Soul Warming And Savory Kale? It's A Real Thing
Portuguese-Americans know nothing beats a bowl of kale soup.
Here in Massachusetts, locals have been crazy for kale long before it became fashionable. By now you may think you’ve experienced its dark leafy goodness in every form, but have you had a hot cup of kale? No, it’s not the latest green juice fad. I’m talking about cozying up with a bowl of soul-warming, savory kale soup. A local staple composed of just a few fresh ingredients, it's very simple to make. But if you ask anyone of Portuguese descent for their family recipe, you can be sure it’s not the same as their neighbor’s. The one thing everyone can agree on? Their family’s version is the best!
Cathy Melo remembers making kale soup for her family’s Sunday dinner using whatever meat was available to flavor the broth, from beef to chicken to pork sausage. Once cooked, she’d remove it from the pot and serve savory slices on a platter, giving each family member the option to eat it as they liked, stuffed into a sandwich roll or stirred back into the soup. Cathy and her husband Manny opened M&C Café in New Bedford in 1967; their son Mike now runs the restaurant, but Cathy still cooks there six days a week. Even at the age of 79 she can be found in the kitchen on Sunday (her day off) making dinner for her family, as she always has.
You’ll find some of the best Portuguese food in the country in New Bedford and nearby Fall River, just an hour south of Boston. When it became the center of the American whaling industry in the early 19th century, New Bedford attracted so many immigrants from the Azores and Cape Verde that it was nicknamed the “Portuguese capital of the United States.” The city’s rich history is reflected in a number of family-owned restaurants that serve up local specialties like bifana (grilled marinated pork), polvo guisado (octopus stew), bacalhau (salted cod) and — of course — kale soup.
Mike describes his family’s recipe as rustic and “just like my Vao [nickname for grandmother] used to make.” The result is a soup that’s hearty and flavorful, but not too rich or heavy. Made with water, kale, cabbage, linguiça, beef, potato and kidney beans, it may seem like a simple one-pot dish. But nearly every Portugese-American family in the region has its own take, and they’re quick to snub any interpretation not their own. Where one family would never skip the addition of tomatoes, another says it’s sacrilege. Some insist on adding linguiça, while others prefer the spicier chouriço. The version served at Cotali Mar includes elbow macaroni, but owner Carlos Madeira’s family recipe features fragrant garlic and no pasta.
Each family recipe is a reflection of which part of Portugal they emigrated from. To make things even more complicated, caldo verde — a traditional Portuguese “green soup” made with potatoes, shredded kale and olive oil — is also sometimes referred to as kale soup. The main difference between the two is the thickening agent, or mash; caldo verde requires smashing up some (or all, depending on your preference) of the potatoes. With kale soup, it’s the kidney beans that get the rough treatment.
While it may have been perfected in Southeast Massachusetts, you can also find excellent versions of a hot cup of kale in the Boston area. From J and J Restaurant in Somerville to Casa Portugal in Inman Square, there are plenty to choose from. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, invent your own interpretation; whip up a pot at home and make it part of your own family’s tradition. Chances are it’ll go over better than the chocolate-kale cupcakes you made last year.
M & C Café - 436 Belleville Ave., New Bedford, 508.993.2219, mandccafe.com
Cotali Mar - 1178 Acushnet Ave, New Bedford, 508.990.0066, cotalimarrestaurante.com
J and J Restaurant - 157 Washington St., Somerville, 617.625.3978, jandjrestaurant.com
Restaurant Casa Portugal - 1200 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, 617.491.8880, restaurantcasaportugal.com
Follow Amanda on Twitter @amandabalagur.