Portuguese cooking does not require exotic ingredients. Nearly everything you need to prepare a flavorful Portuguese meal can be found in your supermarket. Leafy greens, root vegetables, olive oil, and spices are simple enough to obtain and prepare. Fresh meats, fish and shellfish are most often readily available.
Remember, the freshness of the ingredients is reflected in the taste of the dish. When following the recipes, I suggest substituting only as suggested for truly authentic Portuguese cooking.
Be sure to rinse vegetables and herbs well in cold running water, removing particles of soil and any tiny insects. Trim the bruises, potato eyes, garlic germ sprouts, celery threads, and discolored, mottled leaves of greens. Rinse well and blot dry. When using dried legumes, rinse well of any dirt and remove any shriveled-up beans or ones that float. Then place in a bowl with plenty of fresh water to cover and soak overnight.
Here is a look at some ingredients and spices:
Allspice: When Portuguese cooks I know mention Jamaica, it signifies one true allspice known as Jamaican allspice. Jamaican allspices are berries that resemble peppercorns. The allspice name comes from the flavor and scent that is like more than one spice, a combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Allspice berries are used to flavor meat dishes and sausages. Best to use whole or grind them yourself ensuring it is truly allspice.
”Ground allspice” can simply be a blend of spices unless identified as ground Jamaican allspice, and that is the case with “Temperos Portuguesa” (Portuguese Allspice seasoning). It does not come from the allspice berry. Depending on what is being cooked up, instead of individual spices, cooks might use this blend of typical spices and seasonings used in Portuguese cooking. Unless otherwise stated on the label, when you purchase ground allspice from the supermarket, you most often are getting a blend of different spices.
Try to make your own blend and store it in an air -tight container. You can blend the following dried spices until you get your desired result, but for safe keeping purposes, especially use only dried garlic in granulated or powdered form. Moisture from fresh garlic, when exposed to dried spices, can cause bacteria and mold to grow. Add to that any of the following dried ingredients:
- whole allspice berries
- crushed bay leaf
- crushed dried chili pepper
- grated fresh orange or lemon peel
For myself, I follow what my father taught me. I not only use Jamaican allspice berries but depending on the dish, I may mix my own “temperos” in small quantities and not too far ahead so that they are fresher when used. I mix mine during the prepping of ingredients because I may vary the spices and amounts from one time to the next. Since I am using it right away, I use fresh garlic.
Even while there is a place for ground spices, spices like allspice berries, anise seed, cumin seeds, peppercorn berries, are preferably bought whole and crushed or ground at home, as needed. Like saffron threads, you can pan roast these spices using a dry skillet for a few minutes and then crush or grind them. Typically used for seasoning meats and poultry, mixing the spices with a drizzle of olive oil to form a paste goes a long way in flavoring the meat, poultry, and fish. Once this is rubbed on, you can also add wine (red or white depending on the meat and preference) and a touch of vinegar or just all vinegar to cover and marinate for several hours or overnight and then cook as you desire.
While spices can add wonderful flavor to a dish, too much or the wrong spice can ruin a dish. Portuguese food is simple. We do not use a crazy amount of spices and herbs to enhance our recipes. It is better to use a little less than to be overpowered by too much.
Bay Leaves (loureiro): Laurel is an aromatic herb used to flavor soups, stews, and braises. Whole leaves should be removed and discarded before serving a dish.
Breads: To begin, it would be an understatement to say that bread is integral to the Portuguese meal. You will see many recipes in Portuguese Homestyle Cooking and in Authentic Portuguese cooking for the traditional home breads. Corn breads made with white or yellow corn meal, flatbreads, crusty rolls, home wheat breads and more.
Cheeses: Portugal is a land of many cheese. Your choices depend on the area where you find the cheese and whether the cheese is made from cow, sheep, or goat milk.
- Fresh Cheese, (requeijão/queijo fresco) (recipe in Portuguese Homestyle Cooking) has a delicate texture and is made with sheep and/or cow’s milk. It is used to make sweet cheese tartlets.
- In Authentic Portuguese Cooking, I have given a recipe for freshCream Cheese.
- We also have the tangy spiced flavor of the semi-hard cheese from the island of St. Jorge – Azores, Queijo da São Jorge. It can be sliced to serve with fruit or bread or simply grated and incorporated into savory dishes like rice or to top dishes like Chicken Sao Jorge.
- Then there is theCheese of St. Michael (queijo da São Miquel). This is a specialty cheese from the island of St. Michael in the Azores. This cow’s cheese has a semi-soft texture and a mild flavor.
