A short guide to the cuisine of Portugal

Cozinha Portuguesa Book

In one of the letters collected in the volume Lettres Provinciales, published in 1657, the philosopher Blaise Pascal writes that “I have made this letter longer than usual because I did not have time to make it shorter.” Brevity is a virtue that requires time, skill and effort. This is the reason why we appreciate so much a small volume titled “Portuguese Cuisine: a Brief Look” recently published by the Portuguese Academy of Gastronomy.

Summarizing the astonishing diversity of ingredients and preparation methods of the Portuguese cuisine is a herculean task. But with 11 recipes carefully written and beautiful illustrated, this book succeeds in this difficult endeavor.

The collection opens with Portuguese meat pies with collard-greens rice. It is an inspired choice because this staple of home-cooked meals is a test of a cook’s skill. Different  people following the same recipe can produce results that vary from adequate to sublime.

The second recipe, Setúbal-style grilled red mullet, is a simple preparation that starts you off on a journey to master the fine art of grilling fish. The freshness of the fish, the amount of salt used to season it, the hotness of the coals, the distance from the coals to the fish, and the timing of the grilling all determine the final results.

Brás-style codfish is a brilliant recipe: an implausible combination of thin, fried potatos, eggs and codfish that surprises and delights. The preparation is quite forgiving, so even a novice can produce great results.

Making Algarve-style fish requires a cataplana, an oval pot that traps the steam to keep the fish moist. This device also collects the delicious juices and reduces them to enhance their flavor. The result is pure magic.

Marinated partridge uses a vinegar-based sauce called “escabeche.” The idea of marinating with acids is thought to come from Persia. It produces a wonderful dish that you can prepare in advance and serve at a dinner party.

Chicken with “cabidela” rice is a traditional recipe that uses the blood of the chicken to make the sauce for the rice. Combine it with a great red wine and you create a symphony of bold flavors that is deeply satisfying.

Roast kid goat is often served at family lunches on Easter Sunday. It is great comfort food that always creates harmony at the table.

Sweet angel hair pasta and honey cake are two easy-to-make, crowd-pleasing desserts.

Pudim Abade de Priscos is an unusual mixture of eggs, sugar, port wine, bacon, and spices invented by an abbot who was an exceptional cook.

The book ends with pasteis de nata (custard tarts). It is a time-consuming, difficult recipe. But if you take the time and effort to master it, you will earn the unending admiration of your dinner guests.

This precious little book can set you off on a culinary journey through the flavors of Portugal with recipes that you can enjoy right away and that you can perfect and refine every time you gather friends and family around the table.

The abbot’s pudding

Pudim Abade de Priscos-3

One of the most original Portuguese recipes is a pudding created in the 19th century by the priest of Priscos, a small parish near Braga. He was called Manuel Rebelo but became known as the Abade de Priscos (Prisco’s abbot). His fame as a cook and gourmet earned him the invitation to prepare banquets for the royal family and the title of Honorary Chaplain of the Royal House.

The pudding combines egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, lemon, port wine, and fresh bacon (yes, bacon!). The abbot liked to say that the pudding is easy to make but hard to make perfectly and that when well prepared, it has a unique taste. Paired with a glass of port wine, a slice of this pudding is a culinary delight.

Born in 1834, the abbot lived almost 100 years, dying in 1930. Could the abbot’s pudding be the secret of his longevity? We order it every time we see it on the menu to try to find out!

The scrumptious Pudim Abade de Priscos in the photograph was prepared at the restaurant of the majestic Pousada of Viana do Castelo.

Ilda Vinagre shares a recipe

Ilda Vinagre

Ilda Vinagre is a legendary chef. In the 1980s, she opened a restaurant called Bolota (acorn) in Terrugem, a small town in Alentejo. The restaurant earned her two Michelin stars, attracting gourmets from Portugal and beyond. After this feat, she traveled the world cooking, heading restaurants in the United States and Brazil, and preparing banquets that showcased the cuisine of Alentejo in lands as far away as China.

