Caldeirada de Peixe (Portuguese Fish Stew)

pencil sketch of onionsIs Caldeirada Portuguese Bouillabaisse, or is Bouillabaisse French Caldeirada? There is little difference in ingredient and no difference in depth of flavor. Both call for a variety of fish differing in texture and taste (highly flavorful oily fish such as mackerel or tuna or skate, firm fish such as monkfish, halibut or rascasse, and flaky white fish such as cod, haddock or flounder). Both have a base of non seafood ingredients involving onions, garlic, tomatoes and parsley. Bouillabaisse requires only a little white wine and olive oil to supplement whatever liquid the heat of cooking renders from the fish and vegetables. So does Caldeirada. Caldeirada is always presented in generous portions over a piece of crusty bread which has been lightly fried in oil or toasted or simply freshly torn from its loaf. So is Bouillabaisse.

The difference between these two celebrations of seafood lay in their origins and their meaning. Bouillabaisse is a restaurant invention from the grand hotels and Michelin starred restaurants of France1. It is meant to satisfy and impress both chef and guest. Caldeirada comes from the boats, docks and homes of people who's survival depends upon the sea. It's food prepared to sustain and celebrate both preparer and diner. Both are excellent dishes, but Caldeirada is the one that qualifies as Honest Cuisine.

In its most pure form, traditional Caldeirada contains only fish (as opposed to fish and shellfish). The vegetables are simply sliced onion and peppers and some chopped tomato. The spices and herbs are garlic, bay leaf2 and a bit of parsley and/or cilantro. It is prepared in a manner consistent with dishes made under circumstances when cooking has the opportunity to take place over time yet requires little time of the cook3. The fish and vegetables, along with either potatoes or bread, are layered in a pot, sprinkled with the wine and olive oil, and cooked slowly over low heat. Over time the flavors meld on their own accord, with the only effort required of the cook being an occasional shake of the pot to be sure nothing sticks to the bottom.

With Portuguese dishes, however, the definition of traditional is really more a function of place than culture. Portugal's varied geography has contributed to the development of all different form of Caldeirada. In a country not much larger that the State of Florida, you will find hundreds of variations - some subtle, some dramatic. The cooks in one village may add shellfish such as clams, mussels and shrimp with pride, explaining that those people down the way who may shudder at the thought of shellfish in their Caldeirada simply don't know a good thing when they taste it. In many places the addition of spices such as nutmeg and saffron are warmly welcomed. On the islands of Madeira you may find Caldeirada à Moda de Funchal scented with the heady fragrance of cloves. On the same islands you'll also find Caldeirada de Lulas with squid replacing the fish4 and a bit of curry powder and ground ginger added in such a way that you'd never know they were there but you'd notice if they were not. In the Azores they enhance the stew's fragrance with some allspice, embolden it with a bit of hot red pepper or piri-piri5 and enrich it with slices of spicy chourico or linguica. In Aveiro, just south of Porto, Caldeirada cooks may use a combination of fresh and salt water fish, along with oysters, mussels and carrots. I read that in Lisbon they serve some fine Caldeirada à Fragateira with cockles and mussels over bread that's been fried in oil (an imitation of the French croûton or its inspiration? Who cares!) and topped with a bit of lemon zest. And in Algarve you shouldn't be surprised to experience a bit of the bite of oregano.

When making Caldeirada focus on the fish before all else. The fresher the fish the better. This means ignoring whatever fish the recipe you are using calls for. Just use whatever your fishmonger6 says is freshest. Do strive towards getting a combination of oily, firm and flaky fish, but don't obsess over it. A Caldeirada made with just the freshest haddock is going to be much better than one made with an assortment of recently thawed swordfish, Chilean sea bass7 and cod. That said, don't be avoid making Caldeirada if frozen seafood is all you have access to8. I've discovered that you can produce a very flavorful Caldeirada with frozen seafood by adding some bottled clam broth and letting the stew cook uncovered for the last half hour or so to let the broth concentrate. Most of all, have fun with the dish. It's simplicity on just about every level and you'll be richly rewarded every time you make it.

  1. The first documented recipe for a seafood dish called bouillabaisse, Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise from Le Cuisinier Durand, calls for expensive stuff such as lobster and sea bass. There are of course earlier documented of French fish stews similar to Bouillabaisse, but none using that name.
  2. Not knowing Portuguese I often used Google's translation feature to translate Portuguese recipes. Google translates the Portuguese term for bay leaf, “folha de louro”, as “Parrot Leaf”. Apparently “louro” can also mean “blond” and within that context is used in Portuguese as slang for parrot (in a recent e-mail exchange, the Portuguese writer Miguel Esteves Cardoso surmised that this is due to the blond comb of the cockatoo familiar to Portugal via Brazil). I haven't run across any Caldeirada recipes that actually called for parrot as one of the ingredients. At least I don't think I have...
  3. Such as on boats in search of fish or on shore waiting for those boats to return.
  4. I, for one, welcome our new cephalopod overlords!
  5. Piri-piri is a hot pepper sauce similar to Tabasco. The actual pepper itself originated in Brazil, but got it's name and popularity through the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique (“piri” means pepper in Swahili).
  6. A fishmonger is basically the person who runs the counter of the seafood department of your supermarket or, even better, your fish market. And, yes, for some reason I do feel silly every time I use the word.
  7. And you should verify that the Chilean Sea Bass was legally caught if you want it to keep it off the endangered species list.
  8. Beware: read the lables under the plexiglass of your supermarket fish counter carefully. Most of the fish you see there is not fresh, but just thawed frozen fish. If it doesn't explicitly say fresh, you're much better off getting frozen fish and thawing it yourself at home.

Caldeirada de Peixe à Moda de Boston

serves 6 to 8

Keeping with the Portuguese tradition of making Caldeirada based on the best of local ingredients rather than some rubber stamped blueprint, this recipe uses fish that is easily found here in the Boston area: Bluefish, Striped Bass and Cod. I don't know anyone who grew up in this area that has not at some point gone on a “Deep Sea” fishing expedition out of some port on the Cape or in Rhode Island in search Blues and Striper. And Cod, well, Massachusetts is the land of the Bean and the Cod.

This Caldeirada is made using a standard layered stew method. In layered stews (Irish stew is another classic layered stew) you add each individual ingredient to the pot in layers, sprinkle a bit of liquid over everything, and cook the dish at a low temperature for a long period of time, never stirring, until everything is very tender and the juices from the meat and vegetables meld into a rich broth. Since we're using fish, time, for once, is on our side and “long” means 45 minutes. In fact, if you let this cook for much longer than an hour, you'll find that the fish begins to simply disintegrate. You'll still end up with some mighty tasty stew, but it won't be as pleasing to the eye. If you're having guests over and timing just isn't your strong point, you can cook the caldeirada hours ahead of time and just warm it up again prior to serving. In fact, some people feel that letting the calderada sit for a few hours only improves the flavor.


  • 1 pound Bluefish, cut into 2 inch chunks
  • 1 pound Striped Bass, cut into 2 inch chunks
  • 1 pound Cod, cut into 2 inch chunks
  • 2 large Yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 3 to 4 cups)
  • 2 Green bell peppers, thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
  • 2 Large Red Bliss or Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces (about 2 cups)
  • 3 large very ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced or 2 14.5 oz. cans of diced tomato (if it's not August and the tomatoes aren't from your garden or the farm stand, use the canned)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 3 small whole bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 loaf of crusty bread


