The waiter pulls the lid off the iron pot: clams sautéed with chunks of pork and slices of potatoes in wine, garlic and olive oil. The next dish arrives—açorda de marisco—mussels, cod, scallops and, again, clams, mixed together with raw eggs and pieces of bread. We're taking our first sip of Portuguese vinho verde, David Leite and I, when the waiter serves a large plate of boiled cod with carrots and potatoes, a bland and uninspired dish compared with the others.
Leite says something to him in Portuguese, and a bowl of warmed olive oil and cloves of raw garlic arrives. The waiter separates the fish with a fork, pours over the warm olive oil and mashes in the garlic and some salt. Suddenly it's a full-flavored summer Mediterranean dish. “Portuguese are very generous when it comes to food,” Leite says at this transformation.
Leite is a food writer and author of The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe's Western Coast (Clarkson Potter). Although this is his first cookbook, he has been writing about food for nearly two decades. From the Chicago Sun Times, where he placed his first article, he began writing for Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet and Food & Wine. A decade ago, he started his Web site, Leite's Culinaria, which highlights recipes and includes food writing from freelance writers. He has received three James Beard awards—for his articles and for his blog.
From the Azores, almost a thousand miles off the Portuguese mainland, his family emigrated to Fall River, Mass., where Leite was born. Growing up, he wanted nothing to do with Fall River's large Portuguese community or its food. It wasn't until his grandmother died when he was an adult that he realized that “dishes I grew up with were disappearing from the family table.” And that spurred his quest to re-discover his culinary heritage.
Today, Leite, in his 40s, all dark eyes, brown wavy hair and commanding presence, leads me through the Ironbound, the Portuguese section of Newark. It's along these streets that Leite finds his cooking ingredients.
We enter a store with flags and soccer jerseys from Portugal, Brazil and Spain hanging on the walls and statues of Our Lady of Fatima. But Leite moves to the Portuguese kitchen utensils, tiny cup forms for baked custard tarts, and a cataplana, the traditional copper dish used to cook the pork and clams. “It's the original slow-cooker,” Leite says.
Ceramic roosters are everywhere. “The cock is the sign of hospitality throughout Portugal,” Leite explains. “Kind of like the shamrock of Ireland.”
At the fishmonger's, bin after bin of salted cod line the floor—all sizes, all awaiting days of desalinating in your own tub of water. In the pork store, Leite points out the smoked sausages hanging behind the counter—lean sausages for soup and fatty sausages for grilling. Down an alley, we hear the sounds of chickens. In front of a restored garage, there are cages of them and a price list by weight and type of bird. Fifteen minutes after placing your order, the bird is yours, plucked, cleaned and cut into pieces.
We continue our walk and Leite talks about his book. He says he wanted “strong photos that best represent the food—masculine and woody.” For 12 years, Leite has traveled back and forth to Portugal, eating his way from seaside town to mountaintop village. In Portugal, he realized that the language wasn't the only thing that was different from his childhood. “The cuisine had changed so much. I knew I wanted to incorporate the food that had recently been introduced to Portugal—how people are cooking now.”
Indeed, alongside traditional dishes, he includes in his cookbook recipes for light fare: chilled fava bean soup, pureed with onions and potatoes in a chicken stock and served cold with slices of apple and browned shallots. For a main course there's the amazingly tasty and simple robalo con funcho e laranja—sea bass in an orange reduction sauce served with slightly cooked slices of fennel, tomato and orange.
”When I was starting out writing about food, someone wisely told me that I had to find a niche—something to get me started that I could expand on,” Leite says. With The New Portuguese Table, he's not only found this niche but made it even richer.