The good news is that Ilda is back in Alentejo. We met with her at the restaurant of Herdade dos Adeans where she oversees the kitchen. Ilda told us about her life and her love of cooking. That these days she enjoys decorating her plates with edible flowers. And that there are four herbs no Alentejo chef can do without: mint, coriander, oregano and “poejo” (pennyroyal). In the end of our conversation, she generously gave us one of her favorite octopus recipes so we could share it with our readers. Here it is!

Country-style Octopus

Cook “al dente” the octopus in water with salt, onion, coriander, pepper and oregano. Cut it in pieces and grill the pieces in a hot griddle with bacon and a little olive oil. Dress with lemon juice, lemon rind and oregano. Accompany with a sweet potato puree. To make the puree, roast the sweet potato with the peel on. Take the peel, mash the pulp and mix it with butter.

 

Dining with the minister at Campo Maior

Taberna O Ministro

We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.

Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.

A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.

João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.

Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”

João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).

“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”

All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.

João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”

We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been  marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.

No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.

Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.

Caldo verde

Caldo Verde

Caldo verde (green broth) is the most Portuguese of soups. It comes in different versions but Maria de Lurdes Modesto, the doyenne of traditional Portuguese cooking, recommends a simple preparation used in the village of Marco de Canaveses.  Here’s the recipe.

Gently boil 500 grams of potatoes, 3 garlic cloves, one sliced chouriço (meat sausage) and some olive oil.  Crush the potatoes with a masher. Add the shredded Galician cabbage for just a couple of minutes (avoid overcooking the cabbage). Dress the soup with olive oil. Serve, preferably in a clay bowl, and accompany with broa, a Portuguese corn bread.

The soup has the colors of the Portuguese flag: green from the cabbage, red from the sausage, and yellow from the olive oil. You find caldo verde everywhere: in homes and restaurants, in places where fado singers gather, and in festivals and fairs. The soup is so popular that vendors in farmers’ markets have a special shredder to make the distinctive strips of Galician cabbage that are the hallmark of caldo verde.

As with many traditional recipes, the origin of this soup is lost in time. There’s no recipe for caldo verde in the cookbooks written by Domingos Rodrigues in 1680 or by Lucas Rigaud in 1780. But these chefs worked for the royal family, so they probably shunned peasant cooking. The soup is mentioned in several 19th century literary works and it is the first recipe in Culinária, an influential cookbook published in 1928 by António Maria de Oliveira Bello.

Caldo verde is often served at midnight on New Year’s eve. Its comforting taste helps everyone feel warm and optimistic about the New Year!

 

Two recipes from Ílhavo

16 - Chefe Cristina Almeida - @mariarebelophotography.com

The Montebelo Vista Alegre hotel in Ílhavo is a hidden travel-destination gem in the center of Portugal. The hotel has a stunning location on the marshes where river and sea water meet.

The building complex incorporates the elegant manor house of José Pinto Bastos, the entrepreneur who two centuries ago pioneered the production of porcelain in Portugal. You can visit an interesting museum that traces the evolution of Vista Alegre from a risky experiment to a renowned porcelain brand. It is also wonderful to visit the porcelain factory, the place where earth and fire combine to serve the imagination of designers and sculptors.

One of the pleasures of a stay at the Vista Alegre hotel are the appetizing meals served in the restaurant headed by chef Cristina Almeida. For the last three decades, Cristina has been creating and refining recipes based on Portugal’s culinary tradition. Since she opened the hotel’s restaurant in 2016, Cristina has had the luxury of serving her food in the elegant dinnerware produced by Vista Alegre.

Two of our favorite dishes at the Vista Alegre restaurant are lamb rice with mushrooms and chestnuts and velvety codfish. We enjoyed these culinary treasures so much that we dared to ask Cristina whether she would share the recipe with our readers. She graciously agreed, so here they are.

