Copper At Its Best: How To Use A Cataplana

A stunning piece of Portuguese cookware you’ll want to show off

I lose all impulse control when I’m in a kitchen-supply store. The myriad cooking vessels and specialized tools trigger all my consumer pressure points and send me into an aspirational frenzy. During one of these recent bouts, I discovered a beautiful, clam-shaped pan known as a cataplana. Oddly shaped, made of copper and featuring locking latches on the sides, I was thoroughly perplexed and inspired.

Cataplana refers to both a traditional southern Portuguese meat and seafood stew and the pot it is prepared in, like a North African tagine. The exact origins of the pot, much like the stew, are a bit murky, but it’s thought to have originated during the 8th century under Moorish occupation. As both a vessel and an iconic dish, cataplana reflects the rich fishing community of the Algarve region, which shares coastline with the north Atlantic and the Gulf of Cadiz. Fishermen would use the vessel to haul ingredients and the daily catch, and then prepare their meals in the same pot directly over a fire.

There are stainless steel cataplana vessels available, but the best, classic versions are made of hammered copper. Copper conducts heat incredibly well, which makes it ideal for slow cooking on low heat. Shaped like a clam with two domed halves, the pot seals in moisture like a Dutch oven, encouraging a steaming effect inside the vessel. The latches on the side lock the dome closed, emulating a pressure cooker. The cataplana is essentially an uncanny combination of slow cooker or Dutch oven, tagine and modern pressure cooker.

Opens like a clam and cooks clams! Form meeting function at its very best.

The result is a pot whose shape and material are perfectly suited for cooking the fare local to the region: shellfish. There are many interpretations of cataplana, but traditional stews are prepared with a combination of clams and shredded pork or sausage in a rich tomato base. Like all great dishes, however, the key is to use ingredients fresh and native to the region. Mussels and spicy chorizo; squid, cockles, and cured ham; octopus and rabbit all are superb variations.

I opted for a spicy chorizo, squid and mussel version using tomatoes from the tail end of the season at the farmers’ market. Super-fresh shellfish is integral as the limited number of ingredients foregrounds the delicate flavor profiles of the seafood. The preparation of the stew itself is quite simple and differs very little from how you might prepare mussels in white wine or other rustic stews and braises. However, preparation of the pot is another matter entirely.

As I learned from Diana Gringle, the buyer at Sur La Table responsible for sourcing the cataplana from a small factory in Portugal, all copper pots are typically coated in a heavy lacquer finish to prevent tarnishing during stocking and shipping. Before using, this lacquer must be removed, otherwise the pot will tarnish when placed over heat. It’s not necessarily harmful to use the pot without removing this coating since none of the lacquer is on the inside of the vessel and therefore won’t come in contact with food. But why risk it? And do you really want a chemical layer on your pot?

Copper At Its Best How To Use A Cataplana

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