“Oh I haven’t had that in such a long time!” that’s what Auntie said when I told her that Renee added Portuguese Kale to her garden seed line. Once common in the gardens of Portuguese immigrants to the US, this old-world green is called by a variety of names: couve tronchuda, sea-kale or braganza among others, making it difficult to find. Although the handsome leaves can be prepared in many wonderful ways, the beautifully ruffled green leaves are most famous for their starring role in the traditional Portuguese greens soup known as Caldo Verde.
About the Kale
My mother-in-law remembers that you never had to buy this staple at the market because if you didn’t have it in your own garden, someone you knew did. Friends and neighbors were always trying to send you home with a bag after a visit. It has the broad leaves of a cabbage but never heads up, thus it is sometimes referred to as the Portuguese head-less cabbage as well. Plants grow in a tall, handsome, vase shape with large deep green, ruffled leaves that have white mid-ribs like chard, which are sometimes prepared separately alongside regular cabbages and curly-leafed kales which were both considered quite distinct. In the garden Portuguese kale provides a solid backbone of the winter garden but these plants are also good performers in the warmer months. Right now I am growing it right in the midst of my flower garden. It looks especially nice alongside my Iceberg rose bush with a seasonal mix of scabiosa flowers. There’s no need to harvest the whole plant –harvest it leaf by leaf as needed. I have fond memories of my father-in-law never cutting his plants back at all, but getting a kick out of seeing how tall they would get…sometimes becoming 5’ tall “trees” before he would finally relegate them to the compost pile. For cooking though, the leaves are most prized while young and tender.
About the Soup
Ok, back to the most important part….how you eat it. Everyone agrees you can’t make the greens soup of Portugal without the right green…so it’s inclusion in Caldo Verde is generally a given. But this beloved simple soup, as you might find with any “national dish,” inspires a number of strong opinions as to its proper method of preparation.
At its heart, the soup is simply broth with Linguiça sausage, onions, garlic, Portuguese kale and potatoes. But life is never really as simple as that. I have to admit my bias here as I am only “married into” the Portuguese community. My husband's family originally comes from the island of Madeira on his father's side and the Azorean island of San Miguel on his mother's side. So, for my informal research on this subject, I not only asked my relatives but friends and clients of Portuguese descent and received many opinions and variations from the experts, and other hungry people I have known.
Cutting Matters: Preparing the Kale
Auntie Dolores stressed that cutting the kale into the thinnest possible ribbons is very important. Indeed, this is how I have usually seen the dish prepared. It gives a particular texture to the soup and is almost like eating blades of grass out of your bowl. In Portugal, they will shred it for you at the market, using a contraption somewhat like a meat grinder. At home, the best way to get the thin ribbons is to remove the center ribs from the leaves, stack them up and then roll them long-ways like rolling a cigar, and cut 1/8” (or finer) strips working your way down the roll. If you are using the young tender leaves, the length will be about right. If you are using the larger, older leaves, then again cut out the center ribs and cut again cross-wise to end up with shreds that are no more than 2”to 3” in length. Most Portuguese cooks pride themselves on just how finely they can shred the leaves.
The Right Stuff: About the Sausage
Linguiça is a smoked Portuguese sausage available just about anywhere else with a sizeable Portuguese community or a gourmet deli. It is made in both hot and mild and it is the distinctive spice mix and high paprika content that gives Caldo Verde its flavor and color. Portuguese Chouriço is used in some regions, especially Madeira. Spanish Chorizo and Italian pepperoni are fairly similar and can be substituted if absolutely necessary. Mexican Chorizo, however, is quite different in every way and is not an acceptable substitute.
Thin-skinned, boiling potatoes are the usual choice for this soup. They can be peeled, or cooked whole or cubed for a quicker result. Sometimes they are sautéed with the sausage, garlic and onion, then the broth is added for the remainder of the time. But I got very strong advice from cousin Theresa’s sister, who comes from Madeira. She stresses that you should boil the potatoes until they are just done, then remove from the pot, set aside, mash, finish the rest of the soup then add them back at the end. When questioned as to why you couldn’t just keep cooking them until the end, she was appalled and firmly noted that the soup' s texture just wouldn’t be right if you did that.