Lamb rice with mushrooms and chestnuts

Ingredients for four people

  1. 600 grams of baby lamb
  2. 400 grams of rice (Cristina uses the Carolino variety produced in Portugal)
  3. 1 garlic clove
  4. 250 grams of onions
  5. 100 grams of chestnuts
  6. 100 grams of mushrooms
  7. 0.2 liters of white wine
  8. 0.1 liters of red wine
  9. 0.1 liters of olive oil
  10. Seasonings: thyme, bay leaf, piri-piri, and salt

Cut the lamb into small pieces. Marinate it with garlic, bay leaf, the two wines, thyme and salt. Dice the onion and fry it in olive oil. Add the lamb and fry with the onion. Add the chestnuts, mushrooms, and let the mixture cook a bit more. Add enough water to cook the rice and make plenty of sauce. Wait until the mixture boils and add the rice. As soon as the rice is cooked, serve immediately.

Velvety codfish

Ingredients for five people

  1. 200 grams of codfish without bones
  2. 0ne leek
  3. 1 garlic clove
  4. 150 grams of onion
  5. 1 kg. of potatoes
  6. 0.15 liters of olive oil
  7. Seasonings: parsley and coriander.
  8. Garnish: roasted peppers

Cut the codfish in cubes. Place the codfish, leek, onion, potatoes, parsley, and coriander in a pot. Cover the ingredients with water and let them boil until cooked. In a frying pan, fry the garlic with 1/3 of the olive oil. Add to the boiling mixture. Put the mixture in a blender and blend until smooth. Serve garnished with roasted peppers.

Click here for the website of the Montebelo Vista Alegre hotel. 

 

 

A noble crab soup

IMG_1905 2

Almost three decades ago, a friend took us to a new restaurant called Nobre in the Ajuda neighborhood. The name, which means noble, came from the surname of the chef, Justa Nobre. We recall with fondness the meals we enjoyed there. After a successful run, Nobre closed so that the chef could pursue other projects,

Last week, the same friend invited us for lunch. We were delighted to discover that we were going to a new restaurant that marks Justa Nobre’s return to Ajuda. It is called “À Justa,” an expression based on the chef’s first name that means “just right.”

The menu offers a cuisine without foreign accents that has the satisfying taste of authenticity. The recipes are grounded in the cooking of Justa’s grandmothers. But they are not a copy of the past. They reflect years of refinements shaped by the personality and creativity of this self-taught chef.

The restaurant was full. The Portuguese like to flirt with contemporary food trends but they always come back to their one true love, which is the traditional cooking of Portugal.

We had a great meal that included bright green fava beans, chickpeas with codfish, codfish “pataniscas,” and fried cuttlefish. These delights were preceded by a classic of Justa Nobre’s repertoire: the spider crab soup. Its aristocratic taste makes all other seafood soups in Lisbon look common by comparison.

Many chefs keep their secrets, but Justa generously shared some of her recipes in a book titled Passion for Cooking. We translate her recipe for spider crab soup below. But you must try the original at À Justa where they make it just right.

 

Justa Nobre’s spider crab soup

Ingredients: 2 large spider crabs weighing about 1 kg. each, 3 liters of water, 3 tablespoons of sea salt, 150 grams of margarine, a large onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a parsley bunch, a sliced fennel head, 4 tablespoons of tomato paste, half liter of cream, 0.1 liter of dry white port, one teaspoon of powdered ginger, one teaspoon of saffron, 2 tablespoons of potato starch.

Preparation: Boil the crabs in the salted water for 8 minutes. Remove them, let then cool off and extract all the meat. Return the shells to the pan. Add some shrimp shells and let them boil for 10 minutes. In a large pot, melt the margarine and add the sliced onion, fennel and garlic. Let these ingredients cook briefly and then add the white port, the cream, the tomato paste, the spices, and two liters of the crab broth. Mix the potato starch with some cold water and add it to the soup. Check the seasoning and strain the soup. Add the crab meat and serve the soup it in the shell of the spider crab.

À Justa is located at Calçada Ajuda 107, in Lisbon. The restaurant seats only 36 people, so reservations are a must. Call 21 363 0993 or email reservas@ajusta.pt. Click here for Justa Nobre’s web site.