Wednesday, May 30, 2012

RECIPE - Brazilian Liver and Onions (Iscas com Elas)

This poetically named dish (click here to read more about its Portuguese name iscas com elas) has been on the menu of Rio de Janeiro's À Lisboeta restaurant for 80-plus years, and there's no sign its coming off the menu soon. It continues to be one of the restaurant's most-requested dishes.

À Lisboeta is famed in Rio for its Portuguese cuisine, and this dish clearly points to Portuguese origins. Of all the regions of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro has, in culinary terms at least, the closest links to the motherland - to Portugal. Historically it stands to reason, as during a significant part of the 19th century Rio de Janeiro, not Lisbon as you might think, was the capital of the Portuguese Empire. When Portugal was invaded by Napoleon's troops in 1808, the entire Portuguese court from the Emperor on down fled Lisbon and sailed away to Rio de Janeiro, from where they ruled what portions of the Portuguese empire that remained loyal. Many ordinary Portuguese followed their rulers, and even today Rio de Janeiro has a much higher percentage of its population claiming Portuguese ancestry than other regions of Brazil do.

Liver and onions is one of those love-it-or-hate-it dishes. Those in the love-it camp are fervent in their adoration, and those in the opposing camp often claim not to be able to abide even the smell of the dish. This recipe, therefore, is strictly for those who already know they love liver and onions and who want to make it the way they do in Rio. If you can't abide liver in onions in any language, don't try iscas com elas.
RECIPE - Brazilian Liver and Onions (Iscas com Elas)
Serves 6

2 lbs (1 kg) beef liver, sliced thin
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
salt and pepper to taste
4 large white onions
1/2 cup extravirgin olive oil
1 cup pitted Kalamata or other black olives
1 cup cherry tomatoes,  washed
2 Tbsp Italian parsley, finely chopped
extra olive oil for drizzling
Thoroughly wash the liver, then remove any membranes, fat or nerves. Cut the liver slices into thin strips, then place them into a mixing bowl. Add the lime juice and salt and pepper to taste, mix completely and let stand for 30 minutes.

Slice the onions into thin rings. Place them in another mixing bowl, separating the rings. Cover with cold water and let stand for about 10 minutes. Drain the onion rings completely, then dry them with paper towels. Reserve.

Heat a large frying pan, then add 1/4 cup of the olive oil. When it is hot but not smoking add the onion rings and fry, stirring frequently, until the rings are nicely golden. Remove the onions from the pan with a slotted spoon and drain them on paper towels. Reserve, keeping warm.

Add the remaining oil to the same frying pan. While it heats, remove the liver strips from their soaking water, reserving the water. Fry the liver in the hot oil just until the strips are browned - do not overcook. When the liver is done, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and reserve, keeping warm.

Add the soaking liquid to the pan, add the olives and cherry tomatoes, then raise the heat and bring rapidly to a boil. Let boil for a few minutes, until the liquid has reduced by half. Remove from the heat, stir the liver back in and reserve.

Serve on a large lettuce-lined platter. Alternate layers of liver and onions, then pour the sauce over all. Drizzle olive oil over all and serve accompanied by white rice or boiled potatoes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Iscas com Elas - Brazilian Diner Lingo

Adam and Eve on a raft
According to Wikipedia, diner lingo is a uniquely American verbal slang used by waitresses and cooks in hashouses and truck stops to communicate with each other. Wikipedia says diner lingo "is virtually unknown outside the US." Some wonderful examples of diner lingo can be found on the Wikipedia page devoted to the subject and on a website called - phrases like "looseners" for prunes, "English winter" for iced tea, "side of Joan of Arc" for french fried, and our personal favorite, "Adam and Eve on a raft" for two poached eggs on toast.

Though the USA might be the only English-speaking country to speak diner lingo, inventive names for restaurant dishes don't only exist there - Rio de Janeiro's restaurants are famous for their own version of diner lingo. You might call it " gíria da lanchonete." One of the most famous and most wide used examples in Brazil is a dish called "iscas com elas". It's difficult to translate into English, but the idea is something like "the bait and the girls."

