Friday, December 31, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (MASTER POST WITH LINKS)

Flavors of Brazil still has a large amount of material to publish on its recent voyage to São Luís - markets, restaurants, street food, etc. etc. etc. However, in an effort to avoid overkill on the topic, from here on we'll be presenting this material  mixed in with the usual Flavors of Brazil mix of recipes, ingredients and cultural tidbits.

For our readers who want to join Flavors of Brazil in exploring the food culture of the state of Maranhão in depth, we'll keep this posting updated with convenient links to all Maranhão articles, and we'll keep it at the top of the blog until the end of December. That way, everyone will have a quick reference guide to all Maranhão postings, each of which is only one click away.
Part  1 - Introduction
Part  2 - Links to previous Flavors of Brazil articles on Maranhão
Part  3 - The Restaurants known as "bases"
Part  4 - The culture of reggae in Maranhão
Part  5 - Tarioba
Part  6 - Bacuri
Part  7 - Photos
Part  8 - São Luís, The New Orleans of Brazil
Part  9 - Fresh cupuaçu juice
Part 10 - Caldeirada Maranhense
Part 11 - RECIPE-Caldeirada Maranhense
Part 12 - Santo Antonio do Lopes Cachaça
Part 13 - Eating Sawfish (Peixe-Serra)
Part 14 - Last Thoughts

Thursday, December 30, 2010

RECIPE - Pasta with Bottarga (Massa com Bottarga)

One way to serve bottarga, in a traditional Italian manner, is to make a simple dish of pasta, olive oil, parsley and garlic then sprinkle super-fine shavings of bottarga over the dish just before serving. The sharp salty tang of the fish roe makes the dish redolent of the sea, and the its simplicity highlights the flavor profiles of all of the ingredients.

Whether you make this dish with Italian bottarga, or with Brazilian bottarga from Santa Catarina, you're likely to convince even the most wary diners that bottarga, just like its more famous cousin caviar, is worth every penny that it costs - which is likely to be quite a few as this is definitely a luxury item.

This dish would make the perfect first course for an elegant dinner-at-home. Follow it, as the Italians do, with a perfectly cooked piece of meat accompanied by a small serving of sauteed spinach, then a fruit salad for desserts. Light, sophisticated and absolutely delicious.

RECIPE - Pasta with Bottarga (Massa com Bottarga)
Serves 4

10 oz (300 gr) good quality durum wheat penne, or other pasta shape as preferred
1.5 oz (40 gr) bottarga, freshly grated
3 cloves garlic
handful Italian parsley, finely chopped
extravirgin olive oil
Use a medium-sized heavy saucepan. Thinly slice the garlic, then fry in about 3 Tbsp. olive oil over very low heat until transparent but not browned. Reserve.

Cook the pasta in a large amount of salted water, according to directions, or to taste. Drain completely, then immediately add it to the saucepan containing the garlic and oil. Then add the chopped parsley and mix everything together, delicately but completely.

Divide the pasta among four plates, then sprinkle each with a quarter of the grated bottarga. Serve immediately, with freshly ground black pepper.

Recipe translated and adapted from Boca no Mundo on O Dia Online

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Brazilian Bottarga - Tainha Roe is Golden

In the winter months of May and June, the waters off the coast of Brazil's southern state of Santa Catarina teem with enormous schools of tainha, or mullet as it's known in English. They migrate to these waters to escape the colder waters further south and to spawn. They are excellent eating fish, and the fishermen of that state, mostly descendents of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, depend on the tainha for a large portion of their income.

Traditionally in Brazil tainha was eaten fried, grilled, baked or in a sauce, and it was the flesh of the fish that was consumed. However, the fact that many of the fish that were caught were gravid with roe meant that a local market grew for the roe, also eaten fresh - primarily fried in oil. The roe (called ova in Portuguese) is exceptionally delicious and delicate, and for descendents of Europeans not an uncommon dish.

Mullet roe happens to be something that's long been eaten in Italy, since Roman times in fact. When this roe is salt-cured and dried it turns to gold - both literally and economically. This product is known in Italy, and increasingly throughout the gastronomic universe, as bottarga. Eaten throughout the Mediterranean world, the hard, salty roe is thinly sliced and served as an appetizer, or grated over pasta dishes. It is considered a luxury item, and good quality bottarga is very expensive indeed.

Historically, the Mediterranean Sea was the source of the mullet roe that was processed into bottarga, but these waters have been extensively fished, and there are insufficient stocks of mullets left for a commercially viable mullet fishery. Consequently, although bottarga is associated in almost everyone's mind with Italy, and Italy consumes the major share of this product, today most bottarga doesn't come from Italy. It comes, instead, from those tainha spawning off the shores of southern Brazil. Just as most Dijon mustard originates from Canadian mustard seed, and the durum sheat for most Italian pasta also arrives in Italy direct from the wheat-fields of the Canadian prairie, Italian bottarga is much more likely to be Brazilian than Italian.

Back in the late 1950s a family of Brazilian of European origin with the (somewhat unfortunate) name of Fuck - I'm not making this up - began working in the fish industry in Santa Catarina, and their company grew to become a large producer of fresh and processed fish products. Realizing the commercial potential of their huge harvest of mullet roe, the company's current commercial director, Bernardo Fuck, decided to produce bottarga for export, and to develop a domestic market in Brazil for bottarga. In their plant in Itajaí, Santa Catarina, they currently produce up to 50 kgs. monthly of the delicacy, salting and drying it in their own facilities. They commercialize the product under the name Bottarga Gold, and have developed markets for the product both in Brazil and overseas. Their market slogan is "Bottarga Gold - Brazil's Own True Caviar."

Bottarga will likely always be a luxury product, and will always be expensive. Fortunately, a little goes a very long way, and under refrigeration, bottarga has a shelf-life of nearly a year. Should you find some in your local gourmet store or high-end fish shop, look to see where it comes from - it could very well be Brazilian.