- The island of Faial has a wonderful cheese as well: Queijo da Ilha Azulejo (Blue Island Cheese). Its pale yellow, semi-soft texture has a mild, smooth flavor.
- From the mainland’s mountain plateaus comes the Cheese from the Mountain Ridge(queijo da serra) – Wrapped in linen cloth, this cheese is intensely flavored, creamy textured, and requires a spoon for eating. As it ages, the texture becomes firmer. It is sold in whole wheels only and is a little pricey. The price relegates it to special occasions. Even so, it is the most popular sheep’s milk cheese.
- If you visit Portugal’s mainland, search out theGoat Cheese of Palhais (queijo de cabra – Palhais ). It is hard to find outside the country. This excellent and slightly salty artisan goat cheese is from the town of Palhais. The semi-soft texture gives way to a smooth mouth feel and a slightly tangy flavor.
- Also from the mainland is the artisan cheese, Azeitão, from the town of the same name.
Chilies (Malagueta, piri-piri): What’s in the name? Malagueta means chili. Moida means crushed. Massa can be paste but you will see the word massa denote dough. Molho means sauce which can refer to Tabasco or gravy from a braise or pan sauce or just chili-infused oil from jars of tiny chili peppers packed in olive oil. Don’t worry if it seems confusing. Just take your pick. For most recipes, you can interchange. Simply think about whether you want the chili seeds in the dish or not. But a word of caution when handling any chili peppers: if available, use food service gloves and never touch your eyes. The quickest way to quell the burning tongue or eyes is to apply milk. The following is a breakdown of what can be pretty much interchanged in recipes, adjusting to taste and what you have on hand:
- When you hear piri-piri, it usually refers to these tiny chili “birds eye” size peppers (also called Chiltepins) brought over from the new world and transplanted in former Portuguese colonies Mozambique and Angola. Though just 1/2 to 1 inch in length, these chilies pack tremendous heat. When they dry, their round shape becomes slightly oval. Some might refer to them as “pimentos Africanos”. They pack the equivalent Scoville ranking as the tiny pointed Thai chili peppers: 50,000-100,000. The seeds for planting chilies are available in seed catalogs. Ghost chilies which are even hotter, which I do not recommend unless you have an extremely high tolerance for the burn.
- Malagueta Moida (Crushed dried chili pepper flakes)
- Molho Malagueta Moida (Chopped/crushed/chili sauce): The first is a conserve of crushed or coarsely chopped de-stemmed chili peppers, with seeds and pepper juice, but not as thick as Massa de Pimentão (salt brined sweet red pepper paste). It could be referred to the thinner molho if it has more pepper juice. Some markets carry a similar product under various brands. (See recipe in Portuguese Homestyle Cooking.)
- Molho de piri-piri (Basic Chili Oil): -a basic form of chili sauce preparation using olive oil and whole chiltepins or Malagueta chilies of Brazil and salt. The tiny chilies are usually held back while the infused olive oil is used, enabling cooks to simply brush on meats before or after grilling or add a splash to soups and stews.
- Molho Picante (Spicy Sauce): This hot sauce is similar to that of the American Tabasco sauce. It is made of stemmed and seeded, ground chili peppers, water, salt, and vinegar or lemon. It is similar to Massa Malagueta but much thinner and without seeds.
Cinnamon Sticks and ground cinnamon
Cornmeal: Yellow cornmeal is the traditional ingredient in the broa of the mainland of Portugal. However, I use the finer yellow semolina style and white cornmeal not only in bread and cookies but for fried polenta with kale.
Eggs: Poached and served in bread soups, simmered in a tomato base, or fried over easy then topping a steak, eggs are most notable in our desserts and incorporated in sweet bread. Large size eggs are used in the recipes of both my books unless otherwise stated.
Fats: Portuguese cooking, like most European traditions, uses fats that are readily available or easy to create, such as salted pork fat, bacon fat, lard, olive oil, and butter. Each fat plays a role in this style of cooking. Fat substitutions can be made, but there is a loss of traditional flavor. Today, even some older cooks reluctantly are changing their ways when it comes to using fat. I suggest using the healthier olive oil is the best substitute for lard and bacon.
Fresh fennel/anise (funcho): Licorice flavor with feathery leaves is intrinsic to the Azorean Sopa de Funcho (recipe in Portuguese Homestyle Cooking). Fennel leaves can be used for their distinctive licorice flavor and even the bulb can be chopped up and added to the soup. Some have substituted dill for a slightly different flavor.
