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.
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?
The suggested cleaning method is to boil the pot in a mixture of water and baking soda until the lacquer seeps off, but I don’t own a pot large enough to submerge the cataplana in, and you can’t boil water in the bathtub. I moved to plan B, which meant tediously scrubbing the pot with acetone nail polish and cotton balls. The lacquer eventually sloughed off, and after a thorough wash in warm, soapy water, the cataplana was ready for use.
Copper pots are beloved for a reason, and the cataplana was no exception. It cooked evenly without any hot spots, and using an oven mitt, I was able to easily latch the dome closed. I chose to place the pot directly on the burner (on low heat only), but you can easily prop it on a wok ring over the burner as well. The cataplana stew was fresh and flavorful, and the shellfish were some of the most plump and succulent I’ve ever made in similar dishes (recipe below).
The cataplana was easy enough to clean, but I recommend using copper cleaner or polish to keep it looking pristine. The pan was a refreshing combination of form and function, and easily the most eye-catching addition to my kitchen.
Chorizo and Mussels Cataplana Stew
- 2 pounds cleaned mussels
- 1 pound cleaned squid, sliced into ½-inch rings and tentacles separated
- ½ pound chorizo (roughly 2-3 sausages), sliced
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 28-ounce can crushed or diced tomatoes, or generous 2-3 cups fresh diced tomatoes
- 1 cup dry white wine (optional, but encouraged)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ cup chopped parsley stems (optional)
- Chopped fresh herbs to garnish, such as parsley and chives
*Before cooking, ensure that your cataplana pot is free of lacquer and completely dry.
- Heat olive oil in cataplana on medium-low heat. Add chorizo, sauté for roughly 6-8 minutes until the oil in the pan is an orange-red hue. Remove chorizo and set aside.
- Saute onions until sweating, about 8 minutes, before adding garlic and chopped parsley stems, if using. Season assertively with salt and pepper. Adding the garlic after the onions have had a chance to release some moisture will prevent the garlic from burning.
- Cook onion mixture until very soft and translucent, about 15 minutes on low heat.
- If using, add wine and let reduce by half.
- Add tomato and bay leaf and let simmer on low for 15-18 minutes until thick and reduced by roughly a third. Taste constantly and season as necessary — the key is to let all the flavors meld together. If mixture looks too thick or needs additional time to cook, add water or vegetable stock in ½-cup intervals and continue to cook until flavor tastes fully incorporated.
- Add chorizo, mussels, and squid to the cataplana. Gently stir to incorporate evenly.
- Using oven mitts, close the top lid and seal the cataplana using the latches on the side. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until seafood is cooked. Alternatively, you can place the cataplana in the oven to finish cooking. It is oven-safe to 400°F.
- Remove from heat and let rest for 3-5 minutes. Carefully open the cataplana — beware of steam. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve.