Cape Cod is known for its Portuguese food. If one visits a local restaurant that advertises “Cape Cooking,” chances are there will be at least one, if not more, Portuguese dishes on the menu. Kale soup has as many versions as your mother’s chicken soup, and Portuguese breads, both sweet and savory, are available at supermarkets and farm stands.

Researching this topic led me to “The Book of Falmouth,” edited by Mary Lou Smith and published in 1986, in celebration of the town’s Tricentennial. The book has a chapter on “Falmouth’s Portuguese,” written by Eva Agrawal. Interestingly, she is the person who initially started writing the food column, Gourmets and Good Eaters, which has been published in this newspaper since the early 1980s (I have been writing the column since 1985).

Agrawal says that the Portuguese who arrived at the turn of the 20th century were primarily from the provincial islands—the Azores and Cape Verde, with a few coming from Madeira and continental Portugal.: “They turned the sandy soil of East Falmouth, Teaticket and Waquoit into lush farmlands, pioneered the strawberry industry, and became the muscle and backbone of the Falmouth community.”

There are numerous books written about Portuguese cooking here on Cape Cod, the most famous of which is probably Peter Hunt’s Cape Cod Cookbook. Published in 1954 (and beautifully illustrated by the author), this slender volume is still available for prices ranging from $200 to $850. Should you ever see one in a thrift shop or at a yard sale, do not pass it by—it is a treasure, for sure.

In his introduction, Hunt declares: “The practice of fine cooking on Cape Cod can easily be divided into three parts—New England, Portuguese and what might be called ‘sophisticated’…I have long regretted that I haven’t the ability, or the energy, to have an inn in which only Portuguese food is served.” He goes on to describe the dishes he would serve: “A bowl of cabbage soup flavored with mint for when you come in from swimming, fish or meat prepared in vinha d’alhoes when you are really hungry, or couvres or linguica in Portuguese rolls.”

Another culinary treasure about Portuguese cooking is the “Provincetown Portuguese Cookbook” by Mary Jo Avellar. Published in 1997, this (also) slender book has a foreword by the late Molly O’Neill, who wrote for the New York Times, and contains some of her recipes as well as a few from Emeril Lagasse, who is half Portuguese. O’Neill’s career began in Provincetown, Lagasse’s in Fall River. They both have the utmost respect for this type of cooking, and it shines through in their recipes.

In 1986, Jean Anderson wrote “The Food of Portugal.” According to West Falmouth resident Rita Pacheco, Anderson became, to Portuguese cooking, what Julia Child was to French cuisine. That book is more widely available; it contains “recipes from the most original and least-known cuisine in Western Europe, with notes for cooks and travelers on the language of Portuguese wines, foods and dining.”

Rita reminded me that there are multiple efforts to keep the cultural traditions of Portugal alive here in Falmouth. “We have the Navigator Club, the Holy Ghost Society, and of course, the Catholic church. All of these hold numerous events throughout the year that keep the food and music flourishing. St. Anthony’s Parish in East Falmouth produced a fund-raising cookbook that contains a lot of Portuguese recipes, and there is another one written by Maria Lawton, also known as the ‘Azorean Green Bean’. She too offers dishes that preserve the traditions of the Azores.”

Then there is the “new age” of Portuguese cooking: David Leite has written The New Portuguese Table. Published in 2010, this book begins with an extensive glossary of Portuguese staples, and ends with a chapter devoted to “workhorse sundries such as piri-piri paste and smoked paprika oil.” Best of all, along the way it introduces readers to a potpourri of dishes that range from classic to contemporary.

Anyone who wants to keep a Portuguese pantry needs this book. Ingredients such as smoked sausages, peppers, cilantro, seafood, olive oil, garlic, beans, tomatoes and bay leaves, all of which are common in American kitchens, can be combined in new and interesting ways. Described as the “definitive handbook of the exciting cuisine of Portugal,” this book offers a contemporary perspective on the traditional dishes that are so often found in local restaurants and Cape Cod homes.

I also spoke with Pat Thrasher, whose grandparents both came here from the Azores. “My grandmother’s maiden name was Maria Izabel Tavares. She arrived with a basketful of her belongings when she was 10 years old; they arrived by boat in New Bedford. She later married a Medeiros, and together they moved here to the Cape.”

Pat now lives in East Falmouth, not too far from the house at 242 Davisville Road where she grew up. “This whole area was all my grandfather’s farmland,” she recalled. “He was a farmer and a carpenter too. I remember the big parties we used to have when it was time to butcher the pigs. I was an only child—my father was Joseph T. Medeiros, Sr. He was quite a farmer himself, and during my childhood, he took care of a property on Bourne’s Pond. He had the opportunity to purchase that land, which is where my son Scott now lives with his family. None of us moved too far from family!”

What she remembers most are the vegetables they raised. “Seafood stews, chowders, kale soup—we lived off the land and the sea. My mother was a baker who made everything; my dad had quite a sweet tooth and my mom made lots of pastries. And of course, wonderful Portuguese breads and spicy foods — what they knew from their parents.”

Rita reminded me that a while back Marcus Samuelsson featured Portuguese, Cape Verdean and Brazilian cooking on his popular PBS show, “No Passport Required.” Among other places, he visited Portugalia Marketplace in Fall River. Once a sprawling textile mill, the space is now a one-of-a-kind shopping experience for all things Portuguese—fresh fruit and produce, specialty groceries and various meats, cheese, and seafood, wine and beer of course—and an entire temperature-controlled room offering a large variety of the finest salt cod available.

As stated earlier, recipes for Portuguese food are prevalent here on the Cape. Here are a few to give you a sample of how delicious this food can be. Pat Thrasher gave me her family recipe for fish stew, and I was able to locate instructions for one of my favorite Cape Verdean dishes. Jagacida was one of the first dishes I encountered when I came to the Cape in the 1970s; when the Moonakis Cafe opened in Waquoit in 1989, this was one of the more popular requests on the menu.

Pat’s Portuguese Fish Stew

3 tbsp olive oil

Couple of bay leaves

2 tsp paprika

1 small onion, thinly sliced

1 small bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes

1 clove garlic

One quarter cup chopped fresh cilantro

About 1½ lbs skinless striped bass, cut into 2-inch chunks

4 slices crusty bread, toasted

Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a medium saucepan; add Bay Leaves and paprika and cook, stirring. Add the onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, garlic and about 2 tbsp of cilantro ; season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook until the vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup water and reduce the heat; season the fish with salt and pepper, then incorporate into the vegetables in the pan. Cover and simmer until the fish is cooked through, about 5-10 minutes. To serve, divide the stew into bowls and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with the remaining cilantro and serve with the bread.

Moonakis Café Jagacida
(adapted from Katherine’s original recipe)

2 tbsp butter

2 cups sliced linguica

1 large onion, diced

4 cups water (or vegetable stock)

2 cups uncooked white rice

2 cups cut up butternut squash

10 oz pkg frozen chopped kale, defrosted

16 oz can shell beans, rinsed and drained

Melt 1 tbsp butter in a large saucepan and sauté the linguica until browned; remove to a plate. Melt the remaining butter in the pan and sauté the onion until transparent. Add the rice and stir briefly to coat with the onion, then add the squash and kale along with the water or stock. Bring to a simmer and cover; cook until the liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Stir in the linguica and beans and heat through; check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with toasted cornbread.