Portuguese Cuisine — A Celebration of Life
I was fresh out of college on my first trip to Europe when I met a young Portuguese poet in Lisbon. He took me to a bistro in the ancient Alfama district, where we listened to an old woman sing soulful fado. We drank sangria and nibbled spicy tremoço beans and ate little codfish cakes called pasteis de bacalhau. That night, I fell in love with the music, the food, the wine and, yes, the poet too. Alas, as in almost every fado song, the romance eventually ended — but those other three passions have endured.
There’s a uniquely Portuguese word that is the essence of that country’s heart — saudades. It’s almost like nostalgia, but much deeper. Saudades inspires the art, the music, even the food — and it sometimes inspires me to invite friends over for a long, leisurely Portuguese dinner.
If you’d like to try your hand at Portuguese cooking, the first rule is — relax! This is not food to fret and stress over. It wasn’t created by temperamental masters of haute cuisine, but by people who worked the land and set off across the ocean in fishing boats. It’s food infused with memories of family and of ancestral heritage.
Linda Teixera of Los Angeles, a Portuguese-American friend who’s at home in both cultures, described it this way: "Portuguese cooking is humble. It encompasses so much of the individual’s personality. Love and all types of feelings are infused into the food."
It’s a sentiment shared by one of the finest home chefs I know, José Delgado Nunes of Mafra, Portugal, the poet’s brother, whose surname I still share. "The memory of recipes," he said, "almost always transports me to the greatest cook I've ever met: my mother.”
Part of what’s so incredible about the food in Portugal is that farm-to-table is no fad there — it has always been a way of life. Much of the country is still agricultural, and if someone in rural Portugal invites you to dinner, your roast chicken may well have been clucking in the backyard coop that very morning.
The coast of Portugal is dotted with fishing villages and fresh-caught fish are plentiful. When Teixera was a child in the countryside, she said, “Fish were sold by the fishermen’s wives, and every few days a woman would come with a box of fish on her bicycle. Today they bring it in a refrigerated car.”
Much of Portuguese life takes place around food and wine, with course after course brought out from the kitchen, so that dinner can last for hours on end. In warm weather, friends and family will gather at a long outdoor table that might overlook a vegetable garden or an olive grove. But the most important thing of all about dining Portuguese style — from appetizers to an after-dinner glass of Port wine — is that it’s all about pleasure and the people you share it with.
So think up an occasion to prepare a traditional Portuguese meal — any reason to celebrate life will do. We’ll give you the recipes, you’ll bring the wine — vinho verde with its subtle sparkle, rich red vinho tinto or a lovely rosé — and an open heart.
ENTRADAS | STARTERS
Lupini Beans Recipe (Portuguese Tremoços)
Before dinner, set out small plates of seasoned lupini beans, or tremoços, to nibble on and serve with an aperitivo, like this sangria made with vinho verde. Then put on some fado music — the celebrated Amalia Rodrigues or current superstar Mariza — and let the journey into another culture begin.
Pasteis de Bacalhau | Bolinhos de Bacalhau | Codfish Croquettes
Centuries ago, when there was no refrigeration, Portuguese fisherman sailed as far as Newfoundland to catch cod, which they preserved for the long voyage home by drying and salting it. Today bacalhau, or salt cod, remains a staple of the cuisine, and there are, they say, more than 365 ways to prepare it. Before using salt cod, you’ll have to soak it in water for about two days to restore the texture and leech out the salt. After that, just combine the fish with eggs, cooked potatoes, onions, and seasoning, form the mix into traditional oval balls and fry. Enjoy them while they’re still warm.
Minty Portuguese Style Octopus Salad
Octopus is currently trending in a lot of chic U.S. restaurants, but it’s always been a key element in Portuguese cuisine. Ensalada de polvo is a delightful mix of chewy octopus, crisp greens, and aromatic herbs. This recipe uses mint for a bright, refreshing note — but you can substitute fragrant cilantro, which is more traditional for this salad. And if you’re squeamish about preparing octopus from scratch, you can buy it canned in oil at specialty or ethnic groceries.
