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Originally published Saturday, January 14, 2012 at 7:02 PM

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Portuguese soup transforms stale to steamy good

Bread and broth together have a long history in Portugal. The combination was probably introduced to the country by the Moors, the medieval Arabs who occupied the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years.

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I'LL NEVER forget the first bowl of soup I ate in Portugal. It was a blisteringly hot summer day about a decade ago, and my husband and I were visiting Evora, an ancient hill town perched above the country's sun-baked central plains. Hungry and exhausted after sweating our way up and down the winding cobblestone lanes, we parked ourselves at one of Evora's many outdoor restaurants and ordered what sounded like a simple, modest meal of fish soup and grilled meat.

Except it wasn't modest at all.

Our first clue was when our harried waiter wheeled out two serving carts. Then, one by one, he carried out two enormous soup tureens and carefully balanced them on our carts. With a theatrical flourish he lifted the lid of one, dipped an enormous ladle in and filled the bowl on my plate with broth, fish and cubes of some strange gelatinous vegetable. He replaced the tureen's lid and repeated the spectacle for my husband. Then he wished us a pleasant meal and departed.

Peering into my soup intently, I realized the cubes weren't of vegetable origin at all. They were hunks of sodden bread. And apart from our full bowls we each had the better part of a loaf bobbing around in those tureens, which were still nearly full to the brim. Needless to say our main courses were pretty much unnecessary that evening, particularly once we realized how delicious that mixture of fish and soggy crumbs was.

But more importantly, two fundamental truths about Portuguese cuisine were illuminated for me: first, that soup is taken very seriously there, and second, that where there's broth, there's usually bread.

Bread and broth together have a long history in Portugal. The combination was probably introduced to the country by the Moors, the medieval Arabs who occupied the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years. Medieval Arab cooking made copious and imaginative use of stale bread, employing it to thicken, enrich and bulk out everything from salads to desserts to, of course, soups. The 13th-century cookbook "Fudalat al-Khiwan," for example, contains 25 recipes for panades, or brothy dishes pairing bread with everything from suckling lamb and pigeon to fish and eggs.

In Spain, a few traces of this legacy remain, the most famous being uncooked soups like gazpacho and ajo blanco. In Portugal, by contrast, a passion for sodden bread seems to know no boundaries. In addition to featuring in many sopas — particularly sopas secas, or dry soups — bread stars in migas, where it is softened in water then fried until crusty, in rich stews (ensopados) ladled over slices of bread, and in açordas, stews that run the gamut from brothy affairs with a few chunks of bread to thick, mashed-bread porridges.

Don't think these bready delights are confined to the savory side of the spectrum. Crumbled bread topped with hot milk or coffee and sugar is a favorite sweet treat.

What defines all these bread-plus-liquid preparations is how frugal they are. Like many old-time recipes they were born out of necessity, but even today their thriftiness is appreciated. After all, in a country where a fresh loaf of bread is on the table at every meal, there's a lot of bread left over in most homes. Turning that bread into soup not only prevents even the stalest piece from going to waste, it creates something filling and delicious practically out of thin air.

Although I'm now a devoted fan of all Portuguese bread soups, the dish I most often enjoy at home is one of its simpler incarnations. Called Açorda Altentejana, it's a combination of garlic, oil, bread, water and eggs, lifted just above the ordinary by the copious use of cilantro, another legacy of the Moors. Slurpy, chewy and pungent, it makes a quick and hearty meal on a cold night. And though it could certainly feature as an element in a larger Portuguese spread, I prefer to serve it as a one-dish affair with a simple salad and maybe some cheese alongside.

This, of course, also makes it easier to enjoy in true Portuguese style — namely, very generous quantities.

Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food photographer and writer.

Açorda Alentejana

Serves 2 to 4

1 pound sturdy, rustic-style bread, stale if possible, torn into 1- to 2-inch chunks

2 to 3 cloves garlic

1 bunch cilantro

Salt

3 cups water

4 eggs

4 tablespoons olive oil

1. If the bread isn't already stale, spread the chunks on a baking sheet and dry out in a 250-degree oven for about an hour.

2. Process the garlic, cilantro and ½ teaspoon salt to a paste in a food processor (or use a mortar and pestle if you feel like a workout). Spoon into the bottom of a large, heatproof serving bowl or soup tureen.

3. Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Poach the eggs in it, one at a time, removing to a plate when the whites have set but the yolks are still runny. Pour the still-boiling water (don't worry about any egg bits in it) over the garlic-cilantro paste in the bowl, stir to combine, and add the oil and more salt to taste. Add the bread and let soak for 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt if necessary, or more water if it seems too thick; there should be broth to slurp.

4. Top the soup with the poached eggs and serve immediately.

Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance writer and photographer.

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