Some people like to cook the potatoes in an entirely separate pot so that the precise texture can be managed more easily, then added to the other ingredients that have been cooking in another pot at the last minute. I take the easy way out and just cook everything together. Regarding the potatoes, I have seen everything from leaving them chunky to mashing them creamy (much like the variations on clam chowder) but an easy version is to finish the soup with small chunks that can be smashed more, with a spoon in the bowl, at the discretion of the eater.
When Is It Sopa Instead?
In my mother-in-law, Frances’ home, the preferred dish was called Sopa de Couves rather than Caldo Verde. The distinction is pretty much a sliding scale which varies with each household. Basically the more ingredients you add, the more the result might be called Sopa (soup) rather than Caldo (broth). Frances has fond memories of Grandma Amaral making the dish using broth from a beef bone, which in those days, you could get free from the butcher. Their favorite way was more of a chunky stew, flavored with the meat from the bone and adding small white beans in addition to the potatoes and kale. On Sundays, an entire cut of beef was cooked on the stove, then the roast was removed from the broth and served separately from the soup made with the broth.
However you decide to make it, remember that any Portuguese meal should be accompanied by good crusty bread and a glass or two of hardy red wine. The dish is best enjoyed with family and friends and some fairly loud conversation.
Renee's Caldo Verde Recipe
- 3 lbs. medium yellow-fleshed potatoes, cut in half (Yukon Gold or Yellow Fin varieties are perfect).
- 48 oz chicken stock
- 4 cups water
- 2 large yellow or white onions
- 6 large cloves garlic
- 3-4 T olive oil
- 1 1/4 pounds Portuguese kale leaves – a sizable big bunch
- 4 Portuguese Linguiça sausages – close to 2 pounds total.
- Garnishes: freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
In a large heavy soup pot, combine the potatoes (peel them first, if you feel it's important, but I don't because the best nutrients are close to the skin) with the chicken stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until the potatoes until almost tender – 20-30 min. or so, depending on your potatoes. (The cooked potatoes and stock will remain in the soup pot as you add the other recipe ingredients to the soup.)
While the potatoes are cooking, coarsely chop the onions and garlic and slice the sausages into 1/2 inch slices. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan, add the onions and garlic and sauté gently at low heat until they are translucent (5 – 8 minutes). Add the sliced sausages and cook them together for a few minutes longer. Turn off the heat.
Prepare the kale: cut out the white center ribs of the kale leaves and discard. Stack three or four leaves together and roll them up into cylinders like cigars. Then, slice into one 1/4 inch wide ribbons. Repeat until you sliced up all the kale leaves.
When the potatoes are almost tender, add the sautéed onions, garlic and sausage mixture and the shredded kale leaves and the 4 cups of water to the soup pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cook, covered, for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until the kale is quite tender. Serve hot with freshly grated Parmesan cheese to sprinkle over serving.
8-12 servings, depending on how hungry everyone is!
Renee's Notes: I know it's not traditional, but here are some additions I have added when I have made the Caldo Verde at various times: 2 cups sliced carrots (for color) added in to cook with the potatoes; 1 cup finely chopped Italian parsley (I love the taste of parsley in soup), which I added just before serving. Be sure to have crusty bread to help you mop up and enjoy every last drop in your soup! The potatoes seem to melt into the kale- rich broth and add a satisfying creamy texture to the soup. The flavorful Linguiça sausage is on the lean side and doesn't render a lot of fat, so I've never felt this soup was too oily; it's a deliciously full-flavored complete meal in a bowl and tastes just as delicious and satisfying heated up the next day. If you don't have Portuguese kale you can use regular kale instead – it won't be authentic, but it will taste fine.