Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The special steak and tempero

with 2 comments

I linked earlier to this way of preparing a steak for the grill. The Wife commented that it reminded her strongly of the way we use Tempero, which (as you see) has a high component of salt. She especially liked it put over ribs for a few hours, then scraped off before the ribs were cooked.


At Marco Pantano’s house in Wheaton, he always has a supply of his mother’s recipe for tempero, a basic seasoning mix that reminds him of his childhood in Brazil.

A combination of raw onions, garlic, leeks, parsley, basil, scallions and a lot of salt, the tempero (a Portuguese word loosely translated as “basic seasonings”) is a beautiful pale green and lends a bit of magic to just about any savory recipe. Made in enormous quantities by Pantano, 40, and his wife, Kathleen, and kept in the refrigerator for as long as a year, his tempero adds zest to salads, and – when cooked with them – to meat dishes, chicken, vegetable dishes, even to plain white rice.

The seasoning mix was developed by Pantano’s mother’s family, who in the 1890s emigrated from France to the small town of Salto about 50 miles west of Sao Paulo city. It was also embraced by the cooks in his father’s family, Italian immigrants to Brazil. Fiddled with over time to suit each generation’s palate (it’s now more Italian than French), the tempero eventually became a local staple – thanks largely to Pantano’s Uncle Jose, who made huge vats of it and gave it away to friends and family. (He still does.)

A kind of mother sauce that jump-started many other sauces and savories, the seasoning was his family’s link between past and present, between France and Italy and Brazil. It was also highly practical. Not only did the mixture enliven food, it also saved time. Instead of peeling and chopping onions and garlic every night, and cleaning and mincing a handful of standard herbs, cooks could reach for a tablespoon of the tempero. The mixture was long-lasting too because of the preservative powers of so much salt.

If anything defined the cooking style of Salto, a city where 90 percent of the population was of Italian origin when Pantano was growing up, it was the Pantano family’s tempero. “My mom is a great cook,” he say. “The whole family is. We never went to other people’s homes to eat. They came to our house. And everybody called her for recipes. We’d tell them they were easy to do, but they’d have to use the seasoning, even for a pot of rice.”

Pantano’s mother, Marianete Pantano, used the tempero every day – for vegetables, rice and beans, chickens, legs of lamb, pork roasts, suckling pigs. “Whatever she cooked, she cooked with it,” he says. “She still does today.”

His grandmothers, Padua Deoboux and Theresa Pantano, used it too – even for the 70- to 80-pound pigs they’d roast for Sunday afternoon barbecues at his mother’s father’s coffee farm. They’d rub the pig with the mixture and lots of lemon the night before, cook it in a pit the next day and serve it with tempero-heightened black beans, collard greens, corn and polenta.

There were lots of children in his immediate family, but only young Marco helped with the food shopping. “I was the one who got bread for breakfast, herbs for lunch, chicken for dinner,” he says. He was also the one who watched people ask his mother for recipes. And he was the one who helped out after school at a small restaurant, bar and bakery his father’s mother owned. “She had this big three- or four-pound jar in the refrigerator at all times,” says Pantano, “and the same size jar of chilies.”

From the time he was 4 until he was 14, he learned to cook by watching and helping her. And she’d always use the family tempero. To roast a chicken she’d start by killing one in the back yard, then plucking and cleaning it, then cooking it with a tablespoon of tempero in boiling water for 20 minutes before chilling the bird and roasting it with a little butter. Or she might coat a thin slice of veal with a little of the seasoning mixture and olive oil and rub it in bread crumbs for veal Milanese. Or she’d make meatballs and tomato sauce, both seasoned with tempero, and serve them with hand-rolled pasta. Or she’d flavor short ribs with some tempero, a little lime juice and oil, wrap them in banana leaves and start them on the grill away from the coals until it was time to unwrap them and brown them (and then serve them with salsa and some more tempero). And on and on.

After his initial schooling, Pantano studied accounting at Sorocaba University, in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, became a CPA and worked in his father’s firm. But in his mid-twenties, Pantano decided on a different course of action. Concerned about the uncertain political situation in Brazil in the mid-1980s, he sold everything he owned – his car, his sporting equipment, everything – and headed to New York, the first in his family to leave the country. Initially, he concentrated on studying English and discovering Manhattan. He didn’t think much about cooking – and the family tempero recipe might have stayed in Brazil.

But as money ran out, he had to find work. Unskilled in American accounting, he took the jobs he could get. One day, working as a dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant, he got a look at the chef’s paycheck and begged the chef to give him lessons, which he did. For the next year Pantano worked in a sushi bar, where he earned enough money for a ticket to Florida – after Brazil, he hated New York winters – and got a job as a cook at a seafood restaurant in Palm Beach.

Soon sous chef jobs followed, first at an American restaurant on tony Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, then at an Italian one. And then, when he was appointed chef at the Cafe Carina, a new Italian restaurant in Jupiter, Fla., he started mixing up batches of tempero for the first time since he’d left Brazil. “Now I’m cooking Italian food, and making my seasoning again,” he says. “To me as a cook, it’s a staple. And it felt good – like going back to my grandmother’s house.”

He stayed at the Cafe Carina, where he met his future wife, for three years, and then they moved to Washington. He’s cooked here a bit, but gave it up for the world of a waiter at downtown restaurants such as I Ricchi, Gerard’s Place and for the last four year’s at Kinkead’s.

Now that he’s no longer cooking professionally, Pantano’s family seasoning is reserved for home cooking and for friends and family. Many of the things he cooks he learned from his mother and grandmother. Meatballs and tomato sauce. Roasted pork loin. Roasted whole rockfish or snapper stuffed with shrimp and vegetables. Turkey marinated in tempero and olive oil. Turkey tetrazzini. Rice and beans. Sautéed vegetables. “Every family has someone preserving the recipes,” he says. “I’m the one in my family. Like my Uncle Jose.”

Recently, Pantano called his mother to go over family history and his food memories and the precise proportions of her tempero. She’d written it down for him years ago in metric measurements, and he wanted to review them before configuring them in American terms.

“My mother had no idea I was carrying this on,” he says. “You could say it’s almost a legendary recipe, except everybody in town knows about it.”

And now everybody here knows about it too.

Above story with all the recipes (PDF file).

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2007 at 11:30 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is a very helpful post; I linked to it. Thank you.


    Mama JJ

    9 July 2009 at 6:04 am

  2. […] And if you want to read more about the history of the Brazilian sauce and how to use it, click here. […]


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