My Citizens, there can be no arguing the fact that the cuisine of Portugal is both delicious and sadly far less well known than its neighbor on the Iberian peninsula (aka Spain). Former Portuguese colonies such as Brazil, Mozambique and Macau DO know the savor of this windswept country’s recipes and today I would very much like to share a delicious appetizer with you from the land of Port. I speak of the oddly-named ‘pica pau’, which means ‘woodpecker’ in Portuguese.
The odd name does not mean in any way, shape or form that this recipe calls for woodpecker – the name actually derives from the fact that you have to keep using a toothpick or cocktail fork to eat the delicious meat and pickled vegetables from the dish. Do it fast enough – and you should do it fast, or risk other people eating your food! – and the motion is like a woodpecker pecking at a tree. 🙂
It is traditionally served in cervejarias (beer houses), where it is usually washed down with lots of draught beer. I’d personally serve it with this spectacular Portuguese dessert and a simple roast meat entrée – and a cold draught beer.
The origins of this dish are rather obscure, but it may in fact derive from a popular Portuguese sandwich known as Francesinha (meaning Little Frenchie or simply Frenchie in Portuguese).
This Portuguese sandwich, originally from Porto, is made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce.
Daniel da Silva, a returned emigrant from France and Belgium, tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to the Portuguese taste when he moved to Porto. He first created the special sauce and populated the sandwich with local meats in 1953 at ‘A Regaleira’, a restaurant in Rua do Bonjardim, Porto; the Francesinha quickly became a very popular dish and deeply associated with the city, although it can be sometimes found elsewhere in Portugal.
Pica pau may in fact be a breadless variant of this sandwich, in which a steak is cut into bite-sized pieces and covered with sauce.
As to making this delectable appetizer, you first need to start with some seriously good beef – I prefer fillet of beef, but it can be expensive. Be sure and ask your butcher to give you the tail ends of the fillet, as it will be significantly less expensive without compromising flavor.
The pickled vegetables are also an integral part of the flavor profile of the dish – rather than make my own, I actually prefer to use a pre-made substitute of Chicago-style giardiniera. It uses carrots and cauliflower, which are the traditional pickled veggies used in pica pau and you can buy it in a hot and mild version bundle on Amazon! I also like a bit of pickled onion in my pica pau – this is my preferred brand.
The spicy condiment that ties all this together is called piri piri oil, and it is made from African birds eye peppers known – unsurprisingly – as piri piri. Fresh piri piri peppers are nearly impossible to find in the States, but I find Thai bird peppers make a fine substitute. Dried piri piri peppers may be bought here. The recipe is lightly adapted from one I found on the Los Angeles Times website by by Tessa Kiros.
The sauce is flavored with white wine, brandy and sweet yellow mustard – again, Portuguese mustard is really tough to find here in the States, so I suggest either use your favorite sweet mustard or my heretical choice of French spiced mustard. Given the probably origins of pica pau, I don’t think I’m venturing too far down the apostate path. You can buy it here.
Citizens, this pica pau recipe is one that I am positive will find favor with the bold palates of TFD Nation – I hope you see fit to try it post-haste!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
The Hirshon Portuguese Spicy “Woodpecker” Beef And Pickled Vegetables – Pica Pau
- Total Time: 0 hours
- 2 Tbsp. grapeseed oil
- 1 3/4 lb. good-quality beef tenderloin, cubed
- Sea salt and ground white pepper
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- 4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 1/2 ounces lardo (pork fat), diced
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 Tbsp. Portuguese sweet mustard, or use your favorite sweet mustard or TFD’s heretical choice of Savora mustard condiment
- Splash of white wine
- Splash of brandy
- 2 Tbsp. pickled vegetables, diced – TFD prefers a 50/50 mix of mild and hot giardiniera
- 2 Tbsp. gherkins, diced
- malt vinegar cocktail onions, whole to taste
- 1/4 cup top-quality black olives, pitted
- 4 Tbsp. thick-sliced cured ham, diced – ideally Ibérico, Serrano or Parma ham
- 1/2 bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- Piri-Piri chili oil:
- 5 fresh Thai ‘Bird’ chiles with seeds (TFD change, original called for red fresno chiles, which are also good)
- 7 small dried piri piri chiles
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled (TFD change, original was 2)
- 2 Tbsp. whiskey
- 1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest
- 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tsp. black peppercorns (TFD addition to original recipe)
- 1 tsp. coarse salt
- 1 cup olive oil, divided
- Country bread and lemon wedges, to serve
- At least 4 days before making the woodpecker beef, make the piri-piri oil so it has time to mellow.
- Stem and roughly chop the fresh and dried chiles. Pulse the chiles and garlic in a food processor or use a mortar and pestle to mash them to a paste. You need about 2 tablespoons of chile paste.
- Scrape the paste out into a small saucepan, add the whiskey and heat over low heat until warm. Add the lemon zest and juice, vinegar, bay leaf, salt and 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil (you can add extra garlic if you want it more garlicky). Simmer until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and lightly whisk in the rest of the oil.
- Pour into a sterilized jar and refrigerate for at least a few days for the flavors to mingle. The oil will be hot at first, but you’ll find it will settle and mellow later.
- Place a large pan over high heat and sear the beef in the grapeseed oil, seasoning generously with salt and pepper. Once seared – but NOT cooked through – move the beef on to a tray, reserving the juices.
- Add butter and olive oil to the pan, then the pork fat. Add the onions and cook quickly, stirring constantly. Add the garlic and bay leaves, then the mustard, and stir through. Add the meat and reserved juices, the wine, brandy, pickles, pickled onions, gherkins, ham and parsley. Adjust the seasoning with salt and white pepper.
- Mix everything for 15 seconds, still on high heat, then remove from the stove. Transfer to a warm serving tray and serve immediately with the suggested garnishes and a small dish of the piri piri oil for dipping or sprinkling on individual portions.
- Prep Time: 0 hours
- Cook Time: 0 hours
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