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Article

Red Pepper Flavors the Foods of Portugal

Fine Cooking Issue 48
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Massa de pimentão—sweet red bell pepper conserve—is a signature seasoning in the cooking of the Alentejo, the southeastern province of Portugal where my father was raised. The salty-sweet paste flavors all sorts of meat and poultry dishes, including the Alentejo’s version of linguiça, Portugal’s best-known sausage. It takes up to five days to cure the peppers for the paste, but the process is extremely simple and mostly hands-off. One batch of paste keeps for months and is enough to flavor several different dishes. The recipe for Roast Pork with Sweet Red Pepper Paste & Roasted Potatoes is one of my favorite ways to use massa de pimentão, and I think it’s a fine example of the bright, gutsy flavors we love in our cuisine.

Hallmark ingredients

Many of the staple ingredients in Portuguese cuisine are a result of foreign cultural influences. The Phoenicians, Turks, and especially the Moors of North Africa contributed wine, garlic, sugar, citrus, and almonds. During the late fifteenth century, Portugal found sea routes to the Orient, the Indies, and the New World, giving new life to the country’s cuisine with new spices and ingredients. In addition to olive oil, parsley, onions, and cilantro, the most dominant and frequently used flavorings in the savory dishes of the Alentejo province are paprika, garlic, bay leaves, and red pepper paste. In other provinces and in the Azores, cumin, nutmeg, curry, chiles, and safflower are used judiciously as well.

Sweet red pepper paste (massa de pimentão) and paprika (colorau)
The simple, old method of preserving fresh red bell peppers by turning them into a salt-cured paste for use during the winter months eventually became the standard way to season and flavor poultry, meats, and pork sausages year-round. Typically, a very small amount of the paste (a tablespoon or less) is combined with little more than crushed garlic and a touch of olive oil before being spread over pork cutlets, roasts, and other meats. Other times, depending on the province and on the cook, it’s fused with more spices and herbs before being rubbed on poultry and meats. The most popular use of the paste is with pork. Because the paste is very salty on its own, the meat needs no additional salt.  

Sweet paprika (coloraudoce) is used more often than hot paprika in Portugal. Orangered Portuguese sweet paprika, made from dried and ground red bell peppers, is widely used to flavor meats, poultry, sausages, and side dishes. In some provinces, paprika is used instead of red pepper paste, while in others it’s used in combination with the paste.  

Though sweet paprika and red pepper paste are both made from red bell peppers, the differing methods of preparation result in unique flavors, the former bearing a toasted edge and the latter a milder sweet and salty taste. If you can’t get Portuguese paprika, substitute the dark red Hungarian Szeged sweet paprika. There isn’t an adequate substitute for the flavor of red pepper paste.

Bay leaves (loureiro)
Native to most southern European countries, bay leaves grow profusely in Portugal. This age-old herb is a mainstay ingredient in soups, stews, seasoning pastes, and more. When using them in a seasoning paste, pulverize them in a spice grinder before putting them in a mortar for additional grinding with the other ingredients. Be sure they’re ground very finely; pieces with jagged edges can be dangerous to eat.

Garlic (alho)
Garlic is the backbone of many Portuguese dishes. Not only is it used in seafood dishes, soups, stews, and braises, but its flavor is clearly evident in the chouriço and linguiça pork sausages made in the Alentejo and other provinces and by immigrants here in the United States. Instead of simple chopping, most Portuguese recipes call for garlic to be crushed in a mortar and pestle, a method that releases more of garlic’s full flavor.

Books and resources

Want to learn more about the cuisine of Portugal? In addition to Ana Ortins’s own book, Portuguese Homestyle Cooking, she recommends The Food of Portugal, by Jean Anderson.

Portuguese paprika can be found in Spanish and Portuguese markets as well as in some supermarkets. FamousFoods.com and Mello’s Specialty Foods offer foods by mail.

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