Sweet Red Pepper Paste: A distinctive Flavor
Are you searching for something different, a different ingredient, to be exact, that will bring the flavor of your dish to another level? You need not look beyond fresh sweet red peppers. I am not suggesting the use of raw, fried or roasted peppers, the crushed dried chili peppers, cayenne or hot sauces or even sweet paprika, which I like to use in a seasoning rub. You might, in fact, have some of the for-mentioned in your arsenal of assorted pepper ingredients.
I am referring to the briny conserve that is well-known among Portuguese cooks, especially those from the Alentejo Region on the Portuguese mainland. Massa de Pimentão (Sweet Red Pepper Paste), an iconic preparation of the region, is held near and dear to our hearts. A scant teaspoon or tablespoon, added judiciously to seasoning rubs, dishes of poultry, fish, meats, even rice, potatoes or scrambled eggs, the paste imparts a distinctive flavor. Often layered with paprika and even a dash or two of hot sauce, gives a dish another dimension. Additional salt is usually not needed but always taste before adding.
Carne de Porco à Alentejana (Alentejo-Style Pork with Clams) is an iconic dish of the Alentejo to which the Sweet Red Pepper Paste, when added, gives the meat and sauce unique flavor. The paste is easy to make but needs a minimum of 3-4 days of letting the salted peppers to stand and drain. As a young girl, at the age of 10, I learned to make this briny concoction under the tutelage of my father, just as he did under the watchful eye of my grandmother and she did before him. I embraced his lessons as we cut and seeded the peppers, as we discussed what else but cooking. Carrying on the teaching tradition, I explained to my children and now my grandchildren, when you make it from scratch, you know the quality of the peppers and the salt that is used. But yes, you can purchase a commercial brand in a Portuguese market or online. Just be sure the ingredients are just salt and peppers.
The only equipment needed is a wooden box and a stainless steel or non-corrosive sheet pan. My father used slatted wooden boxes obtained from produce markets. Check with your local market. They are more difficult to get today but if you have a handy person, all you need to make this box are ¼-inch thick maple or pine slats.
For the base, 1-inch by ¼-inch slats are tacked or stapled ¼-inch apart to a 9 x 12 x 3–inch rectangular frame, leaving a narrow space between the vertical sides and the base edge for drainage. The 12-inch sides of the frame are made up of two 1 ¼ -inch slats spaced ¼-inch apart. If all else fails, use a large rectangular, fine mesh footed sieve that is often used to straddle a sink. Line the sieve with a single or double layer of cheese cloth. This will retain the salt but allow drainage. If you make the cloth lining too thick it will not allow proper drainage. See the detailed recipe on page 166 of Portuguese Homestyle Cooking.