Secrets of Portuguese cooking

Portuguese cooks love to alter traditional recipes, adding ingredients that can be difficult to detect but impart a special taste. We recently learned a few of these tricks.

Our fish monger told us that “people always rave about my fish sauces. They don’t know I use a secret ingredient. When no one’s looking, I blend in a tablespoon of Savora mustard. It makes all the difference.”

A saleswoman at Quinta do Sanguinhal confided: “when I roast meat, I use a secret ingredient. When no one’s looking, I pour a glass of “licoroso” (desert wine) on the meat. It gives the sauce an amazing taste.”

The butcher gave us a pretty conventional stew recipe. When we asked him what made the recipe so special, he said, “Well, I use a secret ingredient. When no one’s looking I pour half a beer on the stew. Then, I drink the other half.”

We plan to find out whether these tricks work… when no one’s looking.

Pão com chouriço (chouriço bread)

No one recorded the moment of sublime inspiration when an unsung genius thought of taking a delicious “chouriço” (a smoked sausage made of pork marinated in red wine), place it inside bread dough, and cook it in a wood oven. The result is incredible. You can buy chouriço bread at bakeries and fairs. But think twice before you try it: it is wildly addictive.

Many visitors keep returning to Portugal on their vacations. They say they are attracted by the majesty of the cities, the beauty of the countryside, the stunning beaches, the perfect weather, the wine, the food, the hospitality, the culture. But we know they come for one thing only: the chouriço bread.

Cataplana

A cataplana is a copper pan made of two clam shells that can be sealed with a clamp. The origins of this cooking contraption are lost in time. In the early 20th century Portuguese hunters carried cataplanas loaded with onions and tomatoes, so they could cook game on a wood fire. Later, in the 1960s, the cataplana became a popular way to cook fish and shellfish in the Algarve. Since then, it has become a hallmark of Portuguese cooking.

There is something magical about the moment when the waiter brings a cataplana to the table. And it is not hard to imagine that, as he opens the pan, he murmurs the same secret incantation used in the banquets of the Arabian Nights to make the meal unforgettable.

You can buy a cataplana at Loja Pollux Hotelaria, Rua da Madalena, 263, Lisboa, tel. 218-811-291, email: hotelaria@pollux.pt or at A Vida Portuguesa, Rua Anchieta 11 in Chiado, Lisboa, tel. 213 465 073.

Poetic clams

Marcel Proust immortalized the madeleines in his writing. But the French did not change the name of these little cakes to prousteleines or madeleines à la Proust. When Bulhão Pato, a 19th century writer, waxed poetically about a clam dish, the Portuguese named the recipe after him. Ameijoas à Bulhão Pato (clams Bulhão Pato) has become the classic Portuguese clam recipe.

It is easy to prepare: combine olive oil and garlic in a pot; add the clams. Once the clams open, add some chopped coriander and a few squirts of lemon juice.

The recipe is designed to showcase the splendor of the Portuguese clams. You’ll be disappointed if you use this recipe with lesser clams. Order clams Bulhão Pato at a beach-side restaurant and you’ll understand why Bulhão Pato considered them pure poetry.

A childhood treat

Farturas are similar to Spanish churros but they are larger and softer.  A light dough made of eggs and flour is squeezed out of a pastry bag to form a large spiral shape. The dough is gently fried in oil and then cut into pieces with a pair of scissors. These pieces are sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and served immediately. Eating a warm fartura makes you feel like a kid again: everything is simple and wondrous and the infinite future looks sweet.  You can find farturas in many fairs. Our favorites are from the São Mateus fair in Viseu. This year the fair runs until September 23. So, you still have time to go and be a kid again.

Portuguese razor clams

We know nothing about the biology of the lingueirão (Portuguese razor clam). All we know is that, when steamed, it releases the scent of the ocean and we feel we are on the high seas. Use the cooking water to make lingeirão rice and the result is a dish with complex flavor. Guests will think you have been cooking for hours, reducing sauces, combining delicate infusions. And all you did was take advantage of the amazing biology of the lingueirão.

Piri piri

piri-piri

The Portuguese brought from Africa a small red pepper called bird’s-eye chilli that they use to make a popular hot sauce. In Portuguese both the pepper and the sauce are called piri piri (pronounced peeree peeree).

Restaurants that serve grilled chicken often make their own piri-piri sauce. What happens if you ask for their recipe? Here are some sample answers: “My Engleesh is not bery good, sory,” “We get it from Spain, you have to ask there.”

After years of undercover work, we gathered some piri-piri intelligence to share with you. The base of the sauce is usually vegetable oil, although a few restaurants use olive oil. Often, the piri-piri peppers are simply combined with the oil and left alone for a few days. In some cases, the oil is warmed to absorb more quickly the taste of the piri-piri pepper. Some recipes use vinegar, whisky, cognac, salt, parsley, coriander, cilantro, or garlic. No matter which version you try, piri piri will spice up your life.

Tremoço

If percebes are too adventurous for you, your next best bet is tremoços (lupini beans). You eat them by tearing the skin with your teeth and popping the seed into your mouth. Recent research finds that the tremoço is a great health food. These findings would not surprise Hippocrates who touted their health benefits 2,500 years ago.

Percebes

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You eat these pre-historic looking crustaceans by twisting off their heads and exposing their meat. They taste and smell like the sea and they are great with beer.

The English name for percebes, “gooseneck barnacles,” comes from the medieval theory that they are embryonic barnacle geese. This theory conveniently explained why flocks of geese would suddenly appear out of nowhere (the fact that birds migrate was not known in the Middle Ages).

In any case, do not worry. There are no recent reports of percebes flying off the plate to migrate south.

Queijadas de Sintra


Queijadas de Sintra are cheese tarts made from fresh cow’s cheese, eggs, sugar, flower, and cinnamon. There are several producers and there is even an association that certifies whether the recipe is authentic. The ones featured here are from Casa do Preto (Estrada Chão Meninos, 44, Sintra).

Historians think that the first Sintra queijadas were produced in the Middle Ages (presumably without cinnamon). It is easy to believe that it has taken a few centuries to figure out how to make the shell so thin and the filling so moist and flavorful. And, if you try them, you will see that all this effort has paid off.