Portuguese Pica Pau

Pica pau (which translates as “woodpecker” in Portuguese), is a dish eaten with toothpicks and served as an appetizer or small plate with crusty bread and cold beer as accompaniments. This version of Portuguese-Style Beef with Pickled Onions and Olives uses strip steaks because of their meaty flavor and tender texture and they’re served on a bed of vinegar-marinated red onions and olives to balance the beef’s richness—as such, it’s more of an entrée.

Oddly, pickled cauliflower and carrots are often, but not always, included. And believe me, I think it would be overkill. We served ours over plain, steamed cauliflower because there were so many bold flavors already. Based on that thinking, we also did not make the Piri-Piri oil (recipe below).


Plus I believe our jalapeño was actually a habañero in disguise as it was sooo hot! We often tend to consume both types of chilis, but this rather large jalapeño’s heat took us by surprise. A word to the wise, you may want to seed (added that to the directions) and devein the chili before slicing it into rounds to temper down some of that heat.


In Step 4, I did not wipe out the pan, why get rid of those flavor-packed browned bits?? The wine in Step 5 will deglaze the pan and incorporate those luscious bits. Speaking of the wine, when measuring during prep, toss in the bay leaves to draw out some of that earthy goodness.

Portuguese-Style Beef with Pickled Onion and Olives

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 2 12- to 14-ounce beef strip steaks, each about 1 inch thick, trimmed of fat and gristle, patted dry
  • 1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1 cup pitted kalamata olives, roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup (good) sherry vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 6 medium garlic cloves, finely grated (I used a garlic press)
  • 1 jalapeño chili, stemmed, seeded, and sliced into thin rounds
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 2 Tbsp. salted butter, cut into 2 pieces and chilled
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Piri-piri oil, to serve (optional)


  1. In a small bowl, stir together 2 teaspoons each salt and pepper. Season both sides of each steak with the mixture, rubbing it into the meat. Set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, stir together the onion, olives, vinegar and 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Let the steaks and onion mixture stand for 30 minutes, stirring the onion mixture once halfway through.
  3. In a nonstick 10-inch skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon of oil until barely smoking. Add the steaks and cook without disturbing until well browned on the bottoms, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip and cook until well browned on the second sides and the centers reach 120°F (for medium-rare), another 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a large plate.

  4. Pour off and discard the fat from the skillet, then wipe out the pan. (I did not wipe the pan as I wanted to incorporate the browned bits, plus there was very little discernable fat.) Set over medium-high and add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, the garlic and chili. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  5. Add the wine and bay, then bring to a simmer over medium-high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is reduced to about 3 tablespoons, 2 to 4 minutes. Off heat, stir in the butter until melted.
  6. Transfer the steaks to a cutting board. Cut each steak lengthwise into 4 strips, then cut each strip crosswise into ½-inch pieces.
  7. Return the meat and any accumulated juices to the skillet. Add the parsley and toss to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
  8. Drain off and discard the liquid from the onion mixture and transfer to a platter. Pour the steak mixture over the onions, then drizzle with piri-piri oil, if using. Discard bay leaves.

Piri-Piri Oil

Milk Street’s offers this version of the spicy, herbal piri-piri oil, a condiment on nearly every restaurant table in Lisbon. Instead of hard-to-find piri-piri chilies, use árbol chilies. To get the right heat level and color, coarsely grind half of them and simply break the rest by hand. Store the oil in a tightly sealed container for up to one month. If you like, the recipe can be halved. If you can’t find árbol, substitute with 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes and 2 teaspoons sweet paprika.


  • 1 cup árbol chilies, stemmed and broken in half
  • 2 cups sunflower oil
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
  • 8 bay leaves, broken into small pieces
  • 1 rosemary sprig
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano


  1. Place half of the chilies in a spice grinder and pulse until coarsely ground, about 10 pulses.
  2. In a small saucepan, combine the ground chilies and the remaining halved chilies. Add the oil, garlic, bay and rosemary. Heat over low, stirring occasionally, until the mixture registers 275°F, 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. Off heat, stir in the oregano. Cool to room temperature. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl, then transfer to a clean jar and seal tightly.


Recipes adapted from Diane Unger of 177MilkStreet.com


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