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A spice route to Portugal

Special to The Times

IN THE 15th century, Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese seamen left their Atlantic-facing nation to cash in on the spice trade. They established colonies in South America, India, Africa and beyond, and as they gathered up the riches of their explorations, they spread their culture and cuisine and returned with the ingredients to spice up their own.

From Africa came what the colonists called “piri piri,” a searingly hot pepper that lends its name to an elegant new cookbook on Portuguese cuisine, “Piri Piri Starfish: Portugal Found” by Tessa Kiros, published by Murdoch Books in the U.K. and Australia and available at Cook’s Library in Los Angeles and online at Amazon.co.uk.

Kiros, a Brit born to a Finnish mother and a Greek-Cypriot father, spent a year in Portugal exploring its cuisine. She has written three other cookbooks that draw on her travels and multinational roots. Another is coming out in the fall.

Kiros’ South African childhood inspired her colonial orientation to Portugal’s cuisine, and the pepper that symbolizes the country’s former empire adds fire to many of the recipes in this book -- as a piquant sauce, splashed into a gazpacho, for example, or in a tomato-based oil drizzled onto grilled prawns.

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It’s a fiery embellishment to the nation’s typical Mediterranean dishes based on ingredients not unusual for a seafaring nation -- tuna, shellfish, bacalhau or salt cod, bay leaves, tomatoes, vinegar and olive oil.

“Piri Piri” is as much journal and travelogue as cookbook, and Kiros takes a conversational tone that makes you feel like you are sitting around a kitchen table laconically chatting with a good friend.

That just-us-friends tone, though, makes Kiros’ recipes difficult to follow. Although the techniques are not complex, she assumes her readers have a certain confidence in the kitchen; recipes permit, even encourage readers to wing it.

I spent an hour wrestling with peeling fresh, oozingly ripe tomatoes for the gazpacho until I realized that blanching them would accomplish the task in 15 minutes. A steak recipe asks you to “heat blob of butter.” Another recipe notes that a cake batter will look “split” but doesn’t explain the term. Still, I found many healthful recipes ideal for a hot tomato-season day. A delicious dish of fried, breaded tuna steaks served on a bed of tomatoes and onions could be adapted for the grill and served with a cold black-eyed bean salad. Eating the Portuguese-style gazpacho is almost like slurping a chopped salad.

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Since this is not an American edition, it’s not surprising that some detective work is necessary for rounding up ingredients. Most were easy to find, except the book’s namesake piri piri pepper. A version of the sauce by the South African company Nando’s Chickenland is available at Bay Cities Italian Deli in Santa Monica. In recipes, piquin or Thai chiles are good substitutes.

I loved the desserts: The four-ingredient honey tart is easy and would be delightful with cheese or nuts. A dense beer cake with cinnamon, nutmeg and walnuts makes a lovely coffee cake alternative.

You don’t even have to be thinking of cooking to sit down with this beautifully designed book. Photographs -- taken by Manos Chatzikonstantis and styled by Michail Touros -- of the dishes are unadorned, letting the food itself entice.

Among the recipes, Kiros intersperses engaging stories and journal entries that describe travel scenes or encounters -- a wobbly table at a restaurant made right by half a lemon or the harrowing taxicab ride she took to Cascais with her “eyes glued to his speedometer wishing time away.”

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Portugal’s empire may have faded long ago, but thanks to Kiros’ intimate portrait, its contribution to global cuisine has not been overlooked.

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food@latimes.com

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Caldo verde

Total time: 1 hour

Servings: 6

Note: Adapted from “Piri Piri Starfish.” You can use Spanish chorizo (available at Bristol Farms and Whole Foods stores, Surfas in Culver City and La Espanola Meats in Harbor City) or Portuguese linguisa (available at Bristol Farms stores).

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2 tablespoons olive oil

2 chopped red onions

2 chopped garlic cloves

2 (about 1 pound, 9 ounces) russet potatoes, cut into 1 1/2 -inch pieces

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2 bay leaves

Salt

Half a head (about 7 ounces) dark cabbage such as cavolo nero, kale or savoy, thinly sliced

2 ounces chorizo

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Piri piri oil or sauce (see recipes) for drizzling

1. In a 3-quart, heavy-bottom pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and saute the onions, stirring often until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and potato and continue to cook just until the garlic is aromatic.

2. Add 5 cups of water and the bay leaves and bring to a boil. Season with a heaping teaspoon of salt and lower the heat slightly to maintain a good simmer. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the potatoes are just cooked through. Remove from the heat.

3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the cabbage and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Set the pot aside.

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4. With a slotted spoon, remove two large spoonfuls of potato from the pan (discard the bay leaves) and keep to the side. Puree the rest of the soup until smooth and return to low heat. Use your slotted spoon to add the cabbage to the pureed soup, together with about a cup of its cooking water. Allow to simmer for 5 minutes to meld the flavors, then add back the whole potato pieces. Adjust the seasoning with 1 teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper, or to taste, and remove from heat. Cover and keep the pan warm while you prepare the chorizo.

