I always know when summer is officially in season in Portugal by the way the air smells. The distinct aroma of smoking charcoal, assorted carnes (meat) and peixes (fish) being grilled seems to float around just about everywhere you go. It’s the smell of grilled bifanas marinated with the fantastic, uniquely Portuguese red paste, massa de pimentão, that really makes one’s mouth water and taste buds yearn for a bite.
Massa de pimentão (pronounced “ mah-ssah de pea-meant-ow”) is a sweet yet salty pepper paste made from salt cured red bell peppers. It’s found throughout Portuguese cooking as a base for sauces and stews, as a marinade for meats or fish and is also used as a condiment. It gives a distinct flavor that just isn’t possible from paprika, chouriço or wine alone. If you’ve ever tried to make a Portuguese dish and something seemed to be missing, more than likely it was massa de pimentão. Luckily it’s easy enough to make in your own kitchen and is perfect for experimenting in a variety of savory dishes.
Bifanas (pronounced “beef-aw-nas”), grilled pork sandwiches, are a prime example of why massa de pimentão needs to be in every kitchen. Believed to have originated in the Alentejo, the bifana can now be found in every region of the country with their own spin on the original. Walk through any festa (festival), outdoor event or past a little café and this sandwich will be there. Bifanas are the Portuguese street food. Sure there are the sardinhas (sardines) on crusty bread in the summer and the roasted castanhas (chestnuts) in the winter, but bifanas are year round.
Often considered a “snack”, the humble bifana is quite simple; just a crusty Portuguese bread roll slathered with yellow mustard and a thin-cut pork steak that when done right, is more than just your average meat sandwich. It’s all to do with the sweet tangy pepper paste infused marinade. This marinade doesn’t just give a wonderful taste but keeps the pork nice and juicy while being grilled.
With food like this there’s no need for the hamburgers and hot dogs when you can have a juicy, savory and simple sandwich with a cold frothy beer this summer!
Sweet Pepper Paste (Massa de Pimentão)
Makes 2 cups
- 6 large red bell peppers
- 2-3 tablespoons coarse salt
- 3 cloves of garlic
- ¼ cup (295 ml) olive oil
Wash peppers and remove the stems, seeds and white ribbing. Cut the peppers into about 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick strips. Place a layer of pepper strips into the bottom of a bowl and generously sprinkle with salt. Repeat with the rest of the pepper strips, salting in between each layer. Cover tightly with a towel and leave out at room temperature for at least 12 hours. Some recipes suggest curing the peppers up to 6 days, but when you don’t have enough time, 12-24 hours is sufficient for good flavor.
Pre-heat the oven to 325ºF (162ºC).
Drain the peppers of excess liquid. Put the peppers into an oven safe dish or on a baking tray to slow roast for 1 ½ to 2 hours in the oven. Remove the peppers and cool to room temperature.
Using your fingers, remove the outside skin from the peppers. Place the peeled pepper strips and peeled garlic cloves into a food processor or blender. If a food processor is unavailable, use a pestle and mortar or other tool to grind the peppers into a paste.
Blend the peppers for 30 seconds to make a thick paste, add in half the olive oil and blend again for another 30 seconds. Add the rest of the oil to the pepper paste and blend for another minute or until smooth.
If you’re planning on preserving this, leave the garlic out and just add fresh garlic each time you use the paste.
Portuguese Pork Cutlet Sandwich (Bifanas)
- 6 very thin, lean pork cutlets
- 5 cloves of garlic, minced
- ¼ cup (295 ml) massa de pimentão(see above)
- ½ tablespoon piri-piri flakes (optional)
- 2 cups (473 ml) white-wine
- 1 bay leaf
- 6 Portuguese bread buns
- Mustard (optional)
Place pork cutlets into a sealable bag and add in garlic, massa de pimentão and piri-piri. Pour in the wine and add in the bay leaf. Remove as much excess air from the bag as possible and seal well.
Massage the pork through the bag to cover everything with the marinade and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to cook, remove the pork from the refrigerator and build a hot charcoal fire or heat a gas grill to high.
Lay the marinated pork on the hot grill to cook about 5-7 minutes on each side or until meat is white on the inside.
Serve pork bifanas on crusty Portuguese buns with a healthy dose of mustard and a cold Portuguese beer!