Cataplana (Portuguese Fish Stew )

     The Portuguese know fish. Their cuisine reflects the fact that Portugal is a seafaring nation with the highest consumption of fish per capita in all of Europe. This is due to the fact that they have a wide variety of fish and spices available to them. One of their favorite dishes is a rich and delicious fish stew called cataplana.

     It’s a bit confusing because the clam-shaped pot the stew is cooked in is also named a cataplana. Its lid has a tight seal, so the pot is basically used like a pressure cooker, allowing the food to cook in a hermetic steam that gives it a unique and distinctive flavor. If you don’t have a cataplana, a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid works about as well. I also put a brick on top of the lid to assure a good tight seal.

     An important spice in its preparation is saffron. I know it’s expensive, and you can prepare the dish without it, but it does add complexity to the flavor by giving it a semisweet bitter honey taste that some say tastes like the sea. It’s subtle, but it does make a big difference.

     The recipe allows for lots of flexibility. The selection of seafood and other ingredients can be adjusted to suit your tastes, your budget, and availability, but it’s preferable to have at least three different varieties of seafood in the dish.

     It presents wonderfully. When plated and set in front of each guest, it is indeed a sight to behold. With its exposed assortment of bivalves and crustaceans (red/orange crayfish, pink shrimp, gray clams, and black mussels), a cataplana makes for a very interesting and colorful presentation. Be sure to serve a good bread so you and your guests can mop up the delicious broth.

Fish Stew (Portuguese Cataplana)

yields: 4 Servings prep time: 30 Minutes cook time: 65 Minutes
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4 1 1 1 1 1 16 30 16 2 Tbsp 1/2 cup 2 cups 1/2 tsp 2 cups 1 cup Sea salt 30 1 Tbsp
Garlic cloves Shallot (small) Onion red (small) Pepper red bell Pepper green bell Tomato (small) Clams little neck Mussels (preferably cultivated) Shrimp (about 1 lb.) EVOO Vermouth dry Wine white dry Saffron threads (crumpled) Clam juice bottled Cream heavy To taste Crayfish tails (about 1/2 lb.) Sorrel leaves fresh (substitute a squeeze of lemon)
  • 4
    Garlic cloves
  • 1
    Shallot (small)
  • 1
    Onion red (small)
  • 1
    Pepper red bell
  • 1
    Pepper green bell
  • 1
    Tomato (small)
  • 16
    Clams little neck
  • 30
    Mussels (preferably cultivated)
  • 16
    Shrimp (about 1 lb.)
  • 2 Tbsp
  • 1/2 cup
    Vermouth dry
  • 2 cups
    Wine white dry
  • 1/2 tsp
    Saffron threads (crumpled)
  • 2 cups
    Clam juice bottled
  • 1 cup
    Cream heavy
  • Sea salt
    To taste
  • 30
    Crayfish tails (about 1/2 lb.)
  • 1 Tbsp
    Sorrel leaves fresh (substitute a squeeze of lemon)


Ahead of time mince garlic, chop shallot and onion, julienne peppers and add to a small bowlChop tomato into a ¼” dice and add to another small bowl.  Scrub clams and mussels (remove beards). Shell and devein shrimp.

Enter Target Time _______________

Time: __________ (65 minutes prior to target time)

  1. In a Dutch oven (or cataplana) cook garlic, shallot, onion, and peppers in oil over moderate heat for 5 minutes until peppers are softened.

  2. Add Vermouth, wine, and saffron, and boil until liquid is reduced to about 1/3 cup (don’t be afraid to reduce it this much).

  3. Add clam juice and cream and bring to boil.

  4. Immediately add clams and simmer until they just begin to open (about 3 minutes).

  5. Stir in mussels, shrimp, tomato, and sea salt and pepper to taste and stir until well combined.

  6. Cover with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes and discard any unopened clams or mussels (Important – see note below)

  7. Transfer seafood with a slotted spoon to a large bowl and boil liquid, uncovered, until reduced by about ½ (don’t be afraid to reduce it this much).

  8. Return seafood to cooking liquid and stir in crayfish and sorrel. Heat over moderate heat until just heated through.

  9. Serve in large soup bowls. 

Note #1: (IMPORTANT – PLEASE READ)  I like to buy the clams and mussels the same day I cook them. First I remove all of the ones where the shells have opened. It generally means they are dead. If there is a question about this, tap the shell, and if it closes, they are alive. And we do want them alive.    

Rinse and scrub them and remove the beards from the mussels. Place them in a bowl covered with a damp towel and place them in the refrigerator until ready to be used.    

After the clams and mussels have cooked, remove the ones that are still closed. This is another indication they are dead. You can become very sick from eating a dead clam or mussel. Symptoms can vary and are too awful to describe here. No amount of cooking will protect you from dead or contaminated shellfish. 

Note #2:  Seeing a bowl of mixed seafood placed in front of you can be a bit daunting.  Learning a technique beforehand on how to consume a fish stew can be very helpful.       

First of all, remove a mussel with your spoon and with your fork remove the meat.  From this point on you can use the empty bivalve shell as an eating utensil to loosen the meat in the rest of the clams and mussels.  In between bites of seafood you can eat spoonfuls of the stew broth along with some crusty bread and homemade butter. 

  Have a small towel and bowl of warm water with lemon at each place setting so guests can dip and then dry their fingers.  Also have bowls available for the empty shells.     

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