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Cookbook reveals heritage not well known in Canada outside Portuguese community

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TORONTO - Carla Azevedo says she's been asked so often to update her 1991 Portuguese cookbook "Uma Casa Portuguesa" that she finally decided just to write a whole new volume altogether.

The result is "Pimento & Piri Piri: Portuguese Comfort Cooking" (Whitecap Books), which recently won an award for design in the reference category from the Alcuin Society.

"I expected not to find that much of a difference (in Portuguese cooking) and I was surprised," she says. "There was lots more."

The first book was inspired by her husband Antonio, who immigrated from the island of Pico in the Portuguese Azores when he was two. The recipes she included came from friends, family members — and even strangers.

"I was a young girlfriend that became a wife and people wanted to help. But (for this book) it was a little bit different and I had to go out and meet people on my own," said Azevedo, a graduate of the chef-training program at Toronto's George Brown College and the journalism program at what is now Ryerson University.

"I think I scared a few people," she confides. "I was at the fish store and asking what do you do with it and a lot of it is the oral tradition, so they were very friendly and very nice and I was like, 'Can I just come home with you and watch you make it?' I thought they just lived in the area. They were, like, no," she says with a laugh.

But she eventually started meeting more people who were passionate about their food and educating her about their culture, including chef Jose Alves. Azevedo spent many hours observing his techniques as he created dishes at the Toronto Portuguese restaurant Via Norte.

"Pimentos & Piri Piri" contains 330 recipes for a wide range of dishes from the mainland and the Azores.

"I'm really proud of the recipes," says Azevedo, who regards herself as an ambassador of Portuguese cuisine despite her Italian heritage. "I think it really reflects the Portuguese population especially in Toronto and larger cities."

Fish and seafood are a major component of the cuisine, especially salt cod, which has become a staple since the Portuguese began fishing for cod, or bacalhau, on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.

Fresh cod is more widely available now, but the dried salted version "is just part of the culture and tradition."

Azevedo has experimented with soaking the cod to remove the salt.

"I thought I had it down pat in the last book — two days. But I'm learning now it's not just about getting the salt out, but you also want it back to that moist texture and sometimes we're talking three or four days. This time I suggested more time and I actually suggest what I've seen a chef do and people that know how to cook really well. They pick off a piece when they think it's ready and taste it and it's got to almost taste like real fish. Obviously it doesn't have that flaky falling-apart texture."

Sardines are a favourite for Azevedo and she has created several recipes incorporating the small inexpensive fish that are flash frozen and imported from Portugal. She likes to prepare double the amount of sardines — four to five sardines per person is usually enough for a meal — so she has some left over to make pate, often served as a starter in restaurants.

She grills sardines, marinates them, breads and pan-fries them, puts them in stews and even tops pizza with them.

Octopus and fresh fish are popular in Portuguese cuisine as are pork, lamb, beef, rice and sausages.

When it comes to seasonings, the Portuguese are fond of garlic, lemon, fresh bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, rosemary, oregano, parsley and paprika.

The hot sauce piri-piri made from the explosive pepper from Angola and Mozambique is ubiquitous. But if the peppers are unavailable, Azevedo suggests substituting Thai chilies, red hot chilies or dried chili flakes. Tabasco or hot pepper sauce can also be used.

Pimento paste is also prevalent. Being thick, it's often used as a marinade.

In addition to recipes, "Pimento & Piri Piri: Portuguese Comfort Cooking" also includes stories about where the recipes come from.

"There was a story with almost everybody I met," said Azevedo. "The stories really did happen. I would meet people and the introduction takes you through my little adventure."

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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