Iscas com elas is basically liver and onions, a diner and luncheonette specialty both in Brazil and the USA. In this case, the liver is cut into thin strips before frying (the bait) and served with fried rings of onion (the girls). The dish, and its name, originated in Rio de Janeiro's 80-year-old À Lisboeta restaurant, where it's been on the menu since the day the restaurant opened. Located in Rio's central business district, À Lisboeta is packed every lunch hour with bankers, accountants, bureaucrats, blue-collar and office workers, all wanting a substantial, satisfying lunch - and many of those end up ordering iscas com elas. It's one of the most popular dishes on the menu, even after all these years.
Iscas com elas

À Lisboeta doesn't just serve plain old iscas com elas, though. For those who are really hungry, there's a  more substantial version called iscas com elas and elas or "the bait and the girls and the girls," which means that the plate not only includes the strips of liver (the bait) and the fried onion rings (the girls), but also boiled potatoes (the other girls).

Next post, we'll publish À Lisboeta's recipe for iscas com elas.

Monday, May 28, 2012

RECIPE - "Rotten" Cake (Bolo Podre)

Some names for recipes just plain have it wrong. Welsh rabbit, for example - there's not a long-eared, floppy-tailed little bunny within miles. Canadian beaver tails? They're nothing but a flattened wad of dough, fried, then dusted with sugar. And Buffalo wings? Next time you see a bison flying overhead, let me know (We know this dish is named after the city, not the animal, but you get the idea). As for spotted dick, we're not even going to go there.

We'd like to add this recipe to the list of misnamed dishes, as there's absolutely nothing rotten about it - neither its state of preservation nor its flavor. Plus, it's not really a cake either. It's cool, creamy, and absolutely delicious. That's all you need to know. (You can read more about bolo podre here).

This recipe is for bolo podre as it's served in the city of Belém, in Brazil's Amazonian rain forest. In other regions of Brazil and in Portugal, the same name is used for entirely different cakes, so if you've reached here by Googling bolo podre, make sure this is what you want before you cook it.
RECIPE - "Rotten" Cake (Bolo Podre)
makes 1 large cake

1 cup granulated white sugar
2 lbs grated coconut meat - packaged unsweetened or fresh
1 2/3 cup pearl tapioca
1 can sweetened condensed milk
3 cups whole milk
3 cups coconut milk, commercial or homemade
Mix together the white sugar, the whole milk and the coconut milk, and stir briskly until the sugar is completely dissolved. Reserve.

Sprinkle the tapioca over the mixture and let it hydrate completely. Stir in the grated coconut. Mix completely.

Fill a rectangular or tube-shaped cake pan with the mixture, packing it down to eliminate air bubbles. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.

Unmold the cake onto a serving platter, sprinkle additional grated coconut over if desired, and serve cold.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Rotten Cake" - A Terrible Name for a Terrific Dish

When Flavors of Brazil was in Belém, Pará recently, one of the best things about our hotel's marvelous breakfast buffet was something with the very unappetizing name bolo podre. The name means "rotten cake" in Portuguese but fortunately the dish was far from rotten, and not all that close to what we'd call a cake. Serving cake for breakfast might itself seem a strange practice to some people, but there's nothing unusual about it in Brazil. Hotel or resort buffet breakfasts always have a selection of cakes from which to choose, and even at home there might be a some slices of unfrosted caked on offer for the family.

We tried bolo podre the first morning we were at the hotel, mostly out of curiousity's sake and just because the name was so weird. It turned out to be absolutely wonderful, and by the time we left the hotel a few days later the dining room staff would greet us each morning saying "bolo podre" with a knowing smile.

The bolo podre we ate in Belém was more of what we'd call a pudding than a cake. In fact, we'd call it tapioca pudding. Bolo podre, as it's eaten in Belém, consists of small pearls of manioc flour (what's sold in North America as tapioca) combined with grated fresh coconut, coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, milk and sugar. The mixture is pressed into a tube-shaped cake pan and then refrigerated until the manioc flour has absorbed enough of the liquid that the "cake" can be unmolded and cut into slices for serving. The result is creamy, sweet and rich, much like rice pudding, with the unmistakeable flavor of coconut.

In preparing for this blog post, we did some Internet research on bolo podre, and it turns out that although the name itself is a heritage of Portuguese culinary traditions, the dish itself doesn't resemble its Portuguese namesake at all. Traditional Portuguese bolo podre is a rich spice cake, sweetened with honey and moistened with generous amounts of vegetable oil and 8 whole eggs! It is spiced and flavored with powdered cinnamon.

