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How to Make Portuguese Garlic and Cilantro Bread Soup (Açorda à Alentejana)
Part of being a good cook is being a resourceful cook. And being a resourceful cook, more than anything else, means finding clever and delicious uses for things that most people throw away. Take stale bread, for instance. After my tests earlier this week to determine the best way to store bread, I found myself with an excessive amount of inedibly firm bread in my kitchen. It felt too wasteful to toss it, so I considered pulverizing it into bread crumbs. But I use breadcrumbs so rarely that I knew they'd end up going stale too, and there's no saving stale breadcrumbs (as far as I know).
Then I remembered a dish I had many years ago in Portugal, while visiting a college friend named João. João, another friend named Dan, and I were on what was the most intense bender of my life—probably because it was the only bender of my life. Five days straight of waking at noon and drinking nonstop until dawn. Beers with breakfast, bagaço (a kind of Portuguese grappa) in our coffee, wine on the beach, more bagaço and coffee, more beer. Rinse and repeat. It was great fun, in a self-destructive, sleep-deprived, dry-mouthed, temple-throbbing kind of way. Dotted throughout the nauseous blur of uninterrupted boozing, though, are vivid memories of plate after plate of amazing food, which we ate with the same intensity that we drank.
Among them all, though, the dish that left the most lasting impression on me was a hearty bread soup, garlicky and oily and packed with cilantro, cooked by João's mom as a restorative, because she knew just how poorly we were taking care of ourselves. I was in too much of a haze to ask the important questions then (What's this called? How do you make it?), so it took me years just to figure out its name, açorda à Alentejana.
I've since seen recipes that are so different, it's hard to believe they're all variations on the same dish. In some, broth is poured over large pieces of stale bread, which stay whole and soggy on the plate. In others, the bread is cooked down into a mush, with the consistency of porridge, like congee, only with bread instead of rice. The porridge version is how João's mom made it, so that's how I wanted it.
Without a good recipe to follow, I ended up inventing my own. It's definitely not authentic, but it's very tasty and comes close enough to my (albeit hazy) memory that I'm very happy with it.
To make it, I start by crisping some sliced chorizo in olive oil. I then take the chorizo out and reserve it as a garnish, but it leaves behind the most beautiful orange, chorizo-flavored oil. Then I slowly cook onion, crushed cloves of garlic, serrano chili, and cilantro in the oil until soft and aromatic. I add some chicken stock and simmer it all together for a few minutes before adding the stale bread, crust and all, in small chunks. Depending on the type of bread and how stale it is, you may need to add more water, little by little, until the bread has almost completely broken down and formed a thick, spoonable consistency. Once it's ready, I stir in a little more minced cilantro for a fresher flavor, then ladle the açorda into bowls and top it with a poached egg, the crisp chorizo, sliced scallions, cilantro leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil.
Years ago, it sustained me during five days of excess; now it's a deeply satisfying meal in the name of resourcefulness. It's good both ways.