  • In a large (10 quarts or larger) dutch oven or stock pot, drizzle in a tablespoon of the olive oil. Set the burner under the pot to medium high and let the pot heat for about three minutes or until the oil just begins to emit faint wisps of smoke.
  • Add the bay leaves and cook the bay leaves in the oil until they become fragrant and just begin to turn brown — it should take less than a minute. Turn off the heat and remove and set aside all but one of the bay leaves.
  • Add the bluefish (or whatever oily fish you are using) in a single layer on the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle on some salt and freshly ground pepper. Over the fish add one half of the onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, parsley and one bay leaf.
  • Repeat this layering process with the striped bass (or whatever firm fish you are using), followed by the remaining vegetables, garlic, parsley and bay leaf.
  • Add the cod in a final layer and sprinkle over it one tablespoon of the cilantro, the remaining olive oil, the white wine and some more salt and freshly ground pepper.
  • Cover the pot and turn the burner to its medium setting. Listen closely to the pot for the next fifteen minutes or so, and when you begin to hear beginnings of boiling or sizzling, turn the burner to its lowest setting.
  • Stew the Caldeirada for 30 to 45 minutes, giving the pot a good firm shake or two every 10 minutes or so to make sure that nothing sticks to the bottom.
  • To serve, tear or slice off pieces of crusty bread from the loaf and place them in the bottom of each bowl. Spoon the Caldeirada over the bread, being sure to include a little bit of something from each layer. Sprinkle a bit of the remaining chopped cilantro over each bowl and eat.

Caldierada de Lulas à Madeirense

serves 6 to 8

Despite Portugal's leading role in the early spice trade, Portuguese food in general is not highly seasoned like that of their neighbors to the east. While fiery hot piri-piri sauce is a widely used condiment, most dishes themselves avoid highly pronounced spicy flavors. When you do find dishes that include stronger spices, you'll find that the quantities used serve purely to enhance the flavors of the vegetables or meats rather than to define the dish as one made with a particular spice. In this famous squid based stew from Madeira, curry powder and ground ginger are used in such a way that it's hard to pick out that they are there but it would be readily apparent if they were not.

Around here in New England it's fairly easy to come across squid in any market. It comes frozen whole in 3 pound packages for something like four bucks, so this dish can actually be pretty inexpensive to make. If you don't know how or don't want to deal with cleaning squid (which, to be honest, is a slimy and tedious process), you can often find pre-cleaned squid tubes. Don't worry about whether the squid is fresh or frozen. In this dish it would be very hard to tell the difference.


  • 2 pounds small squid, cleaned, with tubes sliced into 1/4 inch rings
  • 2 large Yellow onions, sliced thinly (about 3 to 4 cups)
  • 2 Green bell peppers, sliced thinly (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (about 1-1/2 tablespoons)
  • 2 Large Red Bliss or Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1 to 2 inch pieces (about 2 cups)
  • 2 large very ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced or 1 14.5 oz. cans of diced tomato (if it's not August and the tomatoes aren't from your garden or the farm stand, use the canned)
  • 3/4 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry ground ginger (don't substitute fresh ginger, it's not the same thing)
  • 2 large whole bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish


  • In a large (10 quarts or larger) dutch oven or stock pot, add the olive oil and set the burner under the pot to medium high. Let the pot heat for about three minutes or until the oil just begins to emit faint wisps of smoke.
  • Add the bay leaf and cook until they become fragrant and just begin to turn brown.
  • Add the onions, peppers and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions and peppers soften, but have not begun to brown—about five minutes.
  • Stir in the curry and ginger powders and continue cooking until the spices become fragrant—just a minute or two more.
  • Add the tomatoes and wine and bring the liquid to a boil.
  • Reduce the heat to as low a temperature as your stove will let you go, add the squid, cover the pot, and cook for at least two hours, preferably three, and four won't hurt. Check the pot every fifteen minutes or so to be sure that the liquid isn't bubbling too rapidly (it shouldn't bubble much at all). If your lowest burner setting provides too much heat to allow for a prolonged gentle simmer, then try crumpling up some aluminum foil into a ring and using it to elevate the pot from the burner. Of course, if you have one of those $30 flame tamers, feel free to use that rather than 48 cents worth of aluminum foil. The goal here is to gently cook the squid while making sure that the liquid reduces as little as possible.
  • Add the potatoes and salt and pepper to your taste and continue cooking at a gentle simmer for another 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through to your liking. This last part is just to cook the potatoes. The rest of the Caldeirada is really already done.
  • To serve, ladle the Caldeirada into bowls. For color feel free to sprinkle on some chopped parsley or cilantro, and don't forget to pass around some nice crusty bread for dunking.


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