An Introduction to Portuguese Cuisine

Welcome to Braising & Bubbles

Welcome to the “Braising & Bubbles” section of PS, Let’s Travel. As always, we’re here to tell our stories, or in this case, our take on the food and wine culture of the places we visit. Our intention with “Braising & Bubbles” (B&B) is to give our readers a look into the overall cuisine of each country, including its origins and history, recipes of traditional dishes, restaurant recommendations – from Michelin stars to hole-in-the-wall sandwich shops – as well as information on wines, sparking wines and champagne.

Most (if not all) things “food” will come straight from the chef’s mouth. But this isn’t another round-up by a self-professed foodie. Patrick has been eating, sleeping and breathing the culinary industry for several years, working from a line cook to sous-chef in some of Denver’s best restaurants, under internationally renowned culinary masters. Our travels are for both business and pleasure, as he is developing menus and staging along the way to learn from the best in the world. Our hope is to, at some point, open our own restaurant when we return to the States.

In terms of wine, that’s a little bit more self-professed. But everything with wine is fairly self-professed, isn’t it? Everyone has a different way of tasting, so we will be offering our assessments, including tasting notes, background on the regions, history and recommended food pairings.

The goal, here, is to bring out the “Thomas Keller” in everyone. To give you a world view of cuisine that breaks the mold of steak and potatoes (no matter how delicious it may sound from time to time), and give you the resources to experiment and expand your everyday dishes using recipes and inspiration from our blog.

An Introduction to Portuguese Cuisine

We’ve been in Lisbon for two weeks now, and we’re consistently surprised at what a delightful melting pot Portugal is, food-wise (pun intended). While Lisbon cuisine may not have the same high profile as that of Paris or Rome, it is, in and of itself, an incredibly vibrant food scene. Influences from Portugal’s earliest discovery voyages are evident, with hints of Asian, African and South American flavors, in addition to the more obvious impacts of the Mediterranean coast, specifically, Spain and France. Overall, we’ve noticed an incredible dichotomy between the fresh and subtle seafood dishes, and hearty, caloric meat-based stews and casseroles. Both are present in “typical” Portuguese restaurants, and nearly all are served with the standard accompaniments of rice, roasted potatoes or salad.

Breads & Cheeses

Sit down at any “typical” Portuguese restaurant and you will immediately be brought an assortment of breads, cheeses and olives. First and foremost, even though you didn’t order it, you will be expected to pay for what ever you eat. Since we typically sit down to eat when we’re starving after a full day of walking (climbing) around Alfama, we almost always indulge, but if you don’t want to partake, simply say não, obrigado/a (no, thank you) and kiss that glorious basket of carbs goodbye.

Bread is truly the basis for meals in Portugal, so there is a huge variety. One of our favorites is Pão com Chouriço (bread with chorizo). This is a dense, rye-like bread with ground chorizo or sausage spread throughout the dough, resulting in a delicious, savory start to the day, or an appetizer before lunch or dinner. Another one of our favorites is the Portuguese take on a traditional Stromboli, with chunks of sausage and ham, peppers, onions and cheese rolled up and baked off, then cut into slices.

“Torrada” bread is a thick toast, typically doused in butter, similar to garlic bread. “Pão de Centeio,” is Portuguese rye bread, made from a specific, compact grain that is then stone-ground into flour for a distinct flavor.

There are also ‘holiday breads’ with sweeter dough, topped with fruit and sugar, then served on a large mold platter. No lack of presentation here, if you can stop yourself long enough to look at what you’re eating before devouring it. Another is “Pão por deus,” which is typically made for All Saints Day as “the bread of God.” It is a sweet dough consisting of cinnamon, fennel, olive oil, rolled walnuts, chopped raisins and wheat flour. This started in the central regions of Portugal in the 15th century, and grew in popularity after the earthquake of 1755, as survivors in Lisbon asked for bread from neighboring towns and villages.

Each region of Portugal is also known for their cheeses, as they all have their own styles for aging and washing, and often their own specific breed of goat or sheep. These cheeses are very fragrant with a medium-sharp to sharp flavor – not recommended for the novice cheese-eater. Most cheeses have a PDO, or protected destination of origin, meaning that it is made entirely in that specific area and must meet a set of criteria/characteristics before going to market. AKA, each cheese is created to represent the unique flavors of its hometown, helping those town markets grow.

“Azeitão” cheese is a raw sheep’s milk, semi-solid with creamy taste and texture, made in the southwest region of Portugal. It is unpasteurized, and a true vegetarian cheese as the flower from a local plant in the area acts as the coagulant. It has a strong, buttery, herbaceous flavor with strong hints of salt.

“Cabra Transmontano” is a hard goat cheese from the northern region of Portugal. It uses a specific breed of goat, and is aged for a minimum of 60 days before going to market. Deeee-lish.

Évora Cheese comes from, you guessed it, the city of Évora, which is the capital of Portugal’s south-central Alentejo region, somewhat close to Lisbon. It has a creamy yet salty taste, and is perfect on a piece of bread.

Nisa Cheese, made in the central region of Portugal, is another vegetarian cheese made from high-quality bred sheep, and is produced from vegetable rennet. It has a very strong, earthy taste with hints of citrus throughout.

Pastries

pastel-de-nata

Well, guys, France isn’t the only one that knows how to make a mean pastry. Pastries are a staple in Portuguese culture, too. Pastries here originated in churches and monasteries because those were the only institutions rich enough to import sugar, flour and eggs. Ranging from sweet to savory, with any type of filling you can imagine, most of the centuries-old recipes are dubbed as ‘secret’ (ish).

The Pastel de Nata is the superstar of Portugal’s pastry world. Pastéis de Belém is the birthplace of these famous custard tarts (we talk more about Belém and our pastry escapades in this blog post), and it’s said that only four people (from one owner to the next, passed through four generations) have seen the actual recipe. They make the custard and pastry from behind closed doors, then the rest of the team comes in to help produce them, molding the pastry into perfect little cups to hold the custard. The process of handcrafting pasteles de nata is known as “fabrico proprio.” We strongly recommend trying to get one fresh out of the oven, and sprinkling a little powdered sugar and cinnamon on top.

While the custard is fairly sweet, it’s not always eaten as a dessert. According to Sarah, the coffee queen (addict), they are the perfect breakfast accompaniment to Portugal’s famously strong bitter coffee, or expresso. 

“Pasteles de Carne” are beef-stuffed pastries, baked to flaky perfection, making them perfect as an afternoon snack or appetizer. They can be stuffed with ham and cheese as well, which reminded us of a MUCH BETTER version of hot pockets. You can take the kids out of America…

“Pasteis de Chouriço” are basically the same thing, typically stuffed with traditional Portuguese sausage from wild boar, veal or chicken sausage. This little treat comes in square puffs (again, Hot Pocket-style) or in a circular shape, resembling a mini-tart. As a side note, we’ve had quiche a few times here that has been prepared the same way, and it’s a style I’ll mimic forever.

Petiscos, the Portuguese Tapas

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Being that Portugal shares a border with Spain, there is a strong Tapas tradition throughout the country. Petiscos, like tapas, are traditionally small plates prepared in a way that concentrates quality over quantity. Portuguese Pesticos (pet-ish-kus) are an integral part of Portuguese gastronomy. Culturally, they’re a perfect representation of Portuguese food – it’s a social experience, meant to have while sipping wine and lingering over a leisurely meal with friends.

Local takes on bruschetta, or “Pinchos” will always leave you wanting just one more and trying to convince everyone else at the table that they do, too.

Other examples of petiscos include Portuguese snails (petisqueiras), Pipis (chicken giblets in a tomato, garlic and onion sauce), peixnhos da horta (deep-fried green beans), deep-fried codfish, sardines, cheeses and sausages, and more.

We would be amiss if we didn’t mention the Portuguese-style croquettes (also obsessed over in a previous blog post). They have their own, wonderful recipe that we’ll share with you in a future post (we know a guy), but they do not use any potato, which is the traditional technique. We found a croqueteria (croquette stand/food stall) at the TimeOut Market Lisboa and tried them all – from game sausage with rapini to goat cheese and traditional beef or chicken. Incredible. They are delicate and full of flavor; lightly breaded with breadcrumbs and egg wash.

I can’t say it enough: simple and elegant. That is Portuguese cuisine.

Salads are simple, often served with sides of olive oil, vinegars and aioli to dress them. Light fish soups and hearty potato soups served with bits of smoked pork with bread for dipping are also served as starters at some restaurants, mains in others.

The dichotomy: light, simple seafood & hearty, caloric stews

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With its extensive Atlantic coastline, Portugal is privy to myriad fresh seafood options – cod, grouper, halibut, clams, scallops, tiger prawns, octopus, cuttlefish – basically, if it swims, it’s served.

At most ‘typical’ Portuguese restaurants, the seafood dishes are very straightforward with subtle flavor. The fish or shellfish is cooked perfectly and served with greens and a couple of roasted potatoes, all drizzled in garlic and olive oil. Light flavors and minimal ingredients that serve only to highlight the freshness of the product. That being said, we’ve also seen some seafood dishes with steamed fish in a bowl of delicious béchamel (made with fish stock and white wine) bringing out even more flavors of the fish. It’s all about balance of flavor, making sure to add the richness of the oils to the acidity of either the vinegar that has been added to the veggies, or sautéed peppers and pickled onion on top of the fish, or even a suggestion from the server to drizzle the lemon on your plate over everything.

Simple flavors not only bring out the product, but also tells the story of how these people ate for centuries. Bones still in every other bite of fish, minimal spices, just twisting and turning flavors to satisfy the basic qualities of a good dish: fats, acids and salt. It’s been a great reminder for a fine dining chef that simple food can be wonderful, too.

Not to worry for all you carnivores out there. Portugal has a very hearty, meaty side to its cuisine. “Caldo Verde” is a traditional stew / soup consisting of potatoes, onion and kale, served with smoked pork and bread for dipping.

They have their own version of Fisherman’s Stew, or “Bouillabaisse,” as our French friends call it, with fennel, plantains, roasted potatoes and chunks of their fresh catch of the day in “vinho tinto,” or red wine broth.

Portugal has also been practicing the nose-to-tail technique for centuries (sorry Portland and Denver, Portugal is ‘trendier’ than you). One of the famous nose-to-tail stews is called “Cozido à Portuguesa,” consisting of chicken, pork and beef, using various parts of the whole animal including blood sausage, pig and chicken feet, tongue… you get the point. Did we lose some of you there? It usually incorporates some vegetables, beans or potatoes, but it is a truly carnivorous endeavor. Not for the picky eater, and vegetarians might as well not even enter the building.

Slow-roasted suckling pigs are also a huge part of Portugal’s ‘mighty and meaty’ meals, along with lamb shank, roasted wild boar ribs, and hearty cuts of goat and beef. All served with wonderfully rich sauces.

As you can see, its long history of discovery, tradition, imports and in some cases, tragedy, has shaped Portugal into the culinary hub it is today. A lot of the heartier meals remind me of my mother’s cooking that she’d make for me and my three brothers, serving up generous amounts of meats and starches around the table every night. I see the same thing in the windows when I pass through Alfama around dinner time. The lighter seafood dishes bring back memories of living near the ocean as a child, and taking trips to the Bahamas where we’d eat what ever we caught that day, alongside light accompaniments to showcase the specialty that is, fresh fish.

Families spending time together over a meal is one of the reasons I became a chef. I enjoy being the person who brings that to people, and Portugal has helped me remember that. Getting back to the simple ingredients and bringing out the true flavors – that’s what the best food is all about.

Look out for the run-down on some of our favorite restaurants in Lisbon on the blog soon!

Cheers,

– PS

6 thoughts on “An Introduction to Portuguese Cuisine

  1. Julee Jackson says:

    Very well done Patrick!! I want to go there and try everything BUT the tail to mouth stew. Yes, you did loose me there, but the rest made my mouth water!

    Like

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