Delighted today at the Friends of the Library Book Sale to meet up with my Portuguese compadre (“coom-PAHDUH”) Carlton Perry (compadre in Portuguese refers, technically, to the godfather of your child, but it also signifies a very good friend, a calabash cousin of sorts). Perry loves to cook but health problems mean he can’t cook in the fat-rich style of his beloved mother.
He told me he made a dish the other night, which would be referred to by the Portuguese coverall for meat dishes, carnega: Take 2-3 pounds rump, round or chuck steak (the “tough cuts”; buy ’em on sale, freeze ’em and use them when you’ve accumulated enough). Cut the meat into very thin 2-inch strips. “Lomi” (rub or massage) these strips with garlic powder or minced fresh garlic. Gently fry them in olive oil until lightly remove and reserve. Trim and slice a couple of bell peppers very thinly and on onion or two more thickly (about finger wide, so the onion doesn’t melt into the sauce but remains there to chew). Brown these together in the olive oil. Now add 1 can tomato sauce (the standard smaller cans) with 1 can water. Return meat to mixture and simmer gently until the meat is tender. Taste and add salt and pepper, allspice or Portuguese five-spice (if you have it), a little balsamic vinegar and — here’s where the multicultural aspect of the dish comes in) a tablespoon or so of juice from Chinese pickled mustard greens (chun choi). Serve with hot rice. (If I were doing this, I’d use a 14.5 ounce can of chopped tomatoes; I prefer their taste to tomato sauce and I might even add some tomato paste to get a thicker gravy.)
“My mother never taught me to cook, never wanted me in the kitchen,” he recalled, “but I learned from watching and tasting her food.”
He was full of good ideas. If you like Portuguese-style milho (cornmeal porridge served hot with stews in place of rice or potatoes, or as a breakfast food) but hate the way it bubbles and spits and burns your hands, make it in the slow cooker. Gently stir 1 cup water into 1 cup cornmeal using a wire whisk to prevent lumps. Place in the crockpot and stir in 3 cups water. Add salt to taste and cook. At the last minute, you can stir in a big handful of shredded Portuguese cabbage (couves) or collard greens. Or you can add a handful of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley. Perry was lamenting that he had no couves so I’m going to take him a cutting from mine; the stuff grows like a weed. (You can find it at the Pearl City Urban Garden Center.)
He went on about his mother’s red bean stew, which is found in the Portuguese Genealogical Society cookbook and how the secret to making rice dishes that don’t turn into papas (PAH-pazh, mush) is to use cold cooked rice. He makes a dish of thinly sliced cabbage, sauteed in olive oil (bacon fat is better but not good for you), then combined with cold cooked rice and heated through as a side dish. Consolo (consoling), we Portuguese would say.
I live to wala’ao with this kind of cook, full of ideas, still enthusiastic after 70-something years in the kitchen, willing to share.
Who knew that volunteering for the book fair would become such a food fest for me? (Of course, wherever I go is a food fest!)