Four Fresh Takes on Portuguese Cooking
Whether traditional or modern, Portuguese food spotlights excellent ingredients. That’s the beauty of it, says Rick DiVirgilio of Houston’s OPORTO restaurants, which specialize in petiscos (small plates) inspired by Portugal and former colonies like Macau and Goa. “Not complicated, just quality ingredients like great olive oil, the freshest seafood and heritage pork,” he says. “And timeless traditions make the food truly unique.”
Just as its wines gain traction in the U.S., Portugal’s cuisine, which zips with flavor gleaned from centuries dominating the spice trade, has inspired chefs here to serve classics or their own versions.
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Courtesy Carlos Carreira, co-owner, Adega, San Jose, CA
Salt cod, or bacalhau, is a common Portuguese ingredient. It’s simply cod that’s been salted and dried as a preservation technique, but it also concentrates flavors. It’s easy to find, and while preparation is time-consuming (a long soak removes excess saltiness and restores texture), it’s simple to make.
“Açorda is one of the most authentic Portuguese dishes, and it always must include bread, water, garlic, cilantro, olive oil and eggs,” says Carreira. This version is a “dry” açorda (some have a soupier texture), gilded with a simply grilled fillet of cod.
- 2 pounds boneless salt cod, preferably from the loin
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 12 large garlic cloves, chopped
- 8 ounces day-old bread, torn into 1-inch pieces (about 5 cups)
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for pan and finishing
- 2 cups chicken broth, plus more, if necessary
- ¾ cup packed cilantro
- Kosher salt
- 4 egg yolks, at room temperature
Soak cod for 2 days, changing water 3 times daily. Cut 4 evenly sized fillets from thickest part of fish, set aside, and cut the rest into small pieces. Put trimmings in pot with bay leaves, onion, one-third of chopped garlic and 5 cups water. Bring to boil, then reduce heat. Simmer 15 minutes. Strain, reserving liquid and discarding bay leaves. Flake cod and set aside.
Cover bread with hot tap water and soak 1 hour, or until soft. Drain, pressing out excess water.
Heat oven to 400°F. Warm large ovenproof grill or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Coat with olive oil, and add cod fillets. Cook for 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer to oven. Cook for 6 minutes, or just until opaque in center.
Meanwhile, warm ¼ cup olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Add remaining chopped garlic and cook until soft and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add bread and broth (add more if bread soaks up most of liquid quickly). Cook, stirring, until mixture takes creamy, thick consistency of porridge. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until it starts to pull from the sides of the pan in single mass. Stir in flaked cod and cilantro. Add salt, if necessary.
To serve, divide açorda among 4 plates. Make cavity in middle of each plate. Place raw egg yolk in cavity, lay cod fillet alongside and drizzle olive oil on top. Instruct diners to stir yolk into açorda to cook. Serves 4.
Herdade do Esporão 2015 Reserva Branco (Alentejo); $20, 90 points. Carreira says, “Açorda de bacalhau is most popular in the southern region of the Alentejo, so I suggest a well-structured white made from the local Antão Vaz grape and aged in French oak.” This wine blends Antão Vaz with Arinto and Roupeiro. It boasts a creamy texture, with spicy and toasty notes that echo the dish’s fall flavors.
DiVirgilio’s family is from the island of Madeira, whose seafood-focused cuisine and local wine are showcased in this dish. Piri piri sauce is a pantry staple in Portugal as well as its former colonies in southern Africa. Piri piri, or African bird’s eye chili, was introduced to Europe and Asia via Portuguese spice traders. DiVirgilio’s unique version keeps at least a month in the fridge. You’ll find yourself adding it to everything.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ cup diced onions
- 2 tablespoons sliced garlic
- 12 colossal (about 10 per pound) shrimp, peeled, deveined and patted dry
- Salt, to taste
- ¼ cup Madeira wine (preferably the slightly sweet styles of Verdelho or Rainwater)
- 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons Whiskey Piri Piri (see below)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Warm large skillet over high heat, and coat with olive oil. Add onion and garlic. Cook until soft and lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp in single layer, and sprinkle with salt. Cook about 30 seconds, then flip each shrimp. Add Madeira and lemon juice, and cook another 30 seconds. Add piri piri, and stir gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced and shrimp are barely opaque in the center, about 1 minute. Transfer to plates and sprinkle with cilantro. Serves 2.
- 9 guajillo chilies
- 8 árbol or bird’s eye chilies
- ½ cup roasted red peppers
- ¼ cup olive oil
- ¼ cup whiskey
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 garlic cloves
- ¼ cup chopped onion
- 1½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
Using gloves, de-stem chilies. Cut slit down one side of chili, and remove seeds. Transfer chilies to food processor, and blend until almost powder. Add remaining ingredients, and blend until smooth. Let sit at least 8 hours to thicken and blend flavors. Makes 1½ cups.