Flavorings: If you have oranges, lemons, and limes, you’re all set. Citrus peels are the traditional method of flavoring baked goods, puddings, even the Alentjo’s farnheira sausage. Grated or left whole, it is the peel of the citrus that is used. Alternatively, with high prices of citrus these days, lemon and orange extracts can be substituted. If you use the peel, juice the fruit after peeling and freeze for future needs. Once peeled, the whole fruit will become quite firm and difficult to juice. Used to a lesser degree in flavoring traditional recipes, vanilla can be substituted.
Garlic: Lots of it, but not the mild elephant garlic variety.
Herbs: Most commonly used herbs are aromatic:
- bay leaf
- fresh flat-leaf parsley
- fresh cilantro
- fresh garlic (tons)
- sweet basil
- wild marjoram
Rinse parsley and cilantro. pat dry and chop. Roll up tightly in plastic wrap then freeze for the winter months if fresh is hard to get. To use, unwrap one end and shave off the amount you need. It is better than flavorless dried. Like chilies, if too much garlic is added, it will drown out the other flavors of a dish. Always taste as you cook.
Jams and Preserves: Every fall jams and preserves are made from not only figs but spaghetti squash and tomatoes. Yes, tomatoes. Cooked up with cinnamon, grated citrus peel and sugar. These jams are perfect for toast, pastry and cake fillings
Leafy Greens: Some say the traditional Portuguese meal rarely had vegetables, especially green ones. I beg to differ because, in addition to the potatoes, carrots, broccoli, green beans and rice that accompany many meals, many vegetables are found in soups. Fresh leafy greens are typically found in soups. Cabbage, collard greens, varieties of kale, beet greens, turnip greens, wild fennel, watercress and so on are frequently used in Portuguese cooking. If they are not in a soup, sometimes these green beauties are served simply sautéed with garlic and olive oil, occasionally with onions, almonds and pine nuts. Most often a splash of vinegar and extra seasoning are included. Garden cabbage is typical for soups and boiled dinners while savoy cabbage can be used like spinach. In the United States, unless you grow your own Portuguese Galega kale or tall white stalk Portuguese kale, your alternative is collard greens for the traditional Caldo Verde (Green Broth Soup). Collard greens are similar in taste. However, if you are sautéing spinach, you can substitute beet greens, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens and vice versa. Greens are perishable items that, for the best results, should be used within a day or two of harvest or purchase.
Legumes: The are well-favored in Portuguese cooking, not only in soups and stews but in salads as well.
Our use of dried beans (feijão seco) gives credence to the saying “Portuguese cooking is full of beans.” Cranberry, black-eyed peas, roma, fava, butter, kidney, and chickpeas (garbanzo) are used interchangeably in soups and stews. Very vegetarian-friendly, dried beans are high in fiber, protein, and carbohydrates. They are best for flavor, but in a pinch, good quality, canned beans, like Progresso or Goya brands are acceptable substitutes but watch out for higher sodium amounts. After discarding small stones, shriveled up and deformed beans, the legumes need to be rehydrated before using. Simply rinse and place in a large bowl with plenty of water to cover and let stand overnight. Next day, rinse and use as the recipe dictates. Once drained and rinsed, the rehydrated legumes are cooked in unsalted water for 45 to 60 minute until tender.
1-1/4 cups dried beans = about 1/2 pound dried beans
1/2 pound dried beans = about 2 1/2 cups cooked beans
A 1 pound, 3 ounce can of beans equals approximately 1 cup raw dried beans before soaking, or 2 cups of cooked beans. However, can weights and sodium amounts vary from brand to brand so check your labels. Be careful with Fava beans if you have a G6PD deficiency, also known as Favism. Find out more here.
Nuts: Almonds, pine nuts, chestnuts, and walnuts are the most common ones used, from baking to savory dishes and just plain eating out of hand.
Olives: Olive groves dot the mainland landscape, especially in the Alentejo. Although different types of olives can be found, you will find the black arbequina olives garnishing a salt cod dish on many a table. Growing up, we always had a small dish of olives set on the table before a meal and you will find them set on the table in Portuguese restaurants. The green manzanilla or the calamata variety are also enjoyed.
Olive oil- extra virgin and regular
Onions: All-purpose yellow and Spanish onions are commonly used. Onions are highly cherished in our pantry. The onion is the main ingredient of our refogado, an aromatic base of many stews and soups. We would be lost without our onions.
