Are you searching for something different, a different ingredient, to be exact, that will bring the flavor of your dish to another level? You need not look beyond fresh sweet red peppers. I am not suggesting the use of raw, fried or roasted peppers, the crushed dried chili peppers, cayenne or hot sauces or even sweet paprika, which I like to use in a seasoning rub. You might, in fact, have some of the for-mentioned in your arsenal of assorted pepper ingredients.
I am referring to the briny conserve that is well-known among Portuguese cooks, especially those from the Alentejo Region on the Portuguese mainland. Massa de Pimentão (Sweet Red Pepper Paste), an iconic preparation of the region, is held near and dear to our hearts. A scant teaspoon or tablespoon, added judiciously to seasoning rubs, dishes of poultry, fish, meats, even rice, potatoes or scrambled eggs, the paste imparts a distinctive flavor. Often layered with paprika and even a dash or two of hot sauce, gives a dish another dimension. Additional salt is usually not needed but always taste before adding.
Carne de Porco à Alentejana (Alentejo-Style Pork with Clams) is an iconic dish of the Alentejo to which the Sweet Red Pepper Paste, when added, gives the meat and sauce unique flavor. The paste is easy to make but needs a minimum of 3-4 days of letting the salted peppers to stand and drain. As a young girl, at the age of 10, I learned to make this briny concoction under the tutelage of my father, just as he did under the watchful eye of my grandmother and she did before him. I embraced his lessons as we cut and seeded the peppers, as we discussed what else but cooking. Carrying on the teaching tradition, I explained to my children and now my grandchildren, when you make it from scratch, you know the quality of the peppers and the salt that is used. But yes, you can purchase a commercial brand in a Portuguese market or online. Just be sure the ingredients are just salt and peppers.
The only equipment needed is a wooden box and a stainless steel or non-corrosive sheet pan. My father used slatted wooden boxes obtained from produce markets. Check with your local market. They are more difficult to get today but if you have a handy person, all you need to make this box are ¼-inch thick maple or pine slats.
For the base, 1-inch by ¼-inch slats are tacked or stapled ¼-inch apart to a 9 x 12 x 3–inch rectangular frame, leaving a narrow space between the vertical sides and the base edge for drainage. The 12-inch sides of the frame are made up of two 1 ¼ -inch slats spaced ¼-inch apart. If all else fails, use a large rectangular, fine mesh footed sieve that is often used to straddle a sink. Line the sieve with a single or double layer of cheese cloth. This will retain the salt but allow drainage. If you make the cloth lining too thick it will not allow proper drainage.
Sweet Red Pepper Paste
4 large sweet red peppers, cored, seeded, cut into 2-inch strips
3 pounds coarse kosher salt (not pickling or table salt)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 8-ounce jelly jars, sterilized
One 11×18 non-corrosive sheet pan with 1-inch sides
One 9 x 12 wood slatted box or footed sieve
Cheese cloth, if using sieve
- Set wooden box or sieve onto one end of sheet pan. Pour a 1-inch layer of coarse salt across the bottom of the box or lined sieve. From this point, do not move the box or sieve. Once the base salt is added, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, place the pepper slices skin side up, onto the salt, making sure to uncurl even the smallest part of the pepper, otherwise mold will form. Lightly press the slices onto the salt.
- Once the layer of peppers is completed, cover the peppers with a ½ inch layer of salt. Make a second layer of peppers, finishing with another ½-inch layer of salt, completely covering the peppers. Cover with wax paper and place heavy dishes on top to weigh it down. Move the sheet pan near a sink. Place a thick wooden spoon or two under the sheet pan to raise the box end.
- Let stand up to 5 days. When ready, drainage will be a trickle and peppers will be very thin.
- Do not rinse the peppers. Simply wipe off excess salt. Process the peppers in a meat grinder, blender or food processor until fairly fine. Pack in the jars to within 1-inch of top. Top off with the olive oil and seal tightly. Store in the refrigerator for at least 6 to 9 months. To use, push aside any congealed olive oil, remove what you need, depending on the recipe then top off jar with more olive oil, recover and store.
Potatoes Roasted with Sweet Pepper Paste
2 garlic cloves, halved
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 scant tablespoon Sweet Red Pepper Paste
1 bay leaf crumbled
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons white wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 medium-large red bliss or other roasting potatoes, peeled, rinsed, pat dry
- Preheat oven 375°F
- With a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic with the paprika, forming a paste. Incorporate the pepper paste, bay leaf, parsley black pepper and wine. Drizzle in the olive oil, and mix into a spreadable paste.
- Cut potatoes into quarters. In a bowl, mix the potatoes with the seasoning paste, turning to coat completely. Transfer to a roasting pan or baking dish and cover with foil. Roast for 30 minutes in the preheated oven, remove foil, turn the potatoes and continue to roast for 30 minute more, uncovered, until tender. Adjust salt if needed.
Article by: Ana Patuleia Ortins
Ana Patuleia Ortins was born and raised in Peabody, Massachusetts. In the 1930s, her father Rufino and his family emigrated to the United States from Galveias, as small town in the Alentejo region of Portugal. Rufino shared his culinary talent and passion for Portuguese food with Ana from an early age, showing her how to gut sardines and cut kale for the Caldo Verde soup. His tutelage, coupled with a zest for the traditional dishes inherited from her mother Filomena, who died when Ana was young, inspired her to learn as much as she could about her culinary roots and to document the recipes of Portuguese immigrants in her first book Portuguese Homestyle Cooking.
In Authentic Portuguese Cooking, Ana brings forth a deeper look into the food of her heritage. Included are recipes shared by family and friends as well as many obtained during trips to Portugal and from the Azores, the ancestral home of her husband, Philip. Ana has an Associates Degree in Culinary Arts from the Essex Agricultural and Technical School. She has contributed articles to Fine Cooking Magazine, Portugal Magazine, Seabourne Club Herald, and most recently, the online magazine The Cook’s Cook. She teaches culinary classes and is a member of the Northeast Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and the IACP. She resides with her husband in Peabody, Massachusetts.