George Mendes Wants to Introduce Readers to Portuguese Cuisine in My Portugal


George Mendes has garnered widespread acclaim for his modern take on Portuguese cuisine at the Michelin-starred Aldea (31 West 17th Street; 212-675-7223). But one of the Connecticut native’s earlier trips to Europe didn’t go so well; on the winding country roads of Bordeaux, he was in a car accident with his mom, aunt, and sister. That’s just one of many tales told about his life and culinary journeys in Mendes’s recently released tome, My Portugal: Recipes and Stories. The book interweaves classic Portuguese recipes with dishes from the restaurant and the story of how Mendes came to be one of Food & Wine magazine’s ten “Best New Chefs.”

Growing up with immigrant parents in the Portuguese enclave of Danbury, Connecticut, Mendes was exposed to the fare from his parents’ homeland at a young age. While holidays tended to incorporate more Americanized dishes (surf ‘n’ turf with lobster and filet mignon and turkey with all the fixings made regular appearances), he was accustomed to traditional fare from the Iberian Peninsula. Salt cod, pork, and potatoes were frequently seen on the table, as were rice dishes such as arroz de tomate (tomato rice), rabbit rice, and duck rice.

Both Mendes’s mom and dad were strong cooks, but the highly regarded chef didn’t start cooking himself until well into his teen years. He can’t recall the first dish he made at home (some kind of breakfast, he says), yet he was fascinated by the restaurant world early on. His father would frequently take him to his aunt’s restaurant and bar, where he’d try everything from simple steak sandwiches to specials like tripe with chorizo and rice. He loved trying the rustic Portuguese food that she served and always wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes of the operation. So, when the opportunity for a field trip to the Culinary Institute of America arose, Mendes jumped at the chance. After walking around the campus, he knew he wanted to become a chef. “There was something I was very attracted to,” says Mendes. “Granted, I was only seventeen years old and it was an interest that was very premature. There were a lot more hard knocks and doubts and deviations from thinking twice about continuing with the career, but I fell in love with it; it was a very honest attraction right at the beginning.”

In the book, Mendes lays out the hardship and struggle he dealt with early on in his career: the long hours, hard work, loneliness, and isolation. He talks about giving up the anchors of his tight-knit community to move to New York City, then France, and back to the States. Where many chefs don rose-colored glasses to look back on their ascent, Mendes is strikingly honest about the sacrifices it takes to get to the top of the culinary world. “It was a very unknown path without much light at the end of the tunnel,” says Mendes. “All it was was putting my head down and cooking…especially, going to Paris for the first time, in 1994, was when i was carrying around that dark emptiness of not being around my family or my friends, or having a social life anymore, but I just clung onto the extreme addiction of cooking.”

The addiction was cemented through working in the world’s top kitchens. He put his nose to the grindstone at Alain Ducasse’s La Bastide de Moustiers in France, for David Bouley in New York, through a stage with avant-garde Basque chef Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian. However, the experience that really helped him to crystallize the style of cuisine he would eventually adopt (and that gave him the confidence to open Aldea) was a stage at El Bulli with Ferran Adrià.

His classical French training and years of experience in restaurant kitchens gave him the tools to handle the intense job — and the relationships to help secure the spot. What he found to be most inspiring about El Bulli was that even without the white tablecloths, world-class service, and visually stunning presentations, the food was just good. “It was thrown into this whole new blender of avant-garde — new textures, new presentations, new flavor combinations — that’s what El Bulli was,” says Mendes. “But, at the end of the day, it was food that you would enjoy, and say, ‘That was delicious, I want another bite.’ ”

These are all experiences Mendes explores through the book: how these chefs and events would become building blocks in his career and evolution as a chef. Working for Alain Passard, he learned to reinterpret rustic, traditional dishes. Ducasse’s Mediterranean simplicity helped him hone his adoration of high-quality ingredients. Berasategui and Adrià’s innovations illustrated the heights to which food could go. In the volume, Mendes credits Adrià and El Bulli for showing him how to showcase the Portuguese fare of his childhood without restraints.