Paprika: Made from mild sweet red peppers to the hot red chilies- even smoked paprika- more for flavoring a dish than garnishing.
Potatoes: The potato, like onions, garlic and tomatoes, is another vegetable the Portuguese haven’t any question about. Potatoes are very versatile and are loaded with potassium. Rather than mashing them. Portuguese are fond of roasting potatoes with various oils and sauces or braising them in white wine.
The types of potatoes that I refer to most often in my books are the Yukon Gold, Red Bliss, Idaho russets and sweet potatoes. The Yukons have that yellow flesh with a buttery flavor, similar to what I enjoyed in Portugal. Fingerling potatoes also work well. The red bliss and new potatoes are perfect for roasting and for when we want the potato to hold its shape in stew, soups and so on. The russets are perfect for fried potato rounds and the sweet potato is used for soups, stews, breads and even sweets.
Presunto is a lean, spice and salt-cured ham. The Italian Prosciutto di Parma makes a great substitute.
Refogado: As I explained in Portuguese Homestyle Cooking, the definition, untranslatable in a single word, means the base method for so many dishes, especially stews and braises. It is the method of heating a fat, such as olive oil or rendered salt pork, and sautéing onions until they become soft and translucent. This step is often taken further by caramelizing the onions or adding other ingredients to the onions like chopped tomatoes, garlic, parsley or cilantro, and bay leaf, depending on what the cook is preparing. You will recognize the process of sautéing onions in olive oil at the start of many recipes.
Rice: Short grain most popular for soups and puddings. Long grain rice is perfect for rice dishes like Tomato Rice, Seafood Rice, Curried Shrimp, or Vegetable Rice.
Safflower (Assafroa): Loosely called the “poor man’s saffron, safflower comes from a plant that looks like a thistle and is more often seen in Azorean cooking and growing in backyard gardens of Azoreans. You can also purchase the ground Portuguese imitation saffron which is a blend with turmeric and annatto and is called assafrao. In my books, I have often suggested using true saffron in its place to keep true to the traditional recipe.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you or someone for whom you are cooking is allergic to ragweed, consider using saffron instead of safflower. You can have an allergic reaction!
Saffron (assafrao): True saffron comes from the red stigmas of crocus plant, crocus sativus. Certain cultivars have a higher premium quality than others. Deepest color red and more aromatic than those cultivars that have some yellow in the threads, high quality draws higher prices.
Salt: Salt is available in so many variations. Table salt, kosher, coarse, pickling, and sea salt as well as gray, pink and red salts, and more. For baking bread, use table salt or the same grind in sea salt. For all the savory recipes in this book, I suggest coarse sea salt or the less expensive, additive-free coarse kosher salt because it brings out a cleaner taste in food.
In the measure of salt, you may think my measurement of 1 tablespoon is a lot but bear in mind that the measurement depends on the size of the grind. The quantity of 1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt vs. 1 teaspoon of coarse kosher salt vs. 1 teaspoon of table salt will have a different degree of sodium and saltiness. Also, not all kosher coarse salts are the same in measure. I have found that in brining my turkeys, due to variations in the size of the grind from one brand to another, I required ½ cup less salt of one brand than I did of the other for the exact same brining method. Be aware there is also pickling salt, which is very fine and is saltier per teaspoon when compared to table salt. Pickling salt, kosher or not, should be reserved for pickling. Keep in mind if a recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of coarse salt, it is equal to about 1 ½ teaspoons of table salt. In the end, find the salt you like the best and adjust the measurement to your taste.
Portuguese rock salt was also mentioned to me but when it comes to rock salt, I think one needs to be careful as to where it is mined. Perhaps the rock salt of the conversation was just a coarser form of sea salt. Before embarking on the use of rock salt, research it and find an edible one since many are not and contain unsafe ingredients.
All salts, whether they are table salt, coarse or sea salt, are not created equal and have different levels of sodium. As stated above, some have additives. One wouldn’t think to have to check sodium levels in salt. Salt is salt, right? Yes and no; just as you check sodium levels in other products you should also do so for salt. Keep in mind as well that it is the amount of sodium in a measure of salt and not the measure of salt that should be considered except for taste. So if you a need to watch out for sodium in your diet, check the nutritional panel for sodium levels per ¼ teaspoon from one brand of salt to another. For the best flavor use sea salt whenever possible. It is available in coarse and fine grind. No matter which salt one uses, some cooks and chefs have a heavy hand with salt that give Portuguese cuisine a salty review, while others have a light hand. In the end, it is the hand that salts the food and not the cuisine that is salty so which ever salt you use, salt in small increments until you reach your desired taste.
