Topic: Soups

Portuguese Kale Soup Recipe | Best Cook

3.88 avg. rating (77% score) - 75 votes

This recipe for Portuguese kale soup—also called Portuguese penicillin—is a crowd favorite that has nourished family and friends for generations.

Ruth O'Donnell's Portuguese Kale Soup

Ruth O’Donnell’s Portuguese kale soup recipe brings family and friends from miles around.

Julie Bidwell

Ruth O’Donnell is standing in her kitchen, shredding kale for her special Portuguese soup, which she’s made … how many times? “I can’t count that high,” she says. “I’m 96, and I’ve been making it since I was a girl. I make it all the time.”

Her nieces, Paula and Ruth (“Baby Ruth”), are in the next room. They’re visiting, and last night a big pot of this soup, which they call “Portuguese penicillin,” vanished before Ruth’s eyes. So she’s making more. A petite, lively, brown-skinned lady with bright eyes, Ruth has cooked in this particular kitchen for 72 years, the path between sink and stove well worn.

It’s been a long, good life, but not without adversity. Her mother was left on a doorstep in Portugal; a benevolent family took her in and brought her over to live with them after they settled in America. “My mother was poor, poor, poor,” Ruth says. “I learned to cook from her as soon as I was big enough to stand beside her. She’d have something on the stove, and she’d be showing me how to do it as she went along. That’s how I learned. We never had recipes. We’d just do it.”

Portuguese kale soup

Ruth washes kale for her Portuguese kale soup.

Julie Bidwell

A widow of 44 years, Ruth is never alone. She has three daughters and “I can’t tell you how many grandchildren I have!” In fact, she has great-grandchildren, and her refrigerator door is covered with their faces. She may not be able to count them all (photos of family gatherings look like conventions or town meetings), but she can tell you all about each one of them.

Living where she does, in the heart of Provincetown, Massachusetts, Ruth has pretty much seen it all. She worked as a waitress for much of her life: 21 years at the Provincetown Inn and 20 more at Ciro and Sal’s, both widely known Provincetown eateries, which has made Ruth widely known, too. Aside from her soup, she’s famous for her “flippers,” a kind of Portuguese fried dough, similar to fritters.

“I used to have people in this house lined up,” Ruth remembers, as she points through the kitchen and out into the dining room. “Sometimes I didn’t even know who was here, but they were all here for my flippers. I couldn’t flip them fast enough.”

Portuguese Kale Soup

Ruth’s famous Portuguese kale soup.

Julie Bidwell

When the soup is done, we sit at the little table as more nieces arrive, bearing gifts. They hug, they kiss. It’s time to be together, talk, and have soup.

Read photographer Julie Bidwell’s blog about meeting Ruth O’ Donnell.


  • Janice

    I am originally from Fall River, MA and I am Portuguese. I was raised on this soup also but we used Navy beans and split peas. Then added a soup bone with meat, potatoes, kale (or collards), minced garlic, minced onions and chourico, I now live in Texas and make it frequently for my family and friends, only thing is I have to order the chourico from Fall River. Everyone loves it. I was surprised to see only one person using white beans and no one using split peas. It thickens the soup just a little and makes it so tasty…try it…

  • My mother-in-law came to Fall River, MA (large portuguese community) from the Azores in the early 1900’s. She made amazing Portuguese food, kale soup was a staple. I love to cook, and watched her intensely in the kitchen. I now live near Memphis, but I always have Chourico and Linguica on hand (mail order from Famous Foods ). This is very close to the way I make my Portuguese soup, and it is amazing, by far my favorite of all my soups. Ruth is a treasure, and I enjoyed her story almost as much as the soup

  • just an update: My new favorite soup , second only to my moms soup, seing how we are italian I added a can of hunts petete chopped tomatoe, just to make it my own!

  • This is hands down not only the best soup I’ve ever made, it’s also so easy to make! It’s incredible! I lived on the cape for 8 years & had kale soup in P-town many times. This
    Is even better!

  • I was a Mommas boy, I used to watch and help my mom cook from as long as i can remember. those were some of the best memories as a kid, helping her cook and bake. Thank god before she got sick she wrote down some of our favorite recipes, as that is not easy because like Ruth said there are no recipes for those foods, a dash of this, a sprig of that, and a handful of something. You would be surprised how a bowl of your mom’s soup can transport you back to your childhood. I had a bowl of kale soup at the Lobster Pot in P-Town and it was awesome, but I’m sure Ruth’s recipe will be far superior to theirs! Thanks for sharing, Ruth!!!!

  • I LOVE this soup! I make it with great northern beans and extra chicken broth. It is absolutely delicious!!

  • How about the flipper recipe? Would be great to have my family lined up for them!!

  • I made this soup for my son and he (and I) loved it. My late neighbor, Mrs. Sousa, used to make this for Scott when he was young. Being English, I had never had this before and absolutely loved it. Mrs. O’Donnell’s soup is now a permanent fixture in our households! Thank you so much!

  • I can’t believe how much kale 1# equals! When ripped into pieces, it completely fills my largest pot. What makes it worse is that I was doubling the recipe so I’m only 1/2 way through the shredding process. I could feed a couple hutches of rabbits for a week. Am I on track with all this kale? Thanks for your help!

  • MaryBeth

    I’m going to make this soup form my playoff party on Sunday the temps are supposed to be in the negative numbers by nightfall. So even though the Patriots are out. My home will be warm and cozy with my family and this beautiful soup!!

  • I grew up in Foxboro, Mass, but now live in Marietta Georgia. When I was a child I loved
    Kale soup. I haven’t tried this yet but will this weekend. It has been snowing down
    here and it will be good to try some good Kale soup.

  • This soup is terrific. I’m no slouch at making soup myself but I have never made any like this. The first pot dissappeared too fast and I am making another one today. During a winter storm in upstate New York this warms the house and smells delicious. My thanks to Ruth for sharing this recipe with all Yankee readers.

  • This is the best kale soup I have made or tasted. I live in a predominately Portuguese community and this recipe is better than I have had at our many Portuguese restaurants. Ruth is correct in the addition of the Bean with Bacon soup as it gives an added special flavor and richness. Thank you Ruth for this excellent recipe that I will made many times!


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