5. Grill the chorizo over a very hot grill or grill pan until golden and charred in places, then slice thinly. Ladle the soup into bowls and top each with a few slices of the sausage. Add a drizzle of piri piri sauce or oil.

Each 1-cup serving: 199 calories; 6 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 8 mg. cholesterol; 911 mg. sodium.

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Fried tuna with tomatoes and onions

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

Note: Adapted from “Piri Piri Starfish.”

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1/2 cup olive oil (more as needed), divided

2 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly crushed

4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Salt, pepper

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4 onions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 (1-pound each) tuna steaks, about 1 1/2 inches thick, halved crosswise

1 1/2 cups dry breadcrumbs

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2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1. In a saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and season with one-half teaspoon salt and one-eighth-teaspoon pepper. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes until the tomatoes are tender and release their juices. If necessary, add a few tablespoons of water to thin out the sauce slightly. Remove the garlic, adjust seasoning as needed and set aside, covered, in a warm place.

2. In a large frying pan, heat the remaining oil over medium heat and saute the onions. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper and cook until soft and golden, turning with a wooden spoon occasionally to prevent burning. Add the vinegar and simmer until it is just absorbed. Tilt the pan, keeping the onion-flavored oil to one side (you’ll use this to cook the tuna). Lift out the onions with a slotted spoon, set aside and keep warm.

3. Rinse the tuna and pat dry with paper towels. Season each piece with one-half teaspoon salt. Place the breadcrumbs on a plate, and coat the tuna on all sides. Add a little more oil, if needed, to the pan and place over medium heat. When hot, add the tuna and fry until a deep golden brown crust has formed underneath, about 1 1/2 minutes. Flip the tuna and cook the other side.

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4. Divide the onions evenly among four plates; place tuna on top of each. Top with the tomato sauce. Scatter with parsley; serve with crispy fried or boiled potatoes.

Each serving: 728 calories; 61 grams protein; 48 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 32 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 102 mg. cholesterol; 1,847 mg. sodium.

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Beer cake

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Total time: 1 1/2 hours

Servings: 12

Note: Adapted from “Piri Piri Starfish.” Kiros writes: “Use a lovely dark, full- flavored beer that will show up well in your cake. I used acacia honey and you can use other nuts instead of walnuts, if you prefer.”

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened

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3/4 cup superfine sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

1 tablespoon milk

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7 ounces ( 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) dark beer, such as stout

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1/2 cup honey

2 2/3 cups cake flour

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1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch grated nutmeg

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1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 1/2 -inch springform or cake pan.

2. Beat the butter, sugar and vanilla until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each, until fully incorporated. Beat in the milk, beer and lemon zest, then whisk in the honey. The batter will look separated at this point, but will come together when the dry ingredients are added.

3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, cinnamon and nutmeg, then whisk into the wet ingredients.

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4. Gently fold in the nuts and lightly spoon the batter into

the pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes

if using a regular cake pan, or 45 to 50 minutes if using a springform, until dark golden and a skewer poked into the middle comes out clean. Leave in the pan to cool for 10 minutes before turning out.

Each serving: 363 calories; 5 grams protein; 50 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 16 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 83 mg. cholesterol; 167 mg. sodium.

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Piri piri oil

Total time: 15 minutes, plus steeping time

Servings: Makes about 1 1/4 cup

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Note: From “Piri Piri Starfish” by Tessa Kiros. Kiros writes: “The heat will mellow with time, but once you have used up some of the oil, if you feel it’s absolutely too strong, you can always top up with more oil.” Fresh piri piri chiles are hard to find, but you can substitute fresh red Fresno chiles, which are widely available. Dried piri piri chiles can be found online at americanspice.com (under “birdseye”) and whole spice.com (under “African birdseye”); you can also substitute dried arbol chiles.

3 to 4 medium fresh piri piri chiles with seeds

6 to 8 small dried piri piri chiles

1 to 2 garlic cloves, peeled

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2 tablespoons whiskey

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

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1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon coarse salt

1 cup olive oil, divided

1. Stem and roughly chop the chiles. Pulse the chiles and garlic in a food processor or use a mortar and pestle to mash them to a paste. You need about 2 tablespoons of chile paste.

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2. Scrape the paste out into a small saucepan, add the whiskey and heat over low heat until warm. Add the lemon zest and juice, vinegar, bay leaf, salt and 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil (you can add extra garlic if you want it more garlicky). Simmer until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and lightly whisk in the rest of the oil.

3. Pour into a sterilized jar and refrigerate for at least a few days for the flavors to mingle. The oil will be hot at first, but you’ll find it will settle and mellow later.

Each tablespoon: 91 calories; 0 protein; 0 carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 105 mg. sodium.


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