Caldo Verde (Portuguese Green Soup)
The magic ingredient in this hearty kale and potato soup is chouriço, a Portuguese sausage with a distinct, smoky taste all its own. If it’s hard to find in your area, Spanish chorizo is a pretty close second. Traditionally, the Portuguese soup is eaten with broa — a yeasted corn bread that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the sweet cornbread you’re probably more familiar with. If you can’t find it nearby, Jewish corn bread will do nicely, or you can bake it yourself with this broa recipe, also from Portuguese food aficionado David Leite.
PRATOS PRINCIPAIS | MAIN DISHES
Bacalhau à Brás (Salt Cod, Eggs and Potatoes)
Codfish casseroles like this one are Portugal’s most characteristic dish, and there are countless varieties. It’s always built around bacalhau, potatoes, and egg — but every chef will create their own improvisations. Some add béchamel sauce, others mayonnaise (not my favorite), still others add cheese. Some slice the potatoes, others puree them and create decorative peaks, and the eggs are often hardboiled and layered in. What distinguishes bacalhau à brás is that the eggs are scrambled and the potatoes grated, then fried to a golden brown. A garnish of black olives perfectly punctuates this classic Portuguese recipe.
This recipe is an adaptation of frango na púcara, a Portuguese dish of chicken and wine. Frango na púcara gets its name from the special clay pot it's typically cooked in, the púcara, which is made in the Alcobaça region where the dish originated. This version is designed for ordinary cookware, but preserves all the complex flavors of the original. “I make this a lot for friends and family,” said Delgado Nunes. “It looks wonderful and usually gives us three or four meals a week.” Keep that in mind, because it’s one of those dishes that’s even better the next day.
Portuguese Suckling Pig
This incredible roast is an absolute showstopper. In Portugal, it’s called leitão à Bairrada, after the region in central Portugal where it originated. Traditionally, it’s prepared in a wood-fired clay oven. That’s how Delgado Nunes makes it — but he gave us a tip that will make it a truly wow experience even if you cook it in an ordinary kitchen oven. “I take the piglet out of the oven two or three times and spray it with cold white wine,” he said. “It makes the skin very crispy.”
Grilled Portuguese Sardines
If your only experience of sardines is a tin of oil-saturated fish, your first taste of fresh grilled sardines, sardinhas grelhadas, will be life changing. You can cook them on a kitchen grill pan, but they’re sensational when grilled outdoors on a barbecue, hibachi, or copper Portuguese braseiro. Serve these sardines with a sliced baguette or, better yet, with the rolls called papos secos. The name means dry throat, but they are crusty on the outside, fluffy inside, and great with almost anything.
Portuguese Pork Alentejana
This dish of pork and clams comes from the Alentejo, a large region that runs from central Portugal south to the Algarve. Carne de porco à Alentejana takes a little work, but it’s so good that the preparation is well worth it. The cubed pork spends six hours in a marinade of white wine, garlic, cloves, and bay leaf — but that's just the beginning. The complex process brings together an exciting contrast of tastes, textures, and spices that range from subtle to piquant, all of which make this dish a really outstanding experience.
SOBREMESA | DESSERT
Pastéis de Nata (Portuguese Custard Tarts)
One Portuguese dessert reigns supreme: the exquisite custard pastries known as pastéis de nata. And a warning — they are highly addictive. The custard has a subtle hint of lemon, while the flaky shell is famous for its distinct crispness (which is the tricky part). To get the shell just right, the oven must be at least 500 degrees; at Lisbon’s famous Pastéis de Belém bakery, the perfect crusts are baked at 800 degrees! Creating puff pastry from scratch can be labor intensive and takes a fair amount of practice, so feel free to take a shortcut; I’ve used frozen puff pastry dough from the supermarket with this recipe, and the results were pretty delicious.
… AND A TOAST BEFORE YOU SAY ADEUS
Port wine is always a perfect finish to a Portuguese feast. Age and vintage can make an enormous difference, so spring for the finest you can afford. There’s also a wildly popular liqueur called ginjinha, made from Morello cherries infused into the Portuguese firewater known as aguardente. Ginjinha is typically served in thimble-sized terra cotta cups — but it’s totally amazing when you drink it from a tiny little cup made of chocolate. Saúde!