordane.” I guess I have a drag name if I ever need one.

We went to a tasca down the street for dinner. Tascas are small, no-frills, cheap neighborhood restaurants. I ordered the typical octopus salad for an appetizer. She ordered amêijoas à Bulhão Pato.

Amêijoas what? How can something with such a queer name even be popular? She told me to wait. The moment I tasted it, I was hooked.

Delightful in both simplicity and taste, this appetizer is named after the 19th-century Lisbon poet Raimundo Bulhão Pato, who is said to have described in one of his works how his cook made him this dish. That the dish was named after him and not his cook is bullshit.

Teresa is the first to admit that her culinary abilities are limited. She says her kitchen repertoire is all of five dishes: steamed littleneck clams, cod fish omelet with fried potatoes, squid stew, collard greens and potato soup, and chicken soup. But she makes these all very well. So, when I asked her to teach me her dishes, I naturally had to start with the clams that were the hallmark of my trip to Portugal.

AMÊIJOAS À BULHÃO PATO

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 5 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 3 lb. small littleneck clams (25 to 30 pieces)*
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Juice of one lemon

Directions

  1. Give the clams a good scrub with a sponge. Place them in a large basin of cold water to cover and leave for about two hours, stirring around occasionally, so they will expel their sand. Drain and discard any open or broken clams before cooking.
  2. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil.
  3. Add the garlic and clams, cover, and cook until the clams open (5 to 8 minutes, depending on the size of the clams). Discard any clams that failed to open. Do not overcook.
  4. Add the cilantro and lemon juice.
  5. Transfer the clams and pan juices to warmed soup bowls, dividing evenly.
  6. Serve with warm crusty bread to soak up the delicious juices. Serves 4 to 6.

* Manila clams are a good substitute for this dish.

Note: some variations of this recipe use a little white wine as well. For some heat, add red pepper flakes in step three.

steamed littleneck clams

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