Portal da Calçada 2016 Reserva (Vinho Verde). “I love a Vinho Verde with the shrimp piri piri,” says DiVirgilio. “The light citrus and acidity help to balance all the intense flavors in the dish.”
This satisfying riff on carne de porco à Alentejana, a popular dish of fried pork and clams, has many signature Portuguese ingredients: pork, shellfish, kale, garlic, bay leaves and dried chilies. Broccoli flowers are often available in farmer’s markets. You can substitute any herb flower for them, or just leave them out.
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for pan
- 1½ pounds pork belly, skin removed
- Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 carrot, peeled and diced
- 2 celery ribs, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- ½ tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- ¾ cup white wine
- 5 sprigs thyme
- 2 sprigs rosemary
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 cups chicken stock
- 24 mussels, washed and debearded
- 2 cups kale leaves, washed and de-ribbed
- ¼ cup broccoli flowers
- Bread, for serving
Heat oven to 300°F. Warm heavy ovenproof pot on stove over medium heat, and coat bottom with olive oil. Season pork belly on both sides with salt and pepper. Sear pork belly on both sides until dark brown. Transfer to plate, and drain excess fat from pan, leaving a thin coating. Add onion, carrot, celery and garlic, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and paprika and cook another 2 minutes. Deglaze with ½ cup white wine.
Add pork belly, herbs and just enough stock to cover pork. Bring to boil. Cover pot, and place in oven. Cook for 2–3 hours, or until pork belly can be easily pierced with knife. Remove pork belly from pot, and keep warm in a 250°F oven.
Strain cooking liquid, discarding vegetables and herbs. Place broth back into pot, and cook over medium heat. Meanwhile, place mussels in large pot with remaining white wine. Cover, and cook over medium heat until the mussels have steamed open, about 15 minutes. Remove mussels and add pork-cooking liquid to pot. Reduce sauce by approximately three-quarters. Add salt, to taste.
In medium-sized pot or skillet, cook kale leaves in ½ cup olive oil until tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Distribute kale among 4 plates. Slice pork belly into four even pieces, and place atop kale. Top each plate with steamed mussels and broccoli flowers (if using). Spoon cooking broth over top, and serve with bread for sopping up broth. Serves 4.
Quinta de Sant’Ana 2013 Tinto (Lisboa). A blend of Touriga Nacional, Merlot and Aragonêz (a k a Tempranillo), the grapes are crushed by foot in stone vats (or lagares) before resting 12 months in French oak. It’s a finely textured wine, with fresh red-berry fruit and enough acidity to lift the richness of the pork and sauce.
These egg tarts, common throughout Portugal, are sometimes called pastéis de Belém, for a shop in the town of Santa Maria de Belém that’s sold them since 1837 using a top-secret monks’ recipe. The dough is a handmade cross between phyllo and puff pastry, but this version is much simpler and almost as good. Egg tart tins are available online, but a mini-muffin tin works as well. If your oven goes above 500°F, try to bake at 550°F for 8–10 minutes.
- 1 pound puff pastry
- 2 cups milk
- ¼ cup flour
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 6 egg yolks
Roll puff pastry into thin 18-inch square. Roll up tightly, jellyroll-style. Cut into three pieces, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate at least 1 hour. (At this stage, you can also refrigerate dough for 3 days, or freeze for 6 months.)
To prepare filling: In large heatproof bowl, whisk ½ cup milk with flour until smooth. Combine remaining milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon stick and lemon zest in saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring constantly. Whisk gradually into flour mixture. Let stand until finger inserted into mixture can withstand heat. Whisk in yolks (custard will be very thin). Strain mixture into measuring cup with pour spout.
When ready to bake, roll dough with hands into logs of 1-inch diameter. Slice into ¾-inch pieces. Press into egg tart tins or mini-muffin pans. Dough should be as thin as possible without seeing the underlying metal. Discard extra. Add vent holes to dough with fork. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes.
Heat oven to 500°F. Add custard to tins until three-quarters full. Bake until pastry is golden brown and filling is barely set, about 15 minutes. Cool on rack 10 minutes. Remove from tins and cool to room temperature on rack. Makes about 36 tartlets.
Quinta do Noval NV Noval Tawny Reserve Port. This wine’s hints of tangy citrus, caramel and warm spice play with the lemon, vanilla and cinnamon flavors of the tart’s custard, while the trademark nuttiness of a tawny brings out the brown-butter flavors of the crust.
- 1Açorda de Bacalhau, Portuguese Bread Stew with Salt Cod
- 2Whiskey Piri Piri Shrimp
- 3Braised Pork Belly with Mussels and Kale
- 4Pastéis de Nata, Portuguese Egg Tarts