In the next post here on Flavors of Brazil I'll include a typical Italian recipe for bottarga on pasta.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

RECIPE - Mullet with beans (Tainha cozida no feijão)

This recipe from the state of Santa Catarina features tainha (mullet) which abounds in the waters off that state during the winter months of May and June. It's an easy recipe, although it does take some time because it uses dried beans. As with many other fish recipes, it can easily be adapted to whatever species of fish is available in your region. Just pick a firm-fleshed fish that can be bought in steaks (postas in Portuguese). This is not a dish for fillets of fish, nor for fish that flake easily, like cod or sole. Halibut isn't available here in Brazil, but I think that halibut steaks would make an admirable substitute for the Brazilian tainha. If you live near tropical or temperate waters, for example in Florida, you should be able to find mullet in your local fish markets.
RECIPE - Mullet with beans (Tainha cozida no feijão)
Serves 4

1 1/2 cup dried beans - white navy, pinto or black
2 Tbsp. neutral vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt to taste
8 cups (2l) water
2 lbs (1 kg) mullet or other white fish, cut into steaks
1/3 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
The night before soak the beans in plenty of water, at room temperature, for 12 hours.

The next day, in a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil, then add the onion and garlic and sauté until they are transparent by not browned. Add the beans and 4 cups (1l) water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook until the water is absorbed. Add the remaining 4 cups (1l) water and continue to cook the beans over low heat for approximately 40 minutes, or until the beans are tender.

Season the fish steaks with salt, carefully add the steaks to the cooked beans, mix in the parsley and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked but not falling apart.

Serve immediately accompanied by white rice.

Translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora

Monday, December 27, 2010

FISH OF BRAZIL - Tainha (Mullet)

Tainha is the Brazilian Portuguese name for the fish known in English as the mullet. Fortunately, confusion has been avoided here because the word tainha in Portuguese only refers to a species of fish and not to a haircut as well. The mullet haircut has become the butt of so many jokes in the English-speaking world that I'm sure mullets (the fish) would be quite happy if they were allowed to change their name to something that hasn't become a catchphrase for a hideous hairdo.

Mullets are found in temperate and tropical ocean waters around the world. One of the world's largest populations is in the Atlantic waters off the coast of the southern Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. For most of the year enormous shoals of mullets live off the coast of Rio Grando do Sul, but in the months of May and June they migrate north to Santa Catarina in search of warmer water and suitable spawning grounds. The most important commercial fishery for tainha is during this season, and the ports of Santa Catarina receive the bulk of the fish for processing.

Traditionally there was a large Mediterranean fishery for mullets, in fact since Roman times, particularly in the seas off of Italy where the fish is known as triglia. In recent years this fishery has diminished due to the disappearance of mullet stocks. Overfishing is the suspected cause. Many Italian immigrants to Brazil settled in Santa Catarina in the late 19th and early 20th century, and already being familiar with the fish made the tainha an important part of local cuisine. Today tainha is the fish that is most appreciated in Santa Catarina and the species that is most associated with the cooking of that state, in particular with the cooking of its Italo-Brazilian community.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

RECIPE - For a Holiday Hangover - Maria Sangrenta, the Brazilian Bloody Mary

In parts of the world, notably the UK and members of the British Commonwealth, like Canada and Australia, today, December 26, is Boxing Day. For many many more countries, this day is nameless, but whether you call it Boxing Day or nothing at all, it's often a day to recuperate from the festive rigors of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Too many presents, too much food, too much drink, and too much celebrating - a universal after-effects of Christmas cheer.

One of the time-tested aids to recuperation from this excess is a cocktail made with vodka and some form of tomato-based juice. In the USA and the UK, it's normally called a Bloody Mary and consists of vodka and tomato juice spiced to taste with a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime, some Tabasco Sauce, Worcestershire Sauce and often horseradish. The Canadian cure-all, the Bloody Caesar, is quite similar but with the substitution of Clamato Juice for tomato juice.

Thoughts of these "hair-of-the-dog" drinks got me wondering what a Brazilian version might be and what it might be called. Tomato juice, although not commonly drunk in Brazil, is available in better supermarkets and gourmet shops (at exorbitantly high prices). Obviously, to make the drink truly Brazilian you'd have to shelve the vodka and reach for a bottle of cachaça. Spicing the drink would be quite straighforward, although you'd have to give it a good dose of hot sauce to make it Brazilian. And to name it, why not just translate Bloody Mary - it could be called a Maria Sangrenta. I thought I'd come up with something quite cool, and possibly quite delicious.

However, a quick online search quickly disabused me of any notion of being original. In fact, in the 2010 Brazilian Championship of Cachaça-based Cocktails sponsored by the ABB (Associação Brasileira de Bartenders), the vice-champion drink, concocted by bartender Jairo Alvin de Gama from the state of São Paulo, was none other than my own Maria Sagrenta. Oh well, as they say, there's nothing new under the sun. Sr. de Gama beat me to it. Had I been a bit faster on the draw, I could have been the vice-champion bartender of Brazil.

Sr. de Gama's drink recipe is a slight variation on the standard Bloody Mary. Here it is should you wish to give it a try - on Boxing Day or at any other time. I'm sure it's good for what ails ya.
RECIPE - Maria Sangrenta
Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 oz. (5 cl) cachaça
1/2 oz. (2 cl) Cointreau
2 dashes Tabasco sauce (or to taste)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
tomato juice to fill

Put a few ice cubes in a tumbler or old-fashioned glass. Add the two liquors and the spices. Fill with tomato juice, and stir with a spoon to thoroughly blend.

Decorate with a slice of star fruit and a cherry tomato.

Friday, December 24, 2010

RECIPE - Christmas Eve Salt Cod (Bacalhau da Consoada)

This recipe, which clearly points to a Portuguese origin, is the kind of salt cod (bacalhau) dish one is likely to find served at a Brazilian Christmas Eve feast, late at night on December 24th.