In his work at Aldea and in My Portugal, Mendes takes his heritage to a new level. He takes dishes like carne de porco Alentejana, a traditional dish with pork and clam, and kicks them up a notch. (For the record: It was the dish that made the strongest impression on him as a kid.) Generally made with braised pork shoulder, cubed potato, pickled vegetable, and clams, Mendes’s version subs out pork belly in favor of baby yellow potatoes. “It’s such an honest dish, when I talk about it, I get hungry,” he says. “It’s just very powerful for me. It’s probably a dish that grounds me and influences me and resonates with me heavily when I think about Portuguese food.”

It is just one of the Aldea recipes featured in the book, which are interspersed with more customary instructions for offerings from the country. To Mendes, the goal was to create “an introduction, an assembly of recipes and stories to present the American public of basic Portuguese cooking, through my lens.”

Click to the next page for Mendes’s Pork Belly and Clams with Pickles recipe.

Pork Belly and Clams with Pickles

Serves 4

Carne de Porco Alentejana
This is the one dish that fully represents Portuguese cooking and it is one of my favorites of all time. It’s the epitome of the soulful meeting of land and sea. Briny clams, rich pork, earthy potatoes, sharp pickles, and savory olives end up being more than the sum of their parts. Seabra Marisqueria in Newark, New Jersey, has a killer preparation. This version’s pretty great too.

kosher salt to taste
littleneck clams 24
golden nugget or other
baby yellow potatoes 20, scrubbed
extra-virgin olive oil as needed
Refogado (page 235) 1/4 cup (60 ml)
garlic cloves 4, crushed
fresh bay leaves 2, notches torn every 1/2 inch (12 mm)
fresh thyme 4 sprigs
dry white vinho verde 4 cups (960 ml), plus more as needed
Pork Jus (page 230) 1/2 cup (120 ml)
Roasted Pork Belly (page 96) 2 pieces (1/2 recipe) cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) cubes
Cauliflower and Carrot Pickles (page 201) 5 each, cut into small pieces
pitted kalamata olives 1/4 cup (35 g), cut into 1/4-inch (6-mm) slices
fresh parsley leaves 2 tablespoons, finely chopped
fresh cilantro leaves 2 tablespoons, finely chopped

Fill a bowl with cold water and dissolve enough salt in it to make it taste like the ocean. Submerge the clams in the water. Let them sit for 10 minutes or until they spit out their grit. You should see sand at the bottom of the bowl. Lift out the clams and transfer to a colander. With a stiff-bristled brush, scrub them vigorously until their shells are really clean.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil and very generously salt it. Add the potatoes and cook until tender. A cake tester should slide through a potato easily. Drain and cool, then cut each in half.

Fill a small saucepan with oil to a depth of 2 inches (5 cm). Heat to 350°F (175°C). Add a few of the potato halves and cook, turning occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining potatoes.

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat and coat with oil. Add the refogado, garlic, bay leaves, and thyme and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the clams, stir to coat with the aromatics, then add the vinho verde. The wine should come halfway up the clams; add more if needed. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook until the clams start to open. Pull the clams out as they open and transfer to a dish. Start checking after 1 minute, covering the pan again after each time you check; they should all be open within 5 minutes. Discard any that are not. Drizzle the clams with oil.

Let the sauce remaining in the pan boil for 2 minutes. Discard the bay leaves and thyme, then stir in the pork jus. Keep warm over low heat.

Heat a large, deep skillet over high heat. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan, then add the pork in a single layer. Work in batches if necessary. Cook, turning to evenly brown all sides, until golden brown, about 30 seconds per side. If working in batches, transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining pork.