Salted Codfish (Bacalhau): Once considered the fish of the poor, it is the most prized fish in Portugal, right beside the sardines.
Codfish has been preserved by salting and air-drying for hundreds of years. The fish needs reconstituting by rinsing then soaking in several changes of fresh water, about 7 changes, over the course of 24-36 hours; sometimes longer depending on how salty the fish is, the thickness of the pieces and what degree of saltiness you like. The thin tail pieces are best reserved for codfish cakes and the thicker part of the fish is best for cutting into portions for frying, baking, grilling and the boiled dinner (in which you want the integrity of the portion intact). The fish is available boneless and with skin and bones, which is said to carry more flavor. The non-dried salted cod has been gaining popularity of late. There is no need for reconstitution, but the fish still needs some pre-soaking after the salty brine. As a result, it has a more buttery, subtle flavor.
Seafood: Amêijoas are tiny sweet cockles that are traditionally served in the Pork with Clams, Alentejo Style dish but the smallest little necks or mahogany clams will work well in their place. Mussels, shrimp, lapas, are just a few examples of shellfish enjoyed as well as mackerel, sardines,red fish, seabass, salted codfish and much more.
Spices: When Portuguese explorers took to the sea centuries ago, they had no idea of what lay ahead. The discovery of a sea route, alternative to the overland spice trade routes which were marked by the danger of thieves and high duty tariffs at foreign borders, turned out to be more than the country had hoped for. Portugal became the magnetic market place for spices. Expensive spices, at one time, were used only by the wealthy. Today, the widest range of spices ever is available in the global market. Cinnamon, cumin, curry, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, Jamaican allspice, saffron, safflower and sea salt have become traditional characteristics of Portuguese cooking.
Sweet Pepper Paste (Massa de Pimentão): This is a thick seasoning conserve of seeded, salt brined red sweet peppers. It packs flavor without heat. Used especially in the Alentejo Region of the mainland and less in the Azores, this simple-to-make recipe can be found in Portuguese Homestyle Cooking and Portuguese markets and online sources listed at the back of the book. Those found in markets vary in taste to a certain degree and some have additional ingredients. Look for one that has only salt and sweet red peppers listed as ingredients. A tablespoon added to a seasoning paste, stew, or braise adds another dimension to the flavors. Since it is a salty preparation, hold back seasoning with additional salt until after tasting at the end of cooking. It may not be necessary.
Tomatoes: There is always a tomato or two lingering in my pantry. The most frequent use of tomatoes in traditional Portuguese cooking has been in the making of the refogado base. Gaspacho, from my family’s Alentejo home town of Galveias, was originally made without tomatoes. Salads didn’t include them unless they were fresh from the vine, in the fall. The use of tomato paste, eventually even ketchup, became a popular substitute for the fresh tomato. But the most popular meaty tomato grown in a Portuguese garden is the heirloom variety Heart of an Ox. Tomatoes are not used as the Italians use them for a pasta sauce. Instead, we peel and seed a tomato, chop it and add it to a stew or braise, in a soup, or a colorful addition to any dish. Even a jam!
Vegetables: A wider range than ever are influencing the Portuguese menu and not just in the soups.
Vinegar: Beyond spritzing on salads or sautéed greens, white wine and red wine vinegars are used to accent wine and garlic marinades. Since WWII, apple cider vinegar become popular as well.
Wine: Portugal’s wine industry is producing their best wines yet. It is hard to keep up with the latest varietals. Wonderful and constant vinho verdes (green wines) are full and medium-bodied reds. Beyond drinking wine with our meals, wine is used to flavor braises, stews, and vinaigrettes but most notably dishes in our marinade, vinho d’alhos.
Wine and Garlic Marinade (Vinho d’alhos): Is a wine and garlic marinade that is customarily used to flavor meats and seafood. The principal marinating medium can be a mix of wine and vinegar (apple cider vinegar or wine vinegar), just vinegar or just wine (sometimes cut with water).
Every cook has his or her special seasoning using any number and amounts of spices in your pantry. A unique flavor is infused into the meats, poultry and also fish. Marinating times can vary to personal preference. It can be as little as ½ hour for fish, or 5 hours to several days for meats. Some folks, depending on the dish they are preparing discard the marinade at the end of the infusion period then make fresh components to add to the pot along with vegetables while others just cook the meat and added vegetables in the existing marinade.