Book a table at nearly any of the seaside restaurants of Portugal’s Algarve region, the country’s sandy and rugged southernmost coast, and it won’t be long before you witness a signature local spectacle: a server bringing a hammered copper clamshell‑shaped pot to a table; unsnapping its latches; and lifting its top to unveil a hearty, steaming stew. This unique vessel and the dishes cooked and served in it go by the same name: cataplana. The origins of the pot are somewhat hazy—some say fishermen used cataplanas as lunch boxes of sorts, taking them out on their boats to store their catches and then transferring them right to the fire when it came time to cook—but it is easy to understand the stew’s lasting appeal: It’s at once simple, one-pot fare and a stunning showcase of local culinary gems, from fresh seafood to cured meat.
Because any dish cooked in one of these clamshell pots can technically be called a cataplana, the term can be something of a catchall—so I called in David Leite, the author of The New Portuguese Table (2009) and founder of the Leite’s Culinaria website, to help me narrow my focus as I formulated my own take on the dish. Leite confirmed that in Portugal, cataplanas are used “for cooking anything and everything, much like the way that Chinese cooks use a wok,” but that there are also definitive, common cataplana recipes—amêijoas na cataplana, or clams in a cataplana, for one. This bright and lively stew, which features briny clams, bold linguica or chouriço sausage, presunto (Portuguese cured ham), tomatoes, onion, garlic, wine, and paprika, felt like the perfect jumping‑off point for my own cataplana.
The No-Fuss Seafood Dinner
Other seafood stews require a daunting array of proteins and lengthy simmering periods to build flavor—but not this cataplana. Here’s how the dish goes from stovetop to table in a flash.
- Bold ingredients: Bottled clam juice provides a fresh-from-the‑sea taste while allowing the cook to sidestep building a fish stock. Linguica contributes savoriness and subtle smokiness.
- Quick-cooking seafood: Clams and shrimp can both be added directly to the pot after the stew’s base is built, and they cook through in less than 10 minutes.
- One-pot meal: The entire stew comes together in the Dutch oven, in 1 hour start to finish, and it needs only a side of crusty bread to be a complete dinner.
Casting a Wide Net
While I periodically used a cataplana pot, I wanted to primarily develop the recipe in a lidded Dutch oven, a common substitute, to make the dish approachable for cooks who don’t own its namesake vessel. I began by browning the meats and then added the aromatics, tomatoes, wine, and paprika. After tossing in the clams and steaming them until they sprung open, my amêijoas na cataplana was complete—a delightfully straightforward affair.
I didn’t want to stray too far from this rustic and quick preparation, but I did have a couple changes I wanted to make to the simple amêijoas na cataplana formula. First, I found that the cured ham was getting lost amid the sausage and smoked paprika, so I omitted it in the spirit of cataplana’s simplicity. Second, I wanted my cataplana to capture even more ingredients typical of the Algarve region, so I swapped out some of the onion for strips of fresh fennel and red bell pepper, enlivening the dish with a crisp‑tenderness that contrasted with the juicy chew of the sausage and the meaty clams.
The Cataplanas of Loulé
Nowadays, factory-made stainless-steel, aluminum, and copper cataplanas are widely available for purchase online and in speciality cookware stores—but the unique vessels were originally hammered out of heavy copper sheets by hand, one by one. One of the cities famous for producing the vessels was Loulé, a town in the center of the Algarve whose copper ore–rich soil made it a natural fit for metalworking. For years, the rhythmic beat of craftsmen hammering copper into cataplanas reverberated throughout Loulé’s streets, and today the ancestral art lives on at The Copper Workshop at Loulé Criativo, a space run by the city that is devoted to training new artisans in coppersmithing and selling their wares. Analide Carmo, the workshop’s master coppersmith, has been working with copper since he was 12 years old, and he names cataplanas among his favorite pieces to make. “For me, it’s a pleasure to make cataplanas, the fitting, the lock, the hinge, the hammering all of it,” Carmo said. “You see it growing from scratch; each of them is different and unique.” –Alyssa Vaughn
On to the broth, which I wanted to be bright and balanced—just right for sopping up with crusty bread. Chopped-up canned whole tomatoes and their juice dominated the cataplana’s flavor, but straining off the juice made the broth too tight. Water diluted the stew’s flavor, and extra wine overdid it on the acidity. The answer turned out to be a bottle of clam juice: It added just the right amount of liquid to the sauce and reinforced the briny taste of the sea contributed by the clams.
Cleaning and Storing Fresh Hard-Shell Clams
Fresh clams are sold live, so you’ll find them loose or in mesh. Inspect the clams before cooking. They should smell clean like the ocean, their shells tightly closed. Gently tap the shells of any open clams and wait a few seconds; discard those that don’t close, along with any that have cracked shells or smell fishy.
- CLEANING: Scrub the clams with a stiff brush under cold water to remove exterior mud. If you’ve ever received gritty clams from your fishmonger, we recommend purging them to remove interior sand, a simple and easy process.
- How to purge: Dissolve 2 tablespoons kosher salt for every quart of cool water in bowl. Fully submerge clams in saltwater solution. Allow them to sit for 2 hours at cool room temperature, or refrigerate overnight. Carefully lift clams from bowl, leaving grit behind. Rinse again in cool water before using or storing.
- STORING: Fresh clams must be stored in the refrigerator (except during purging), and storing them over ice will help them last longer. But do not store them directly over the ice, since they will die if the ice melts and they’re submerged for too long in fresh water. Our method: Place the clams in a bowl, cover them with a wet paper towel or newspaper that will keep them moist while also allowing them to breathe, and set that bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice. Check the ice daily, replenishing as necessary. Clams stored this way will stay fresh for up to one week.
A Dynamic Duo
I started off with 3 pounds of littleneck clams, the most traditional variety for this application, to serve four to six people—however, upon removing them from their sizable, dramatically sprung shells, I realized that the tender, briny bites were overwhelmed by the other ingredients. Adding more would crowd the pot with their bulk, so I decided to supplement the dish with another quick-cooking seafood: shrimp. I salted the shrimp in advance, which altered their protein structure to allow them to retain more moisture during cooking, and then added them to the stew off the heat to cook gently. Just 5 minutes rendered them plump, tender, and juicy.
I poured the finished cataplana into a shallow serving bowl and garnished it with a flourish of chopped parsley, marveling at the stew’s ruddy hue and heady aroma.