Harking back to the prohibition of eating meat on December 24th, salt cod has a long association with Christmas Eve in Brazil. But today most Brazilians don't eat the fish on this day because they've been told to do so by the Church. It's because for most of them, salt cod is traditionally linked to Christmas Eve, and it's quite unthinkable not to have at least one dish featuring this preserved fish on the buffet table.

Normally, Christmas Eve salt cod is a relatively unfancy dish, highlighting the taste and texture of the de-salted and reconstituted cod. This recipe is typical, and typically delicious.

RECIPE - Christmas Eve Salt Cod (Bacalhau da Consoada)
Serves 4

4 pieces, good quality, center-cut salt cod fillets
2 lbs. boiling potatoes
1 lb. kale
4 fresh eggs
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp. extravirgin olive oil
salt and wine vinegar to taste
The day before serving, soak the fish in cold water in the refrigerator, changing the water and rinsing the fish several times, for at least 24 hours. Drain and reserve.

Peel the potatoes and halve or quarter them depending on size. Trim the kale leaves, removing the stems, but keeping them whole.

Fill two large saucepans with water and bring both to the boil. In one pan place the eggs and half the fish. In the other place the kale and the other half of the fish. Reduce heat and simmer both pans for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until the fish is just tender and beginning to flake.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying pan, add the chopped garlic and cook until the garlic is lightly browned. Remove from heat, add wine vingar to taste. Pour into a sauce bowl, whisk to combine thoroughly, and keep warm.

Using a stainer or large spoon, remove the eggs, potatoes, kale and cod from the pans of boiling water. Peel and halve the eggs. Drain everything else thoroughly, then arrange everything nicely on a large serving platter. Serve immediately with the garlic-vinegar sauce on the side.

Recipe translated and adapted from 1001 Receitas de Bacalhau.

Brazil's Other Christmas Dish - Salt Cod (Bacalhau)

December 24th's midnight Christmas feast, known in Brazil as Ceia de Natal or Ceia de Consoada, normally features turkey or other poultry. But unlike North American Christmas dinners, where turkey is likely to be the only main course, Brazil's feast will almost always include at least one dish of salt cod (in Portuguese, bacalhau).

Eating salt cod on Christmas Eve is a tradition that came to Brazil from Portugal. In earlier times the 24th of December, as well as every Friday and a number of holy days, was a day on which the Roman Catholic Church forbade the consumption of meat. It was a day of fasting, or abstinence. Consequently, the evening meal on Christmas Eve was seafood-based, and salt cod was a natural choice for the main course as it was available throughout the year and was very cheap.

Today, of course, salt cod is anything but cheap, even here in Brazil. Nonetheless, the tradition of including bacalhau on the the Christmas buffet table is alive and kicking in this country. In the weeks leading up to Christmas most supermarkets will feature salt cod with large displays of various sizes and quality of this dried, salted and preserved fish. The supermarket aisles near the bacalhau display are redolent with the strong small of fish. And the more subtle and appetizing aroma of desalted and cooked bacalhau graces the dining table of most Brazilian homes on this night of family feasts.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting to Know your Christmas Turkey

Just like in most North American homes, we'll be having turkey for our Christmas feast at my place in Fortaleza this year. Christmas dinner in Brazil is an event for December 24, not Christmas Day , and the meal is served very late, often at midnight. Christmas presents are exchanged before the feast begins, and it's often 4 am before things wrap up. December 25 is a day of R&R, and if this year is like most it will find me, along with most everyone else, at the beach.

One thing will make this Christmas feast just a little different from others I've celebrated in various corners of the world, is that the centerpiece of the meal, the roast turkey, will have a known provenance and history, and perhaps even a portrait at the dining table. I personally didn't meet the turkey prior to his demise, but one of the guests at the feast knew him when he was alive and kicking, and even took some photos of him. He he is in all his turkeyish glory:

Last week this friend took a trip with his mother to the village where she grew up in the central backlands of Ceará, about 500 kms. from Fortaleza. One of the things he wanted to do while he was there was to buy a peru caipira (a free-range turkey) for Christmas dinner. Walking down a country lane near his mother's ancestral home, he heard the distinctive "gobble-gobble" of a turkey from behind a fence. Seeing that there was not only a few turkeys in the yard, but a man who appeared to be their owner, he asked if the turkeys were for sale. The fellow replied that he hadn't thought about it, but yes they probably were. A deal was soon done for the tom turkey for R$50 (USD$30), and after the obligatory photoshoot the bird was dispatched and dressed within 30 minutes. He currently resides in my freezer awaiting roasting on the 24th.

I won't, however, be popping the bird in the oven, and spending the day savoring the aroma of roasting turkey filling the house. My oven, like most Brazilian home ovens, is quite small, and the bird would be a very tight fit indeed. So on the morning of the 24th, I'll take the turkey, all prepared for roasting and sitting in his roasting pan, down the street to the bakery where I buy bread every morning. There he, and many more of his ilk, will go into the large bread baking ovens which for that one day only become turkey roasting ovens. I'll return later in the afternoon to pick him up and bring him home. The rest of the meal will be cooked here, and at midnight, we'll put the bird out on the table in all his glory.

I hope he knows we appreciate his sacrifice. It's so easy to disassociate meat on the buffet table from the animal which gave its life to provide it. I think it's an instructive lesson to have participated, even if by second-hand association, in a bit of the life and death of an animal that graces our plate. It makes me, at least, just a bit more appreciative of the food I'll be eating, and where it came from, come December 24th.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

RECIPE - Port Wine Syrup for Rabanada (Caldo do Vinho Porto)

Rabanada, the Brazilian version of French Toast and a traditional dessert at Christmas supper in Brazil, is served most commonly, and most traditionally, with a syrup made from sweetened and spiced Port wine. This makes sense, as the dish itself is one that Brazil inherited from the Portuguese, like Port wine itself.