The connection between the Portuguese spice cake and the Amazonian tapioca cake-that's-not-a-cake is a mystery. But for us, an even greater mystery is why either one of these treats would be burdened with the utterly unappealing name "rotten cake."

Friday, May 25, 2012

RECIPE - Barreado

If you are planning to make this traditional dish from Brazil's southern state of Paraná, (read more about barreado here) you're going to need two specific things that might not be already hanging around in your pantry. First, the dish must be cooked in a large clay pot with a lid - the type of pot that's often referred to as a bean pot. Bostonians use them for cooking baked beans, as do Quebecers, so if you're in either of those categories you just might have one in the house. If not, you'll have to beg, borrow or steal one, as the dish really can't be made in any other pot or pan.

Second, you'll need to find manioc flour to make the thick dough that seals the pot. Not being able to source manioc flour doesn't mean that you can't make barreado however, just that it won't be completely authentic. You can make the same sort of dough with wheat flour and water. Manioc flour is also used to thicken the broth in a traditional barreado, but again you can substitute flour, although the result won't taste exactly the same.

One of the nice things about making barreado is that all the cooking can be done long before the dish is served. In fact, the dish tastes better this way. So when you want to do your cooking the day before you serve a meal, barreado is an excellent option.
RECIPE - Barreado
Serves 4

6 lbs beef shank, cut into long strips in the direction of the grain
salt to taste
1 lb lean smoked slab bacon, cut into julienne strips
5 medium onions, chopped
5 cloves garlic, chopped
3 bay leaves
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp ground cumin
2 to 3 cups manioc flour, mixed with a little water to make a thick dough

For the pirão
cooking liquid from the barreado
1 cup manioc flour

sliced ripe banana to garnish
Season the beef with salt to taste (remember the dish will contain bacon, so season lightly). Reserve.

In a large saucepan, fry the bacon strips until they have rendered their fat and are beginning to brown. Add the chopped onion and garlic and cook for 3 minutes. Then add the beef, the bay leaf, the oregano and cumin and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the meat has browned.

Put everything from the saucepan into a large clay bean pot, then add sufficient water to cover. Reserve.

Make a thick dough with the manioc flour and water, and roll it with your hands into a long thick "rope." Cover the bean pot, then firmly press the rope around the rim of the lid to seal the pot entirely. Cook the dish over lowest flame or electrical burner for 6 hours. If steam begins to escape from the pot, use additional manioc flour dough to patch the holes, making sure the pot stays sealed for the entire cooking process. Let the pot cool completely, then break the seal to open the pot. (Be careful when opening as there might still be steam in the pot.)

Remove the beef from the pot, leaving the cooking liquid in the pot. When the beef is cool enough to handle, shred the beef with two forks.

Pour the cooking liquid into a clean saucepan. Heat over medium heat and when the liquid is hot, sprinkle manioc flour, by the small handful, over the surface then mix in. Continue to add manioc flour slowly until the mixture thickens to the consistency of gravy.

Reheat the shredded beef if necessary, then place some in the bottom of 4 deep soup plates. Pour some  pirão over - enough to moisten the beef and provide a bit of gravy, but not enough to drown the meat. Garnish with slices of ripe banana and serve with plain white rice.

Recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Happy National Coffee Day, Brazil!

Flavors of Brazil almost missed Brazil's National Coffee Day, being celebrated today, May 24. And what a celebration it must be, as it appears that Brazilians are the world's champion coffee drinkers. We would have guessed that title would have gone to the USA, where coffee is served in bottomless cups in Interstate truck stops and where urbanites daren't walk the streets without a Venti in their hands. But no, according to Brazil's National Coffee Producers Association, Brazilians drink more coffe per person than citizens of any other country - the total is a whopping 82 liters (about 82 quarts) per person per year. (Note that other sources dispute these numbers, so they can't be taken as gospel.)

Considering the fact that Brazilians don't drink coffee in large cups, the number of cups of coffee served annually in Brazil must be astronomical. Brazilian coffee is served in a standard coffee cup at breakfast and in tiny, tiny plastic cups (for a drink called cafezinho) throughout the day.

There's a lot of talk in the media these days about Brazil's current rise to the top level of the world's energy producers. What a lot of people must not realize is that the energy they're talking about is caffeine!

