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Cataplana In Coimbra, Portugal

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The Quinta das Lagrimás, the famous "Estate of Tears" where we stayed in Coimbra, was the setting for one of the most tragic romances of all time. When Dom Pedro, heir to the Portuguese throne in the fourteenth century, was betrothed to princess Constança of Castille, he fell in love not with his new bride but with one of her ladies in waiting, the beautiful young Inês de Castro. When his wife died a few years later, Pedro quietly married Inês and lived blissfully with her in the Quinta das Lagrimás. But Pedro's father, the king of Portugal, disapproved of the marriage and, incensed by their defiance of his wishes, sent assassins to kill Inês and her children. The fountain near which they died is said to symbolize the tears that Pedro shed after the murder of his one true love. The ghost of Inês is said to still search for Pedro near the fountain from which couples come to drink and pledge eternal love.

Coimbra rises up the sides of a steep hill, on top of which is perched the ancient university for which the town is famous.  The steep staircases that lead you up are lined with bars, cafés and restaurants and are filled with noisy students, a constant reminder that you are in a university town.

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At the base of the hill runs the Mondego river, whose banks are lined with trees and parks. Several waterfront restaurants offer a wonderful vantage point from which to watch boats drifting down the river, while sampling the local delicacies. It was in one of these places that we first tasted Portugal's favourite dish -  Cataplana seafood stew.

A Cataplana is a copper cooking utensil that looks like two identical woks hinged together, one turned upside down to act as a lid for the other. The resulting vessel resembles a giant clam shell and is ideal for cooking seafood stews. The Cataplana is also used for serving food, placed by the waiter on the table and opened with a flourish, letting you admire the food before he ladles it into your bowls.

You don't need a cataplana pot to make this soup, although it certainly is a lovely addition to any kitchen! I have tried to stick to the traditional method of preparing this dish, but if you wish, you can add spices and coconut milk to make it more Goan-Indian. It is wonderfully delicious either way!

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Although Cataplana is usually served with the seafood in its shell, I prefer to remove the shells, making it easier to eat. Serve with some crusty bread to sop up the delicious broth.

Cataplana

2 tbsp olive oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 sweet red pepper, diced

1/2 cup thinly sliced chorizo sausage

2 large plum tomatoes, chopped

1 medium potato, cooked, peeled and cut into 8 pieces

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: ground black pepper, smoked paprika, saffron threads

1/2 lb skinless fillet of any white fish such as sea bass, halibut or cod

4 scallops, halved horizontally

16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

16 clams

1/2 lb. mussels

1 cup white wine

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander or parsley

Warm oil in deep, heavy pot set over medium heat. Add garlic, onions and red pepper. Saute, stirring occasionally for 5 min. Add chorizo, saute 5 min. Add tomatoes, potatoes, salt and seasonings. Saute gently, 5 min.

Lay fish over vegetables in pot. Scatter scallops, shrimp, clams and mussels on top. Pour wine over top, cover pot and cook 10 min or until seafood is cooked through. Uncover pot, fold in fresh coriander or parsley and gently stir through the mixture to ensure everything is cooked through evenly. Discard unopened shells. Cover pot and let rest 5 min before serving.

Serves four