If you're serving French toast as a breakfast main course, I'm not sure that this syrup would be an improvement on maple syrup (and I mean real maple syrup not Mrs. Butterworth's). But if you take my advise and try serving rabanada as a dessert, then this syrup is the perfect accompaniment.

It is also very simple and quick to make, and I could imagine it being used in many different ways in many different desserts. Warmed and served over vanilla ice cream, over poached pears, with small shortbreads to dip into it. Christmas or not, add this to your repertoire for desserts. You'll not regret it.
RECIPE - Port Wine Syrup for Rabanada (Caldo do Vinho Porto)

4 cups (1 liter) water
1 cup (250 ml) good quality dry Port wine
1 stick cinnamon, about 2 inches (5 cm) in length
2/3 cup (150 ml) honey

Combine all the ingredients in a large heavy saucepan. Stir well to combine and bring slowly to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the honey. When it comes to the boil, reduce heat and continue to cook at a slow boil for 10 minutes, or until the syrup has thickened and reduced by one half. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Reserve.

Recipe translated and adapted from Folha de S. Paulo.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rabanada - Brazil's Traditional Christmas Dessert

In Brazil, the main Christmas meal is served not at mid-day on December 25th as in USA and Canada, but late at night on Christmas Eve, as in many parts of Europe. It is known in Portuguese as "ceia de Natal" (simply, Christmas supper). Among the traditional dishes are bacalhau, or salt cod, and peru, or turkey. The turkey is usually roasted, but the North American accompaniments of stuffing, and mashed potatoes with gravy, are missing from the standard Brazilian buffet table.

Dessert at this Christmas supper differs from what North Americans and Northern Europeans are used to, as well. There is no pumpkin pie, and no Christmas pudding normally. The most traditional dessert is one of Portuguese origin called rabanada. The word rabanada means "gust of wind" or "a blow with the tail." Although the name might be unfamiliar, the dessert is certainly well-known to English speakers under a different name, and they associate this dish with another time of day - breakfast, to be precise. For rabanada is nothing less than what we English speakers call French toast.

Day-old bread dipped in a bath of eggs and milk and fried, then served with a sweet syrup. It's the same thing whether you call it rabanada or French toast, although in Brazil there is no such thing as maple syrup (nor maple trees for that matter).  Instead, Brazilian sprinkle the fried bread with suger, then drizzle a syrup made from spiced port wine over their rabanada. The bread used is likely to be some type of French bread, such as a baguette or French rolls.

For many Brazilians a Christmas supper without rabanada would seem as incomplete as Christmas dinner without pumpkin pie or steamed pudding would seem to Northern Hemisphere residents. Tradition is all-important at this time of year, and what's been served for countless generations in one's family is what should be served this year, and for generations to come.

In the next post on Flavors of Brazil, I'll provide a typical recipe for Port wine syrup for rabanada. Do try it for dessert some time, it's wonderful. Just don't do it at your family's Christmas dinner, or your family is likely to revolt. Save it for another occasion.

Monday, December 20, 2010

RECIPE - Chicken Breast with Lime Peel (Filé de Frango com Raspas de Limão)

Whenever I'm looking for a quick weeknight supper dish - something that can be shopped for, prepared and eaten without much fuss, muss or bother - I often find myself checking out chicken breast recipes. They often fit the bill, whether I'm back in Canada or here in Brazil.

This recipe, from the state of Paraíba in northeastern Brazil, has quickly become a standard since I first found it about six months ago. The acidity and brightness of the lime flavor makes the finished dish sparkle. And the fact that it making it takes only a half an hour from start to finish is an added bonus on a busy day.
RECIPE - Chicken Breast with Lime Peel (Filé de Frango com Raspas de Limão)
Serves 4

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (halves)
juice of one large lime
salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. extravirgin olive oil
1/2 cup (125 ml) good quality chicken broth
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. finely grated lime peel (best using microplaner)
4 thin lime slices to decorate
Season the chicken breasts with the lime juice, plus salt and pepper to taste. Let marinade for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken from the marinade, reserving the marinade. In a large non-stick frying pan heat the olive oil, then brown the chicken on all sides, about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken, reserve and keep warm. In the same frying pan, add the reserved marinade and deglaze the pan. Add the chopped onion and chicken broth and cook over high heat for 5 minutes to cook the onion and reduce the liquid. Return the chicken breasts to the pan, cover with sauce and cook for a couple of minutes or until just done. Remove the pan from heat, then stir in the grated lime peel.

Serve immediately accompanied by boiled potato or white rice, decorating each breast with a slice of lime.

Translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora

Saturday, December 18, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 14) -Last Thoughts

This will be the last post on Flavor of Brazil's first series of "On the Road" posts. It's been a lot of fun in many ways, and so we hope, and expect that it won't be the last. The actual travelling, of course, is the real joy of this type of voyage of gastronomic discovery. But that's not to say that the pre-trip research and the post-trip preparation of articles for the blog aren't fun as well. Knowing that there will be articles to write for the blog sharpens all of one's senses while travelling, and focuses one's energy upon returning.

We hope that the readers of this blog have enjoyed learning a bit about the fascinating culture and cuisine of São Luís, Maranhão. It would appear that was the case, as the series' articles have received a larger than usual number of visits from our readers. Thank you.

We'll soon begin thinking of our next On the Road adventure, which is scheduled for New Years' week when we'll be visiting Rio de Janeiro to ring in 2011 and to search out interesting places, products and people for Flavors of Brazil.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 13) - Eating Sawfish (Peixe Serra)

When in São Luís recently I had a meal at the central market, the Mercado da Praia Grande. In addition to stands selling fruits and vegetables, arts and crafts and local food products, the circular market boasts a number of small restaurants in its central core. The atrium of the market has a bandstand with live music, a number of plastic tables and chairs, and one can order a meal from any of the restaurant stalls. We visited about 2 pm on a very busy and lively Saturday afternoon, and the market was humming with activity. There was a local band playing forró, a traditional northeastern dance style of music, there was plenty of icy beer being served, and there was lots of food. Some people were there to drink beer and chat, some were there to dance, and some to eat a meal.