Incidentally, Brazil isn't just the champion in coffee drinking. It's also the world's largest coffee-producing country - by a long shot. According to Bloomberg, for the 2010-2011 season, Brazil produced 54,500,000 million bags of coffee. At 60 kg/132 lb per bag, that's about 3.5 million tons. The second largest coffee-producing nation, Vietnam, produced only about a third as much.

So tip your coffee cup and raise a toast to coffee-loving Brazilians.

Barreado - Paraná's Iconic Claypot-cooked Beef

A sealed barreado pot
We've been talking a lot recently at Flavors of Brazil about pressure cookers, and how they are a common feature of contemporary Brazilian home kitchens. It turns out, though, that the tradition of using pressure and steam vapor to cook and tenderize tour cuts of meat in Brazil predates the invention of the pressure cooker itself.

In the southern Brazilian state of Paraná there is a well-known traditional dish called barreado that uses a hermetically-sealed clay pot to achieve the same results that a pressure cooker does. There are various theories about who created the dish and when, some saying it was native Amerindian tribes and other attributing the dish to tropeiros, colonial donkey-caravan traders. What is not in doubt, though, is that the technique is very old.

Barreado is basically a meat stew thickened with manioc flour and served with slices of banana. Barreado must be cooked in a clay pot for a long period of time over low heat - preferably the coals of a wood fire. To seal the pot, cooks first make a thick paste of manioc flour and water and then apply that seal to the edges of the pot's lid to ensure that vapor cannot escape. The seal is renewed as needed during the long cooking period, which can be as long as 12 hours. Some 19th Century recipes call for barreado to be cooked for at least 24 hours, though there is probably very little reason to extend the cooking time that long.

Because of the long cooking time in a moist environment even the toughest cuts of meats are rendered fall-off-the-bone tender. To serve barreado, the meat is lifted from its broth and is shredded, while the broth itself is thickened with manioc flour to create a thickened sauce called a pirão. The meat is served on a bed of pirão and is garnished with banana slices. Cachaça is the drink of choice when eating barreado.

Barreado is associated with the coastal region of Paraná, particularly the small community of Morretes located in the state's litoral. On weekends thousands of tourist from the state's capital, Curitiba, and from further afield swamp the small town of only 15,000 residents and fill its restaurants in search of a plate of barreado. For many of them it's a reacquaintance with a treasured dish from their past, for others it's a new experience that connects them to the culinary history of Paraná.

Next time round, we'll post a recipe for make-at-home barreado.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

RECIPE - Spicy Pressure Cooker Beef (Acém Pimentada na Panela de Pressão )

Judging from the statistics that Google kindly compiles for bloggers whose blogs are hosted on Google Blogger, Flavors of Brazil's recent articles about the continued popularity of pressure cookers in Brazil and related recipes for pressure-cooked dishes have been well received by our readers. These articles have had higher numbers of page views than average. Even though the pressure cooker's glory days have faded in the northern hemisphere there must be a few die-hards who continue to use their mother's old pressure cooker. Either that or there are forward-thinking culinary vanguardistas to are just the first of a new wave of pressure cooker enthusiasts. In either case, our pressure cooker posts seem to have struck a chord.

In an effort to satisfy these readers, and to encourage other readers to take a pressure cooker for a test drive, this recipe for chuck steak (acém) cooked in a pressure cooker shows how Brazilian cooks use pressure cookers to quickly tenderize tougher, though flavorful, cuts of meat and at the same time create a rich and hearty sauce.

Note: If you don't have the hot paprika called for in the dish, you can substitute 1 Tbsp sweet paprika and 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper.
RECIPE - Spicy Pressure Cooker Beef (Acém Pimentada na Panela de Pressão )
Serves 8

4 Tbsp neutral vegetable oil
2 lb (1 kg) chuck (acém) trimmed of excess fat and cut into large cubes (2 inch)
2 cloves garlic
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped
3 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp hot paprika (more or less if you wish a less spicy or more spicy dish)
1 cup vegetable broth, white wine or water
salt and pepper to taste
chopped Italian parsley to garnish
Heat the oil in a pressure cooker and brown the beef cubes on all sides, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. Reserve.

In a blender, blend the garlic, onion, green pepper, tomatoes, paprika and vegetable broth (or wine or water) until smooth and homogenous. If necessary, blend the vegetables in two batches, using half of the liquid for each batch.