Return all the pork to the skillet and add the clam cooking liquid. Reduce the heat to low and add the clams and potatoes. Carefully toss to evenly coat and glaze everything. Remove from the heat and top with the pickles, olives, parsley, and cilantro. Serve immediately.

Pork Jus

Makes about 1 cup (240 ML)

extra-virgin olive oil 2 tablespoons
pork shoulder or other stew meat 2 pounds (910 g), cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) chunks
kosher salt as needed
white onion 1/2, cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) slices
celery stalk 1, cut into 1/2-inch (2.5-cm) slices
carrot 1/2, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (2.5-cm) slices
garlic cloves 3, crushed
tomato paste 1 tablespoon
Pork Stock 1 recipe, as needed

Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C) with a roasting pan inside.

Coat the hot pan with the oil and add the pork, turning to coat with the oil. Season with salt. Roast until golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Roast, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and roast for 1 more minute. Transfer the mixture to a rondeau (wide, shallow pot).

Add just enough stock to cover the solids. Bring to a boil, then simmer and reduce the stock until the solids are glazed. Repeat the process three times, adding just enough stock to cover the solids each time. (This process results in a deeper, more flavorful jus.)

Finally, add enough stock to cover the solids by 1 inch (2.5 cm), bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer. Simmer for 2 hours, then press through a fine-mesh sieve. Discard the solids. Transfer the jus to a clean rondeau, bring to a simmer, and reduce to 1 cup, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Use the jus immediately, refrigerate for up to 2 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.

Beef Jus Substitute a stew cut of beef for the pork; proceed as above.
Lamb Jus Substitute a stew cut of lamb for the pork; proceed as above.

Roasted Pork Belly

Serves 20

The pork shoulder’s the cut traditionally roasted in Portugal, but I prefer the tender, fatty, juicy belly. Despite the richness of the meat, it can actually be overcooked, so be sure to test it periodically. This brined belly is definitely good enough to eat on its own, but it tastes even better when thrown into a skillet with clams.

whole cloves 12
whole star anise 5
cinnamon sticks 2
whole white peppercorns 2 tablespoons
fennel seeds 1 tablespoon
coriander seeds 1 tablespoon
fresh bay leaves 5, notches torn every 1/2 inch (12 mm)
sugar 4 cups (800 g)
kosher salt 4 cups (1 kg)
boneless, skin-on pork belly 1 whole slab (9 pounds/4 kg), cut in quarters

In a large saucepan, combine the cloves, star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns, fennel seeds, and coriander. Heat over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and toasted. Stir in the bay leaves, sugar, salt, and 3 quarts (2.8 L) water just until the sugar and salt dissolve. Remove from heat and let cool completely.

Divide the pork belly and brine between two large zip-tight plastic bags. Seal tightly and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Set a wire rack in a roasting pan.

Remove the pork from the brine, rinse, and pat dry. Place on the wire rack, fat-side up, and roast until golden brown and tender, 3 to 4 hours. The pork should still hold its shape and a cake tester or thin paring knife should slide through easily.

Serve on its own or use it in other recipes. If you want it in even slices or chunks for another recipe, it’s easier to cut when cold, so refrigerate first until firm.

Sous-vide: If you have sous-vide equipment (a vacuum machine or food saver and an immersion circulator), cryovac the pork with the brine in two bags. Sous-vide at 162°F (72°C) for 36 hours. Remove the pork from the bag and brine, picking off any spices stuck to the meat.

Use some or all of the examples below or experiment with your own produce.

cauliflower 1/2 small, cut into 1/2-inch (12-mm) pieces, blanch and shock
carrots 5, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch (12-mm) pieces, blanch and shock

Pickling couldn’t be easier. I follow these basic techniques:
■ Use a one-to-one ratio of liquid to solids.
■ Blanch any hard vegetables or fruit, such as root vegetables, until just tender. Then, shock them in ice water and drain well before covering with hot pickling liquid.
■ Cut the vegetables for more intense pickling. The smaller the pieces, the more pickled they’ll get.