Among the many choices of restaurant, we picked one named Deco's at random, basically. On their menu they listed peixe serra, which in English means sawfish. I had never seen this fish on a menu before, and vaguely remembered the fish from picture books I had as a kid. Large, like a swordfish but with a serrated saw for a snout instead of a sword. I do like swordfish and so decided to try it. It came to the table in the form of steaks, fried, accompanied by rice, beans, spaghetti and a salad. It was delicious - the meat was flavorful and moist, and meaty. It reminded me very much of shark or swordfish. I thought it was a great meal, and the market a great experience.

It was only when I returned home to Fortaleza and did some research in preparation for this article that I realized, to my horror, that I'd committed an ecological crime by choosing saw fish for my lunch. I learned that the saw fish is, in fact, a type of ray, and that it is critically endangered. According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) the species is in danger of imminent extinction, and the only legal international trade in this fish involves live specimens being sent to aquaria for conservation purposes. There is no legal fishery in any country, including Brazil. Yikes! Suddenly that delicious fish steak in São Luís' market gained a much more sinister flavor, and what I learned tainted my memory of the meal. Certainly, the first saw fish meal I'd ever eaten would also be my last.

There's a moral to this tale, I think. Each of us is responsible for the choices we make when we look at a menu. Overfishing is a world-wide problem, and by eating fish from non-sustainable fisheries, we all become a part of that problem. I certainly couldn't choke down another piece of saw fish, ever. Although readers of this blog may never encounter sawfish on a menu, they've all now been advised. Don't eat it. And learn which fish are ecologically sound to eat. A good place to start is here.

(UPDATE 22DEC: It appears that this fish I ate in São Luís wasn't, in fact, the endangered sawfish. Click on the comments to this posting to read more about this. However, what I wrote above about the consumer's responsibility in choosing what species of fish to eat is still valid.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 12) - Santo Antonio do Lopes Cachaça

When Flavors of Brazil was in São Luís, Maranhão on its recent gastronomic road trip, one of the obligatory stops was the local central food market - in Sao Luis it's called Mercado do Praia Grande. It's a typical Brazilian market with some stalls selling fruits and vegetables, others selling meat or fish, still others selling prepared foods or arts and crafts. In addition there are a number of small stands selling cooked foods and meals. Almost anywhere else in the world, a local market, I think, is the fastest way into the culture of a new city or region, and the Mercado do Praia Grande market was one of our first stops on this visit.

I'm frankly not much of a shopper for arts and crafts or other souvenirs when travelling, but I can't resist poking around food shops in the search of an ingredient, a sauce, or a beverage that I can cart home as a gustatory memory of my travels. In the Mercado do Praia Grande, I ran across a stall that was full of local and artisanally produced foodstuffs. And there I did my souvenir shopping. Besides jellies and preserves of obscure local fruits, I purchased two bottles to bring home with me. One survived the trip and the other didn't. My treasured bottle of hot chili pepper sauce made with coconut milk was confiscated by security at São Luís' airport. The Brazilian air system doesn't have the "no-liquid" rule that is the norm in North America and Europe, but there is a regulation I'd never heard of that bottles that don't have labels on them cannot be carried on board. My hot sauce had no label, so there it went, into the trash. My other bottle fortunately had a label so it made it all the way home.

The label on this bottle was a piece of white paper, printed on a computer and glued to the bottle that simply said the following:

Superior aguardente de cana (Superior sugar-cane liquor)
Santo Antonio do Lopes
Facricada e Engarrafada em: (Manufactured and bottled in:)
Santo Antonio do Lopes, Maranhão
What I had was a bottle of artisanally produced cachaça from a small village in the interior of the state of Maranhão. The bottle itself was a recycled beer bottle, and it was stopped with a cork. There was no information on the label as to the quantity or alcoholic strength of the liquid, nor the persons responsible for the cachaça. However, I knew that these small-batch distilled cachaças, made in the traditional way, are often good and sometimes excellent, so I bought one to bring home - at R$5 (USD $3) a bottle, it was not not a big financial risk.

Last night, I decided that it was time to give Santo Antonio do Lopes' cachaça a try. But before actually drinking it, I spent a bit of time on the internet to find out a bit more about the village of Santo Antonio, about which I knew precisely nothing. Using the usual online search tools, I discovered that it's a small community of about 15,000 souls in the central interior of Maranhão, that its altitude is 129 meters (425 feet) and that its annual per capita income is R$1247 (USD $736). That's right - average income is $736 per year.

The photos of Santo Antonio do Lopes I was able to find on the internet were few, and most showed the center of the city, which was surprisingly new, neat and tidy. Two photos, however, showed another side of life in the small villages of northern Brazil. The first showed a few locals holding up a snake they'd captured in Santo Antonio - it was a 5 meter (16 foot) sucuri (known in English as an anaconda). They seemd remarkably non-plussed in the photo, but I can't imagine it's an everyday occurence.

The other photo was from a newpaper and accompanied an article which described the capture of a local gang of bank robbers, who'd been robbing banks in the region for the past few years. The photo showed them after capture, along with their arsenal, which was extremely impressive. These were some serious, not to mention well-dressed bank-robbers and I, for one, am quite pleased they're no longer going about their business in Santo Antonio, or anywhere else for that matter.

As for the cachaça , it was delicious. There's something that the village of Santo Antonio does completely right, and that's distill cachaça. Obviously meant for drinking straight up, the cachaça had clearly been aged in wood for some time. Its color and woody notes gave that away. It was moderately smoky, smooth on the palate, and surprisingly light in feel. It was completely distilled, with no residual sweetness. Just the way moonshine should be.

This'll be a bottle to savor slowly, one sip at a time. It had better last, because if I want to replenish my supply, I'm sure I'll have to go back to Maranhão. When the time comes, maybe that will be the excuse I need to revisit São Luís.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Story of Amma Chocolate

Amma Chocolate is quickly becoming the chocolate-of-the-moment here in Brazil and the story of the company makes a very interesting, very 21st century story. In a recent blind tasting sponsored by one of Brazil's largest food and wine magazines, Amma's 70% cocoa chocolate bar beat out such heavyweights of the chocolate world as Lindt, Nestlé and Valrhona. (Click here to read the results of the blind tasting). The very short history of this young company, its stated mission and the philosophies of its owners are reflections of the ways many in the contemporary world of food are looking at what we eat today and what we plan to eat in the future.

Diego Badaró is a fifth-generation cacau planter from the southern part of Bahia state in northeastern Brazil. This area is the historic center of cacau cultivation in Brazil and is home to a large percentage of what's left of the Mata Atlantica, Brazil's largely deforested coastal rain forest. Badaró is passionate about growing the best possible cacau beans for chocolate production and about preserving and fostering the rain forest which is the cacau trees natural habitat. Sometime in 2007 he sent a box of samples of his cacau beans, unsolicited, to Frederick Schilling, the founder and CEO of Dagoba Organic Chocolate, the largest producer and vendor of high-quality organic chocolate in the USA. Schilling was so impressed by the product that within less than a month he was in Brazil to meet Badaró . Realizing that their goals were remarkable similar, the two men decided to start a joint venture in Brazil to produce and market high-quality organic chocolate, sustainable grown.
Badaró (left) and Schilling (right)

This joint venture became Amma Chocolate, and today the company has established a small but very creditable niche in Brazil's booming chocolate market. Their distribution is still very limited and their products can only be found in the best chocolate shops in Brazil's larger metropolitan areas. Unfortunately, Fortaleza, my Brazilian hometown doesn't have a local distributor yet, so I will have to wait for my next visit to Rio de Janeiro, Brasília or Salvador to sample an Amma chocolate bar. It's an experience I'll be looking forward to.

Amma has an excellent website detailing their products and the philosophy behind the company. It is in Portuguese only, but has some great photos and links to some English-language articles on the company. It can be found by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Amma - Brazil's Prize-winning chocolate

In a recent issue of Brazilian food magazine Prazeres da Mesa, a number of well-known brands of chocolate were subjected to a blind taste-test. Six brands were chosen for the test, and in each case the brand's 70% cacao chocolate bar was subjected to the tasting. The juedges were some of Brazil's most pre-eminent food educators, chefs, chocolatiers, pastry chefs, and food journalists.

The result, which apparently surprised even the judges once they had removed their blindfolds, was that a Brazilian chocolate, Amma, was the unanimous first-choice among the six jurors.

Here are the complete results of the test, along with my translation of some of the judges' critiques of each brand.
1. Amma - score 8.1
Produced in Brazil. "Well-rounded flavor, with a sweet aroma and the right proportion of cocoa butter."

2. Casino Bio - score 7.9
Produced in Belgium. "With a nice amount of acidity and light tannins."

3. Lindt - score 6.96
Produced in Switzerland. "Has an agreeable aroma, but is very sweet."

4. Valrhona Guanaja - score 6.95
Produced in France. "Well-rounded, but has a weak aroma which doesn't last long."

5. Nestlé Gold - score 5
Produced in Switzerland. "Rough texture and residual taste of fat."

6. Kopenhagen - score 3.6
Produced in Brazil. "Too much cocoa butter."
The story of Amma chocolate, the winner, is very interesting and will be covered in the next post here on Flavors of Brazil. It is a new joint venture between a fifth-generation chocolate grower from the Brazilian state of Bahia and the American founder of the largest-selling brand of organic chocolate in the USA.

Monday, December 13, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 11) - RECIPE Caldeirada Maranhense

One of Brazil's legion of seafood stews or chowders, caldeirada maranhense (Maranhão Chowder) is an iconic dish of traditional cuisine in the state of Maranhão. Click here to read about caldeirada as it's served in Restaurante Antigamente in São Luís.

This recipe, although it is not from Antigamente, is a typical version of the dish. Like recipes for many old-time, traditional dishes it should serve as a general guideline to the essential elements of the dish and need not be followed slavishly. The dish existed long before cooks bothered with precise measurements of ingredients and every cook has his or her own way of making it. So feel free to alter at will - Flavors of Brazil can guarantee it will be delicious. That is, unless you decide to add chocolate, or strawberries! Of course, then it would no longer be caldeirada maranhense.
RECIPE Caldeirada Maranhense
Serves 2 (generously)

1/2 lb (250 gr) medium or large shrimps, peeled and deveined
1/2 lb (250 gr) firm white fish (halibut, sirigado or similar), cut into 1 inch (2 cm) cubes
juice of one large lime
salt to taste
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large ripe tomato, chopped
1 small onion, finely diced
1 small green or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 chili pepper (japaleno, serrano or other) seeded and finely diced
1/2 cup (125 ml) tomato sauce
1 cup (250 ml) water
2 medium potatoes, peeled, pre-boiled
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled
1/2 cup (125 ml) thick coconut milk
1/4 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup green onion, green part only, finely chopped
Rinse the shrimp and fish in cold fresh water, then season with salt and lime juice. Reserve.

In a large saucepan, or clay cooking bowl, heat the olive oil then add the chopped tomato, onion, bell pepper and chili pepper. Cook for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are softened and the onions are transparent. Add the reserved shrimp and fish, the tomato sauce, water, potatoes and eggs and finally coconut milk. Mix thoroughly, bring quickly to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, mix in the parsley and green onion, then serve immediately accompanied with white rice.

Translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora

Sunday, December 12, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 10) - Caldeirada Maranhense

In almost every coastal region of Brazil (and with over 4650 miles, or 7500 kilometers, or coastline there are a lot of coastal regions in this country) there is a traditional dish consisting of a variety of fish and/or seafood served in a spicy, soupy sauce. In the state of Bahia this dish is usually called moqueca and is highlighted by the presence of dendê palm oil in the sauce. The neighboring state of Espírito Santo is also famous for moquecas, but theirs don't include dendê. In Flavor of Brazil's home state of Ceará it's known as peixada, and in Maranhão the locals call their variation caldeirada, which has the same linguistic roots as our English word chowder.

During our recent visit to São Luís, Maranhão, we sampled a caldeirada Maranhense during a dinner in a charming restaurant called Antigamente, located on one of the principal squares of the historical district. Housed in a centuries-old two-story building that was once a home, the restaurant is located at street level, and at night literally spills out into the square with tables and chair covering the sidewalk in front of the restaurant and out onto the cobblestoned street in this pedestrian-only zone.  Owned by self-taught local chef Ana Lula, who started her career with a hot-dog cart on the same square where Antigamente sits, this restaurant has been open for more than 20 years and is one of the established stars of the São Luís food scene.

Antigamente's caldeirada is a rich, heady mixture of fish and shellfish and generously feeds two people. The sauce is tomato-based and is enriched with coconut milk. In addition to the seafood, the caldeirada included whole hard-boiled eggs (peeled) and chunks of potatoes. The stew is cooked, in traditional style, in a large unglazed-ceramic bowl, and brought to the table in the same bowl. It is served with plain white rice and pirão, which is an extra portion of the sauce thickened with manioc flour.

The dish was absolutely delicious and brimming full of seafood. When we ordered the dish our waitress had confirmed that one serving would be enough for two, but she was wrong - it would have easily sufficed for three or perhaps four persons. As wonderful as it was we were unable to finish it and had to leave a disconcerting amount of caldeirada in the bowl, even though we'd eaten sparingly of the rice and pirão.

Our next post here will feature a typical recipe for caldeirada maranhense. It's not Antigamente's recipe which is a proprietary secret of Ana Lula's, but I would guess that it's very similar.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Marie Anne Bauer - Fortaleza's Chef of the Year

Marie Anne Bauer
Every November, food enthusiasts in Fortaleza eagerly await the publication of Veja magazine's annual guide to food and drink in the city, called Comer & Beber. Covering food retailers, bars and restaurants, the guide uses a cadre of locally-based judges to indicate best-of-group prize winners in a number of categories - for example, best ice cream, best bar with live music, best beach bar, best Japanese restaurant, best seafood restaurant, etc.

One of the most highly anticipated awards is for the city's chef of the year (Chef do Ano). This year, for the second time in three years, that award went to Marie Anne Bauer, executive chef of the newly established (opened September 2010) Restaurante Âncora on the city's seafront promenade. When she won the prize in 2008 she was the chef of another restaurant and so this year's award makes her the first chef in Fortaleza to have been named chef of the year from two different restaurants.

As her French first name and German-looking surname might indicate, Marie Anne was born and raised in Alsace, and received her first training there. She came to Brazil in 1990 and, after passing briefly through Fortaleza, cooked at a number of restaurants and hotels in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. She returned to Fortaleza in 2007, and according to interviews in the local press, intends to remain here.

At her restaurant, which seats up to 400 persons, she commands an all-male kitchen staff of 14 cooks. She is intensely involved in menu development and is one of the most locavore-minded of the city's chefs. Her menu makes use of many local ingredients such as cashew nuts, manioc, and native fruits. One of her favorite pastimes, according to an interview she recently gave to a local newspaper, is haunting local markets and street-fairs, on the hunt for something new, exotic and delicious to add to her repertoire.

Like other Franco-Brazilian chef-compatriots of hers here in Brazil, Marie Anne Bauer has managed to combine classical French chef training with a love for Brazilian food traditions to create something special and unique. Flavors of Brazil is definitely looking forward to its first experience dining at Ancora and promises to tell the blog's readers all about it afterward.

Friday, December 10, 2010

RECIPE - Sausage Frittata (Fritada de Ovos com Linguiça)

As a bit of a break from things Maranhão-esque, here's a quick and easy recipe from the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in almost all ways the cultural opposite of Maranhão in Brazil's northeast. It's 2000 miles as the crow flies from São Luis, the capital of Maranhão, to Rio Grande do Sul's capital, Porto Alegre, but the two regions are worlds apart in almost every respect. They're as different as Boston and Las Vegas, or Quebec City and Calgary. So, for a change of pace, Flavors of Brazil offers up this go-to recipe for a quick and light main course that serves equally well for brunch or supper.
RECIPE - Sausage Frittata (Fritada de Ovos com Linguiça)
Serves 4

1 Tbsp. neutral vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 12-inch length of cured sausage - kielbasa, chorizo, linguiça, andouille style
1 small onion, finely chopped
salt and black pepper to taste
6 large eggs
1 Tbsp. Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. green onion, green part only, finely chopped

Finely slice the sausage into thin rounds. Reserve.

In a large frying pan heat the oil, then add the chopped garlic and sausage and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the garlic and sausage slices begin to brown. Add the onion, cook for a few more minutes, until the onion is transparent but not browned.

In a mixing bowl beat the eggs lightly. Add this mixture to the frying pan containing the sausages. Lower the heat and cook, delicately mixing in the eggs. Continue until the eggs are cooked, but still moist.

Remove from heat, season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in the chopped parsley and green onion and serve immediately.

Translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 9) - Fresh Cupuaçu Juice Taste Test

Back in July, Flavors of Brazil discussed a fruit from the northern reaches of the Brazil called cupuaçu. You can read those posts by clicking here and here and here. Although I was familiar with this cousin-of-chocolate through a variety of processed foods made from cupuaçu, like ice cream and frozen fruit pulp, I had never had the opportunity to taste the fresh fruit itself. Until the blog's recent trip to São Luis, Maranhão, that is.

Brazilian cities and towns are full of fresh fruit-juice bars serving freshly blended fruit juice along with a variety of sandwiches and snacks. The selection of available fruits is always large, and sometimes overwhelmingly enormous. Some of the fruits are universally available throughout the country and all year round - for example, mango or papaya or pineapple. Others are restricted by availability either by season or region. Many of the Amazonian fruits are available in southern Brazil, if available at all, only in the form of frozen fruit pulp blended with water.

So it was a pleasure to find that almost all the fruit-juice bars in São Luis listed many Amazonian fruits on their juice menus, and a quick question to the bar-boys confirmed that fresh fruit was used rather than frozen pulp. During a mid-afternoon walk along the main pedestrian street in downtown São Luis, in the 90F (32C) sun, it seemed like a prudent and pleasant thing to sample a glass of fruit juice. Having eaten cupuaçu ice cream in Fortaleza, and having really liked it, I decided to have a glass to compare the flavor of frozen juice and the fresh-made variety. The cost for a 300 ml glass was R$2.50, about USD $1.40.

When the bar-boy poured the juice from the blender into a glass, the thick, creamy texture of the juice was evident. It looked and poured like a milk-shake. The color was almost white, just tinged with light green. The aroma was sweet, and there was a very faint hint of acetone (nail-polish remover). Drunk through a straw, the drink first offered up a rich and almost buttery mouth-feel. It was immediately clear that this juice had a significant amount of vegetable fat. The initial taste was clearly tutti-frutti, the taste we associate with bubble gum, but that was followed with the taste of white chocolate. Given the close botanical relationship between cupuaçu and cacau that made perfect sense.

The drink was delicious and refreshing. I enjoyed it immensely. However, because of the high fat content of cupuaçu, you really couldn't call the juice thirst-quenching. The sensation was similar to that of eating ice cream - it cools you off but it doesn't deal with your thirst. I asked for, and received, a glass of ice water which topped of my taste-test perfectly.

It's unfortunate that fresh cupuaçu is extremely perishable and thus one needs to travel to northen Brazil to sample it. Or, rather, considering its high caloric value, it's probably fortunate for me that it's not available here in Fortaleza. I'd definitely be going back for more if it were!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 8) - São Luís, The New Orleans of Brazil

As regular readers of Flavors of Brazil already know, this blog paid a recent visit to the northeastern Brazilian city of São Luís, capital of the state of Maranhão. The main purpose of the trip was gastronomic of course, as the name of this blog would indicate, but it was also to observe and experience all of the elements that create that city's unique atmosphere.

One of the things that struck me over and over again during my time in São Luís was how often I was reminded of the American city New Orleans. I can't say I know New Orleans intimately, and have only visited it as a tourist, but it's certainly clear to even the most unobservant visitor that New Orleans feels different that any other large American city. There's only one Big Easy and there's nothing else like it. São Luís has that same feel - it's Brazilian but it's not like other Brazilian cities. As there appears to be room for only one New Orleans in the USA, the cultural ambiance of São Luís isn't duplicated elsewhere in Brazil.
New Orleans

The resemblance between New Orleans and São Luís can be said to go back to the day of their respective foundings. Uniquely among all the cities in what was eventually to become Brazil, São Luís was founded not by Portuguese colonists, but by the French. Daniel de la Touche and 500 of his countrymen landed at the site of São Luís in 1612 to found the colony of France équinoxiale. They built a fort to established their new colony and named it after French king Louis IX (St. Louis). New Orleans was also founded by the French, just over a century later, in 1718. Although neither New Orleans nor São Luís would remain under French suzerainty in the long term, they both retain an affinity for French cultural which adds to their differentiation from other cities in their countries.
São Luís

New Orleans and São Luís share not only their European foundation, they are both intensely creole cities. The word creole can refer to many elements of society and culture, from race and ethnicity to language, music, art and cuisine. Here I'm taking it to mean a mixture of European and African roots synthesized to create something that is neither purely European nor African but a homogenous mixture of both. Both cities have a large black population, reminders of their past as centers of the African slave trade. The slave ships of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries not only brought slaves from the coasts of Africa they brought the cultural belongings of these people - religion, typical food plants, language, rhythms. The Afro-American religions known as voudon or voodoo in New Orleans have their counterpart in São Luís' candomblé. African food plants, such as okra (quiabo in Portuguese), yams (inhame) play a prominent part in the gastronomy of these sister-cities, as does the liberal use of chili peppers to spice up dishes of shellfish and seafood. The creole cultural stew shared by New Orleans and São Luís also produced jazz in the USA and Brazilian reggae in São Luís - mixes of European musical styles with African rhythms and soul.

One other similarity that came to mind many times during Flavors of Brazil's visit to Maranhão was that both São Luís and New Orleans share an air of decadence and genteel decay. Part of this might be due to the climatic similarities of both cities, which are low-lying coastal towns, intensely hot and humid. There's a hint of must in the air at all times and a over-ripe lushness in the vegetation. Neither city is rich, and buildings of historical value range in state of preservation from recently-renovated to crumbling into nothingness. All things, including time, seem to move slower in these two towns. It's just too hot to rush.

In future posts here about São Luís, Flavors of Brazil will highlight more of what makes New Orleans and São Luís such intimate soul-sisters.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 7) - photos

Some photographic impressions of São Luís, taken on this past weekends visit to that city. In the days to come Flavors of Brazil will be featuring the city of Sao Luis with more photos, videos, restaurant reviews and recipes. It is a fascinating and utterly unique city. Although only one hour from Fortaleza by air (400 air miles) it is worlds away historically, culturally and economically.

(Click on photos for larger image)