Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pasteis de Nata/Portuguese Custard Tarts

"Life is uncertain.
Eat dessert first."

-- Ernestine Ulme

I found the last month or so to be a lot of fun with all of the excitement over the World Cup. I am not a soccer fan, personally, although I have quite an appreciation for both the skill and passion that is the sport. Basically, I just enjoyed feeding off the enthusiasm of others and that is always a good spirit-lifter. Besides, such an international spectacle makes for very easy banter at coffee break.

But, which team should I cheer for, to make it more interesting? Canada wasn't even close to being in the competition and I had no ties whatsoever with any of the countries who were involved. However, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, just as the World Cup was beginning, my dilemma was suddenly solved.

Mark and I had taken a break from gardening and were cooling off on the front porch with a cold beer when my next door neighbour, a Portuguese gentleman, sauntered over. He was carrying a flat of tomato plants and--even better--a bottle of nice, red Portuguese wine. We welcomed him gladly. He simply wanted to thank Mark for cutting their front lawn each week and told him how much he appreciated this kindness. Mark has always cut their lawn when he does ours as that is the only small patch of lawn they have; the entirety of their large back yard is a vegetable garden. Apparently this is a very Portuguese thing to do.

Our neighbours straight across the street are Portuguese as well. Two older women live on the main floor of the house and a couple and their young son live in the basement. I have yet to figure out what the relationships amongst them are. The man, I believe, is a baker-- probably at a Portuguese bakery--as he leaves for work about 11:00 at night dressed in whites and returns early in the morning. The older ladies across the street spend all of the warm months sitting on the sofa and chair on their front porch. When I told my friend, Dan, of their seemingly constant porch-sitting, his reply amused me to no end. He said, "Of course they spend as much time as possible on their porch! They're 'Porch-uguese'!" Wonderfully witty is Dan.

Well, with all of these very likeable neighbours around me, I felt I should throw my support behind Portugal. I was really hoping they'd do well. I think they did OK, but not nearly as well as their neighbours.

I was thinking of all of these kind people again this weekend when I went to Sunfest. There is always such wonderful food there and it is a big part of the weekend. And I was delighted to find an abundance of a particular food at the Portuguese booth, from the "Aroma Restaurant" here in London. What I saw was 'pasteis de nata' or Portuguese custard tarts. As you can see in the photo, these absolutely delectable tarts are beautiful to look at, but trust me, they are even more magnificent to eat.

The puff pastry is cooked perfectly until it is just slightly crisp, giving it a tender flakiness. And the custard itself is so soft and creamy that the mouth-feel is absolutely heavenly. Honestly. You have to close your eyes and sigh when you bite into one. They were selling 'like hotcakes' and it is easy to see why.

I am not a dessert lover, and really don't have a sweet tooth any more. But what I love about these tarts is that they are not very sweet at all. They are delicious, that's for sure, but it's not just sweetness. It is layers of delicate flavour and such a luscious texture, with a perfect caramelization that brings everything together into bliss.

I am giving you an easy recipe for these custard tarts, courtesy of Ms. Faiza Ali, who writes an excellent food blog ("Faiza Ali's Kitchen") as you will see. (Photo courtesy of her blog, as well.) I hope you will take the time to make these for a special occasion.

Your friends and family will be so impressed that they will throw up their hands and exclaim loudly what a great baker you are! They will embrace you heartily and kiss you on both cheeks from pure joy, and you will feel you have been swept away to Portugal. How could you not enjoy that?



Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oh, The Lazy Days (and Meals!) of Summer....

"Summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

-- Henry James

Summer, glorious summer. We wait so long for it to arrive, and then we start complaining. Not hot enough/much too hot; not enough rain/much too wet. We want to spend as many hours as possible in air-conditioning and whinge pathetically when we must go outside.

For the past while our temperatures here in London have been either approaching or over 30 degrees. This week, we have been sweltering in the extreme humidity with the air outside closer to 40 degrees. Because this isn't a tropical country and we haven't built up a tolerance to such intense weather, we sound a lot like the wicked witch from 'The Wizard of Oz' crying, "I'm melting! I'm melting!"

Nothing like extreme temperatures to dictate your menu options. Suddenly, soups and stews, casseroles and pasta dishes seem way too heavy, way too hot, and way too much effort. We want to conserve our energy, not expend it. We look for simple, quick, fresh and cool foods that can be prepared and eaten with a minimum of fuss.

I can so clearly recall the very hot summer days of my childhood - most especially Sunday afternoons. That was when my Dad would typically gather up the kids and take us on some kind of outing, and they were always outdoors. Sometimes he took us for hikes in the woods, or for walks along a beach. He was also very fond of driving in the countryside until we spied some nice cows, horses, sheep, or donkeys to watch. I can't count the number of times we drove to a little pond on a country road and stopped to throw pieces of stale bread to the voracious ducks and geese. Occasionally, though, a swiftly moving fish would leap out of the water and snatch the morsel out of the air. What a lot of fun I had, and yet it couldn't have been a simpler pastime.

When we got home, we'd be quite hungry and Dad would invariably decide it was a great day for a barbeque. Of course, I thought he meant we'd be eating right away, and I felt just as ravenous as the waterfowl we had just been feeding. My dinner, however, never came quickly enough for my satisfaction; there was always a 'process'.

First of all, Dad would get out our round tub of a barbeque and the giant bag of charcoal, then he would carefully light the charcoal, making sure to get the flame just right. Then, he would crack open a cold beer, grab whatever book he was devouring at the moment, and sink down into a lawn chair to relax and wait for the charcoal to burn down to perfection. He worked hard all week and spent Saturdays cutting our large lawn, tending the fruit trees, as well as weeding and maintaining our vegetable garden. I think Sunday was the only day he ever felt relaxed.

Meanwhile, Mom would be at the kitchen counter, making hamburger patties by hand, husking corn, scrubbing baby potatoes, and cutting up tomatoes - all of the vegetables having just been picked from our garden. Once the charcoal was deemed perfect, Dad sould begin to grill the hamburgers. The wait always seemed impossibly long to me but, eventually, to my great delight, it would all come together.

We would all sit outside at our wooden picnic table near the cherry trees and enjoy our very summery meal: barbequed home-made hamburgers, with boiled sweet corn and baby potatoes, and thickly-sliced, juicy red tomatoes. Everyone in the family loved butter and salt on the corn, and everyone enjoyed salt and pepper on the tomatoes, except for Mom. She preferred a sprinkle of sugar on her tomatoes, which I felt was very strange indeed. She said it was a Scottish thing.

I was looking for a modern twist to this long-ago meal and I found the perfect recipe: 'Grilled Corn Salad'. It has scrumptious grilled corn, luscious fresh tomatoes, and peppery arugula. It has terrific colour and texture and a nice, smokey, layered flavour. Easy to make and yummy to eat. It looks like the weather is going to stay hot for awhile so I believe I will whip up this salad and serve it along with tasty veggie burgers, cooked to perfection over charcoal in my cute little tub of a barbeque.

Thanks for the great memories, Dad.



This week's photo and recipe are courtesy of "The Neelys", featured on The Food Network: