Today, if you want to start a website called portuguesecooking.com — good luck! Ana Patuleia Ortins has owned it since 1997, just a year before Google was founded. For decades, Ana has been spreading the gospel about Portuguese food. Author of Portuguese Homestyle Cooking, she’s a pioneer in cookbooks written about Portuguese cuisine in America. After the success of her first book, Ana received tons of emails from people hungry for more recipes, inspiring her newly-released Authentic Portuguese Cooking, replete with nearly 200 recipes from mainland Portugal and the islands of Azores and Madeira.
When I married in 2004, and went into a deep withdrawal from my Portuguese mother’s delectable home cooking, I came across Ana’s first book at my Barnes & Noble. It was the only Portuguese cookbook on the shelves back then. I devoured the book, making homemade sweet red pepper paste (massa de pimentão), savory bread porridge (açorda), pork and clams (carne de porco e ameijoas) from the Alentejo, where Ana has family roots in Portugal — all with success. Over the years, I grew into a pretty good cook, and in part I have Ana’s detailed recipes to thank for the confidence I gained. Having her book in the kitchen was like having a Portuguese aunt by my side, holding my hand with step-by-step insights and instructions — but in English! Though I have several new English-written Portuguese cookbooks in my cupboard these days, Ana’s remains one of my go-to books for traditional recipes sprinkled with a sense of warmth and nurture — it’s a friendly choice for anyone interested in dabbling in Portuguese cooking, but especially for newbies in the kitchen. I bought it for all of my family and friends moving out and saying goodbye to their mother’s perfect Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, and they all loved it, too.
When I recently called Ana at her Massachusetts home about her new book, we talked for hours just as I do with my Portuguese aunts. She is as I had imagined her, an open-hearted nurturer — what a treat to speak to the woman behind the book. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Ana!
In the introduction to your new book, you profess a desire to erase the opinion that all Portuguese food is salty. Share a bit more…
Portuguese food is not any saltier than other cuisines. The hand that salts the food determines its saltiness. Properly soaked, our salted cod (bacalhau) is not salty. When used judiciously, red sweet pepper paste (massa de pimentão, a salt-cured seasoning) doesn’t render a dish salty. In fact, salt is rarely necessary when using this paste in the preparation. The recipes in my books call for coarse kosher salt or coarse sea salt for the best flavor. But “coarse” is subjective to the size of the grains of salt. One tablespoon of coarse kosher is about 1 ½ teaspoons of table salt, which I like to reserve for baking. In the first book, I wanted to list the salt ingredient as “salt to taste,” but I was asked to provide a measurement instead. Some folks, not understanding the difference in salt grain size, would see a tablespoon measurement and gasp at the amount of salt when it was really half the measure in table salt. I like coarser grains, because they don’t have additives like finer grains, resulting in a cleaner flavor. In the second book, I cut the amount of coarse salt to a minimum but left the words “or to taste.” (photo by oneterry)
Editor’s note: Portugal’s history of hand-harvested sea salt is thousands of years old, and in recent years artisan methods of production have slowly been revived after years of being pushed around by the mechanized salt industry and government laws. The new efforts have resulted in coveted sea salt and top notch fleur de sel (in Portugal: flor de sal). A preference for sea salt in general and the proper use of it by the Portuguese in preparing dishes is one of the reasons why the incredible food you taste in Portugal is challenging to experience again outside the country. Ana is absolutely right when she says that the person salting makes all of the difference!
What was your objective with this new book?
I wanted it to be similar to the first book, but with a deeper and wider scope of recipes that are traditionally popular but not seen as much in restaurants. I’m trying to preserve recipes used every day (by immigrants in the U.S. and in Portugal) to hand them down to future generations. Between the two books, I feel that on a small scale they’re a mini library of Portuguese recipes, they cover a lot of ground. And they’re different from say books by George Mendes, David Leite or Manuel Azevedo, who take the traditional and bring it up to a new level. Mine are more about the traditional nature of the recipes. I try to get as close to traditional as possible without going out to the backyard and killing a pig myself! (photo Terras De Sal)
That’s a good objective, because I’m often disappointed when I don’t find any of the traditional recipes of my childhood at Portuguese-American restaurants. Your new book seems to stem from this desire to revive Portuguese food nostalgia. What was the process of collecting these recipes like?
After the first book, I received many emails from folks around the world searching for a recipe for something their grandmother or mother made, or from travelling to Portugal and enjoying a dish there. You see, not all mothers or grandmothers shared their recipes with their family! So, I dug around for details, picked apart memories and consulted Portuguese immigrant friends to see what they knew of the dish. At times, it was as simple as writing it down and testing. Other times, if I asked “Maria” she might need to ask “Maria” and the other “Maria,” and finally the last “Maria” would pass it back to me to test and pose any questions if needed. I also wanted to include recipes that would show the Mediterranean influence and appeal to universal cooks who are interested in expanding their repertoire. The biggest challenge in acquiring some of these recipes was in finding someone either, who (a) immigrated here and was still alive or living abroad or (b) who was willing to share their family recipe the way it was cooked traditionally.
Though the book is about highlighting traditional recipes, you include your own creations and updates. Why is this important to you?
I tried to update some of the methods without losing the traditional dish. I offer substitutions for our time-pinched lives like, for instance, using filo dough to make Pasteis de Tentugal (a flaky pastry with egg custard filling) or to use good quality canned beans if you forget to soak the dried ones. The shortcuts — some of which I learned in culinary school — are useful because today, even in Portugal, women are working full time, shuttling kids to activities and trying to do it all. And updating cooking techniques improved dishes like duck rice (arroz de pato), which requires a whole duck to boil until everything falls off the bone, and finished in the oven. This can cause the meat to get chewy, so since duck breasts take the least amount of time to cook while the legs take the longest, I updated the first step of cooking the duck. It’s still an authentic dish, just improved. But even in Portugal today, you’ll find plenty of restaurants serving updated versions of their old dishes. Ultimately, Portuguese cooks are creative and we rarely waste anything, including time. However, I do believe that in order to create new Portuguese dishes, you must understand the traditional flavors before going outside of the box.
You say that a key ingredient in cooking is a balance between perfection and patience? Is that what you want to help the reader achieve with your highly detailed recipes?
I was raised on slow food and the detailed descriptions are the teacher in me. I really wanted novice cooks to be able to achieve success without having me by their side. My aim was to avoid vague recipes; I didn’t want to assume that every cook attempting a recipe would know what to do and why. Cooking good food does require patience.
Your book has traditional recipes that nobody really talks about when discussing Portuguese cooking, like the beef dishes. Most people just think of pork. Is this your way to help forge a new conversation about traditional Portuguese food?
I wanted my new book to show that there are other dishes besides pork, sardines and codfish, so I included other dishes like the steaks and stews, the suckling pig, braised goat and lamb, whole baked fish, the stuffed squid and so on. I would like to see American cooks become more familiar about non-Americanized Portuguese fare and stir up conversation about it. I mean, caldo verde soup is more than a bowl of mashed potatoes with broth ladled over it.
There were some wonderful surprises in the book, for instance, meatballs (almôndegas). In Maria de Lourdes Modesto’s Portuguese cookbook, there are references to meatballs including hare meatballs from where my family originates, the Beira Baixa. But bring them up and it’ll feel like you’re asking for the holy grail. Your thoughts?
Some might argue meatballs are Italian not Portuguese, and question if this is rather a Portuguese-American recipe. Not so, but perhaps there is a Roman influence from centuries ago. I enjoyed lamb meatballs in the Alentejo a few years back with a stew of beans. I make it clear that this isn’t a history book, because if it were then it would go on forever with no space for recipes. In history, Portugal has had influences from so many cultures. And today, the country’s cuisine is once again evolving with the impact of globalisation.
As with your first book, you include your email address and encourage readers to send you questions and comments. Why is this exchange important to you?
I include my email because there is always that young cook who has a question and I want them to be able to get an answer from me without going through all the social media hoops. I have had wonderful phone conversations with some, exchanging ideas and memories.
Though I love a delicate pastel de nata (custard egg tarts), I was thrilled to see you delve into other pastries. To end on a sweet note, what’s your favorite in the book?
However, the pastel de nata aside, I love farofias (poached egg white meringues and custard sauce). Once I learned how to make it in Portugal at 13, I made it every week for months to come. I love bolo de bolacha made with coffee and Maria cookies. Molotov meringue pudding and, of course, arroz doce (rice pudding) and sericaia (pudding cake). You said one, right? Sorry, what can I say, I love them all!
If you’re salivating to savor the long list of delicious foods that have inspired Ana’s books, drop us a line! We’d love to craft a customized and mouthwatering tour through Portugal just for you.
Sonia Andresson Nolasco