5@5 - Cornerstones of Portuguese cuisine
August 24th, 2012
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Even though Portugal played a key role in the Age of Discovery, traditional Portuguese cooking remains somewhat of an uncharted territory for the American palate.

George Mendes, the executive chef of Aldea restaurant and a first-generation American born to Portuguese parents, is here to lift the lid on what the western part of the Iberian Peninsula has cooking.

Five Cornerstones of Portuguese Cuisine: George Mendes

1. Shellfish
Clams, mussels and shrimp! Seafood is such an integral part of Portuguese cuisine because of the geography; we're the gateway to the Mediterranean and are known as the Southern Riviera (the country's southernmost region, the Algarve, is known as the Portuguese Riviera).

It all stems back to the Portuguese seafarers of the 15th Century; we're one with the ocean. One of our most popular dishes is Bulhão Pato, a clam dish cooked with lots of garlic and fresh cilantro that is named after the famous poet who invented its preparation.

2. Bacalhau
Also known as salt cod. We are known to have 365 ways of preparing it for each day of the year, though it's almost always cooked with onions, black olives and hard-boiled eggs.

Here's a tip: After buying dried bacalhau, make sure you submerge it in cold water for a minimum of 36 hours, changing the water three times, before using it.

3. Pork
It's most popular served as a cured ham known as presunto (similar to prosciutto), as a stew or as roasted suckling pig. Pork is probably the most important source of meat in my country. One of our favorite dishes is carne de porco à Alentejana, the Portuguese answer to surf 'n' turf from the Alentejo region that combines pork and clams. The story goes that pig farmers had a limited source of feed for their livestock, so they fed them clams instead, which were in abundance. The two foods just came together naturally after that.

4. Rice
Either plain white rice as a side dish to grilled fish or roasted meats, or a more composed dish like an arroz tomate (tomato rice). Tied with potatoes, it is probably the most popular, integral starch in the country.

5. Wine...and plenty of it!
Vinho Verde and various reds from the Douro and Alentejo regions are some of the best. Our wine is also closely linked with fado, the nation's music of sorrow and hope. When Portugal was a dictatorship in the '40s and '50s, locals would sip wine in cafes where this music played late into the night.

Now, fado is one of our most popular forms of music in Portugal and our vineyards are turning out some of the most high-quality, well-crafted wines in the world. It still goes largely unrecognized, but some of the world's top French winemakers are making their product with Portuguese grapes.

Clams “Bulhão Pato”


  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • 12 littleneck clams
  • Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 cup Vinho Verde wine
  • 2 sprigs cilantro, plus 1/2 cup cilantro leaves

Cooking Directions

  1. Fill a bowl with cold water and dissolve enough salt in it to make it taste like the ocean. Submerge the clams in the water. Let them sit for 10 minutes or until they spit out their grit. You should see sand at the bottom of the bowl. Lift out the clams and transfer to a colander. With a stiff-bristled brush. scrub them vigorously until really clean.
  2. Heat a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Coat the bottom with olive oil and add the garlic and bay leaf. Cook, stirring continuously, until very aromatic, bubbling and golden, about 4 minutes.
  3. Add the clams, toss to coat in the mixture and get a sizzle going on them. Add the wine and cilantro sprigs. Cover, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until the clams start to open. The liquid should be boiling vigorously. Start pulling out the early birds that open first and transfer them to serving dishes. Cover the pan again and continue cooking and pulling until all the clams open. After 5 minutes more, any clams that don't open are dead; throw them out.
  4. Discard the cilantro sprigs. Finely chop 1 tablespoon of the cilantro leaves. Strain the sauce into a large bowl. Swirl in a little olive oil, then fold in the clams, cilantro leaves and chopped cilantro. Spoon the clams into a serving dish, then pour the broth over. Serve immediately.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Celebrity Chefs • George Mendes • Make • Recipes • Think

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. NoDoubt

    Used to live in Cascais for 6 years of my childhood. Really miss the seafood and the hearty soups made with slightly bitter greens and potato stock.

    August 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  2. Stella Barbone

    This summer I have been drinking Portuguese rosé. It is light, dry, low alcohol, pleasantly fizzy and super inexpensive. It's perfect on a hot day.

    August 25, 2012 at 1:39 am |
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