Put the browned beef cubes in  the pressure cooker, then pour the blended ingredients over. Put the top on the cooker and heat over medium-high heat until the pressure takes. Reduce heat to medium-low and pressure cook for 30 minutes. Remove the cooker from the heat and let stand until the pressure is fully released.

Put the put in a decorative serving bowl, pour the sauce over and sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Serve immediately with boiled potatoes or white rice.

Recipe translated and adapted from Mdemulher Culinária .

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

CUTS OF BEEF - Acém (Chuck)

Location of acém (chuck) highlighted
One of the most popular and versatile cuts of beef in the Brazilian kitchen, acém is also one of the tastiest and most economical cuts on the entire beef carcass. In English, we call the same cut of meat chuck, and as in Brazil, we use it for pot roasts, braised beef dishes and to make the best quality ground beef.

Acém (or chuck) is technically known as a sub-prime cut of meat meaning that it can be further subdivided into smaller cuts. In English these are known as chuck steak, chuck eye steak, cross-rib roast, top blade steak and others. Brazilian butchers will custom cut similar steaks and roasts, but in butcher shops in Brazil, the cut is usually marketed whole or ground simply as acém.

Acém is cut from the front quarter of the carcass, and basically corresponds to the animal's shoulder. It's the largest cut on this part of the carcass and represents almost a third of the dressed carcass's total weight. The large size of the cut is part of the reason for its relatively cheap price, as a large amount of acém must be produced for each pound of the more noble cuts like filet, loin and sirloin.

Because the animal uses the muscles of its shoulder for movement, acém is not as tender as the noble cuts, which are not charged with getting the animal from point A to point B. It also means that acém has a higher percentage of connective tissue. This higher quantity of connective tissue, which melts into the meat during cooking means that beef from this part of the animal is high in flavor.

Traditionally, Brazilian cooks prefer acém when cooking any type of braised beef dish, and it's the cut of choice for the Brazilian comfort food known as assada da panela (literally - pot roast) which is a piece of beef cooked in liquid over low heat for a long time. Often Brazilian cooks resort to a pressure cooker to lessen the time required for the meat to become tender. Recipes in Brazilian cookbooks also often specify acém when ground beef is used in a dish as its level of fat is neither too much nor too little to make perfect meat loaf (bolo de carne) or meatballs (almondigas).

We'll serve up some Brazilian recipes for this cut of beef in the next few posts here on Flavors of Brazil.

Monday, May 21, 2012

RECIPE - Mushy Peas (Purê de ervilhas)

At times it's easy to forget that not everything about Brazilian cuisine is strange or exotic from the European or North American point of view. Granted, a blog like Flavors of Brazil that deals with traditional regional and contemporary Brazilian gastronomy will have to talk about fruits that can only be found in the tropics, species of fish and shellfish that might seem unusual and bizarre in the cold-water world of the northern-hemisphere seas, or cooking techniques inherited from pre-literate Amerindian tribes or from African slaves. However, much of Brazilian cooking is very similar to cooking from the northern half of the world.

This is particularly true of regional recipes from the south of Brazil, where immigration patterns have resulted in large numbers of Brazilians who can claim ancestry from Europe. In Brazil's southern states, you can find Italian dishes, German ones, even recipes that hark back to Eastern Europe.

We were reminded of this recently when we were perusing one of the volumes in Abril Editora's 20-volume series Cozinha Regional Brazileira (Regional Brazilian Cuisine), now unfortunately out of print. The book in question concerned the gastronomy of the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, where there are large communities who can trace their family trees back to Italy or Germany. So seeing recipes for gnocchi (almost unrecognizable in its Portuguese spelling - nhoque) and sauerkraut in the cookbook was no surprise. But when we turned over page 110, there was one of our favorite "awful" dishes from the British Isles - mushy peas (called purê de ervilhas in its Portuguese translation). How this dish which is so widely execrated, but for which many people secretly carry a nostalgic torch, made its way from Oliver Twist-style English orphanages and boarding schools to southern Brazil is something we'll never know, as there has never been large-scale immigration from England to Brazil. But there it was large as life, and reading the recipe brought a nostalgic rush.

