I have long been a fan of Portugal and its bounty of seafood, its spectacular cheeses and olives, its nuts, fruits and vegetables, and its rustic breads. The food may be peasant in origin, born out of its citizens’ poverty, but there’s no denying the ingenious ways in which its cooks use the simplest ingredients to create the most memorable meals. Think of steamed clams mixed with bits of pork and garlic. Or a bowl of bread-thickened soup with large chunks of lobster swirled in like surprises. The array of desserts made with little more than egg yolks and sugar staggers the mind and overwhelms the taste buds.
So I was eagerly looking forward to the publication of David Leite’s “The New Portuguese Table” (Clarkson Potter, $32.50) to find out if he captured the spirit of this remarkable cuisine with the same exhaustive intensity as Anya Von Bremzen’s “The New Spanish Table” of a few years back. Leite’s book is a little slimmer than Von Bremzen’s and a little more photo heavy. But the recipes tested largely succeed, making it a worthy companion.
Leite, creator of the foodie site www.LeitesCulinaria.com, was a good one to tackle the job as he is of Portuguese descent, though that’s something he freely admits he disavowed in his youth. “Let me set the record straight,” he says at the beginning of the book, “for the first 32 years of my life, I wanted nothing to do with Portugal, its food or its culture. For anyone else, that wouldn’t have been a problem, considering that during the 1960s and 1970s Portugal wasn’t exactly on most people’s radar. But coming from a Portuguese family, I was hard-pressed to ignore my heritage.”
He overcame that feeling in time and has rendered a rich array of recipes that will delight and intrigue. To explore the book, I got together with the friends I’d last traveled to Portugal with, and we made more than a half-dozen recipes, ranging from a Green Olive Dip laden with anchovies and cilantro to Pork Tenderloin in a Port-Prune Sauce (see recipe below). Other dishes on the menu included Grilled Shrimp With Piri-Piri Sauce (see recipe below), Spinach With Toasted Bread Crumbs, Sweet-Sour Carrots, Sweet Lemon and Black Olive Wafers, and Baked Custard Tarts.
All but one of the recipes was a keeper (more on the exception later), and most were easy to make. The shrimp skewers gained immeasurably from grilled lemon wedges as well as the spicy sauce in which the shrimp were marinated. The soft spinach gained contrasting textures and greater depth of flavor from toasted breadcrumbs and garlic. The lemon and olive wafers were a winning – and yes, odd – combination of sweet and savory ingredients that worked better than I can begin to describe.
After the end of the meal, I wanted to dive deeper into the book to try Seared Skate in Garlic-Pepper Oil, maybe, or the Green Soup made with kale or collards and, of course, more garlic. There are plenty of traditional favorites, such as clams in the flying saucer-shaped cataplana and several suggestions on what to do with bacalhau (salt cod). The hot sauce, piri-piri, is used liberally, and everything seems to be sprinkled with cilantro, just as the Portuguese do.
But there are a few revisions that don’t work as well as the originals – and require more, unnecessary work. The beauty of Cilantro Bread Soup With Poached Eggs is its ease of preparation, the way in which you can make a nourishing soup with boiling water and a paste made of garlic and salt plus the addition of cilantro, stale bread and a poached egg. Adding chicken stock, or even vegetable stock, dresses it up into something it’s not and makes the flavors a little less pristine.
Even worse is Leite’s fussy version of Baked Custard Tarts, or Pastéis de Nata, which betrays a bit of Portuguese culinary history. You see, when the Portuguese explorers sailed to Asia by way of Africa, they didn’t bring back such New World foods as vanilla or chocolate; and neither figure much into traditional Portuguese desserts. Leite’s version includes vanilla and lemon zest, both of which distract from the heavenly simplicity of a dessert that is little more than egg yolks, sugar and cream baked in puff pastry. (I have to admit his version is not bad. I ate four, but I ate those four remembering how much better other recipes have been.)
If those two had been the only recipes I tried, I would have had my reservations about “The New Portuguese Table.” But on the basis of every other recipe tried, this is a cookbook worth returning to time and time again.
Pork Tenderloin in a Port-Prune Sauce
Taste the sauce once it has been processed, once again after adding the salt and pepper, and finally upon completion. You’ll be surprised at how it changes each time.
2/3 cup pitted prunes
1 cup ruby port
1/2 cup beef stock
1-inch thumb of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon honey
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 (1-pound) pork tenderloins, fat and silver skin removed
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
Place the prunes into a small saucepan, add the port, beef stock, ginger and honey, and bring just to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat and let steep for 20 minutes.
Pour the prunes and liquid into a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Season both tenderloins well with salt and pepper and sear one at a time, turning occasionally, until brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a baking sheet and set the skillet aside.
Roast the pork until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat registers just under 150 degrees, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer the tenderloins to a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest for 5 minutes.
Pour off all but a thin film of fat from the skillet. Lower the heat to medium, toss in the garlic, and cook until lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Add the port-prune sauce and stir to pick up the browned bits stuck to the skillet. Pour in the vinegar, and any accumulated juices from the pork, and cook to meld the flavors, 2 to 3 minutes. If the sauce seems thick, add more beef stock. For an elegant take, strain the sauce through a sieve.
Cut the tenderloins on the diagonal into 1/2-inch slices. Divide the slices among six plates, drizzle with the warm sauce and sprinkle with cilantro.
Makes 6 servings.
From “The New Portuguese Table” by David Leite
Grilled Shrimp With Piri-Piri Sauce
2 1/2 pounds extra-large shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 cup piri-piri sauce (see recipe below), plus more for serving
2 lemons cut into wedges
Kosher salt, to taste
Combine the shrimp and piri-piri sauce in a large resealable freezer bag and toss to coat. Place the bag in a shallow dish and marinate in the refrigerator, turning a few times, for at least several hours, or, preferably, overnight.
Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium.
Thread the shrimp and lemon wedges on skewers and season with salt. Grill the shrimp over indirect heat, turning several times, until just opaque, 5 to 6 minutes. For an extra spike of flavor, brush the skewers with fresh piri-piri sauce just before serving.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
From “The New Portuguese Table” by David Leite.
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
6 to 8 fresh red chile peppers, such as cayenne, Tabasco, or pequin, to taste, stemmed
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of kosher salt
Mix the garlic and vinegar in a small bowl and let steep for 20 minutes. Drop the peppers (including their seeds) and the garlic mixture into a food processor and pulse to chop. While the motor is running, pour in the oil, sprinkle with salt, and whir until smooth.
Pour the sauce into a small glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and let steep in the refrigerator for at least several days, preferably 1 week. Strain the mixture, if you wish. The sauce will keep for about 1 month in the refrigerator. Shake well before using.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups.
From “The New Portuguese Table” by David Leite