For those readers who might not be familiar with mushy peas or who just want to remember eating them as a child, here is the recipe from the Santa Catarina cookbook. Try it - it may turn out that for you mushy peas are one of those things, like creamed corn or rice pudding, that you'll love to eat alone and secretly. It's just too embarrassing to admit you really like the dish!
RECIPE - Mushy Peas (Purê de ervilhas)
Serves 8

2 lbs (1 kg) dried green split peas
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup crispy-fried bacon cubes (optional) for garnish.
Place the peas in a large heavy pan. Add enough water to bring the water level to two-fingers height above the level of the peas. Bring to a boil over medium heat, reduce heat to a slow boil and cook for 30-40 minutes or until the peas are very tender and beginning to fall apart. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the peas to a blender. Add enough water from the pan to allow blender to liquidize the peas, but not so much as to make a soup. It's best to start with a small amount of water, adding more as needed until the peas reach the consistency of mashed potatoes.

Return the peas to a pan, season to taste with salt, and heat thoroughly. Serve immediately as a side dish, topped with bacon cubes if desired.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

RECIPE - Fish and Shrimp Ceviche with Starfruit (Ceviche de Peixe e camarão com carambola)

In Friday's post on carambola, aka starfruit, we mentioned that relegating that beautiful and delicious fruit to being nothing more than a mere garnish on a plate or glass is a culinary crime of the first order. Brazilian chefs are using the fruit more and more these days not just tart up a dramatic plate, but as an integral part of the flavor profile for a dish.

This recipe, which is one of the more inventive results with the current Brazilian craze for Peruvian cuisine, is a variation on the traditional Andean technique of marinading raw fish or seafood in lime juice to "cook" it. Ceviche has taken off in a big way in Brazil in the past few years and now shows up on menus in bars, botecos and five-star restaurants. This recipe comes from Brazilian food and wine magazine, Gula, and was created by chef Carol Caldas of Rio de Janeiro's Santa Satisfação restaurant.

Starfruits are commonly available in North American and European supermarkets, year round, so this recipe is easy to make at home almost anywhere. It makes a delicious first course, or main course for a light lunch.
RECIPE - Fish and Shrimp Ceviche with Starfruit (Ceviche de Peixe e camarão com carambola)
Serves 2-4 (main course or first course)

1/2 lb. firm white-fleshed fish fillet
1/4 lb. raw peeled small or medium shrimp
1/2 small red onion, minced
1 small tomato, peeled, seeded and cubed
juice of 2 large limes
salt and pepper to taste
2 firm small starfruits (carambolas), sliced
2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh cilantro, leaves only
Cut the fish into small cubes, and halve the shrimps if large. Combine them in a medium mixing bowl, season with salt and pepper and mix in the lime juice. Let marinade, refrigerated, for half an hour. In a separate bowl, chill the sliced starfruit.

Remove the marinaded fish from the refrigerator, mix in the starfruit and cilantro and serve immediately, very cold.

Friday, May 18, 2012

FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Starfruit (Carambola)

Many of the most popular tropical fruits in Brazil originated in what is now Brazilian national territory - fruits like caju, açaí, and lots of others. Some fruits, though, even though they are thoroughly Brazilianized, came to this country from distant shores. In this group are fruits like the mango (from Southeast Asia), all the citrus fruits (also from Asia), and Brazil's most popular fruit, the banana.

Another Asian import to Brazil which has been enthusiastically added to the roster of Brazilian fruits is the magically-shaped starfruit, known in Portuguese as carambola. In fact, in certain regional variations of English the fruit is also referred to as carambola, not starfruit.

The carambola grows prodigiously in Brazil's tropical climate, and the tree is perfectly suited to backyard gardens and small orchards. Many Brazilian homes come "equipped" with their own carambola tree in the yard, thus eliminating the necessity of shopping in the market when the recipe at hand calls for star fruit.

Starfruits (Averrhoa carambola) are most often eaten, in Brazil as elsewhere, in their raw, uncooked state. Unlike many tropical fruits, the entire fruit is edible, including the waxy skin. Although the fruit can be sweet, it is never overpoweringly so, and there is always a sharp, tart undertone. The taste of a starfruit is often compared to a combination of citrus, pear and sour apple flavors.

Because the exotic star-shaped form of a sliced carambola is so dramatic, often this fruit is relegated to the category of garnish - it sits on the rim of a cocktail glass next to a tiny paper parasol, or perches on the edge of a salad bowl. This is unfortunate, because when added directly to a dish, like a seafood salad, or a rice pilaf, its flavor can add a flavor note that enlivens and sparks up the dish.

Starfruits are high in vitamin C and antioxidants and low in sugar and sodium, so they are extremely healthy. A note of caution, though - the fruit contains oxalic acid and is therefore very dangerous for anyone with compromised renal function, for example, anyone suffering from kidney failure or kidney stones. Persons with such conditions should not eat starfruit at all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pimenta de Cheiro - A Problem of Identification

Of all the essential ingredients in the Brazilian larder, one of the most difficult to pin down is the chili pepper. What exactly is this chili pepper I have in my hand, or how do I find the type of chili called for in this recipe or that recipe? These are questions that are frustruating if not impossible to answer.

There are several reasons for all this confusion. The main one is that the botanical genus Capsicum, to which all chili peppers belong, is extraordinary in its profusion. There are yellow peppers, there are red ones, green and purple too. There are round peppers, long skinny ones, and thick fat ones. There are peppers that burst with flavor and aroma, and others that only add heat to a dish. At times it seems like all they have in common in their name.

A typical example is a chili pepper called pimenta de cheiro. The name means "aromatic pepper" and this chili is one of the most commonly used chilis in traditional Brazilian cuisine, particularly in Brazil's north and northeast regions. Many recipes from Bahia, from Ceará or from the jungles of the Amazon call for pimenta de cheiro. So, assuming you are in Brazil and want to find some pimenta de cheiro for a recipe you're going to try out - how do you find it in the market?

Photos don't help much. If you search Google Images forpimenta de cheiro you'll see photos of many different peppers that don't seem to have much in common. A web search will lead you to sites that provide helpful instructions on identifying pimenta de cheiro like this one:

Shape can be long, round, triangular, bell-shaped or rectangular. The mature fruits vary in color from creamy yellow to bright yellow, from orange to salmon, or from red to even black when fully mature. Some are sweet, some are slightly hot and some are very hot. It's aroma is strong...

So that's easy, right? Just look for a pepper that's yellow, rectangular and sweet. Or one that's black, round and very hot. Or red, bell-shaped and slightly hot. In fact, the only characteristic that is common to all these varieties is the aroma. I guess that's why it's called the aromatic chili pepper.

Two more problems cloud the picture even further. A chili that's called pimenta de cheiro in one spot in Brazil might have another name just 20 miles down the road. That doesn't make one's task easier. In fact, the whole thing is so confusing that even botanists can't agree on what a pimenta de cheiro is, so even if you were able to get the DNA from your pepper you couldn't be sure it was a pimenta de cheiro. Some botanists assign the common name pimenta de cheiro to varieties of the species Capsicum annuum while others think that it's actually Capsicum frutescens that deserves the moniker.

Our advise, when looking for a chili for a particular recipe, focus on the qualities that the author of the recipe wants to add to the dish. Then shop with your eyes, nose and even tear ducts. If you're looking for intense heat, find a chili that fits the bill. If the recipe need s a chili with a lot of flavor but without a lot of ardency, sniff around the markets until you find one you can use. Call it what you will, it's the characteristics of the chili pepper your after, not the name.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Four Hundred Caipirinhas Later....

So how do you think you'd feel after drinking four hundred caipirinhas? Actually, make that four hundred caipirinhas in thirteen days - an average of about thirty cocktails per day. You'd probably feel just like Robert Scott Utley, an American tourist in Rio de Janeiro, felt recently as he was being carted away in the paddy wagon after skipping out on his hotel bill. Nauseated, confused and embarrassed - and probably just a little bit relieved that the binge was finally over.

Robert Scott Utley
Mr. Utley, aged 63, who surely deserves a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for his prodigious caipirinha-drinking capacity, was arrested at Rio de Janeiro's Tom Jobim International Airport on May 10 when he was trying to catch a Delta Airlines flight to the United States. The manager of the hotel in Rio's Copacabana district where Mr. Utley had spent the previous 13 nights became suspicious when the tourist booked an airport car without settling his account. He called the police when Mr. Utley left the hotel without paying his room charges, and they obliged him by arresting Mr. Utley upon his arrival at the airport.

Utley didn't skip on just his bar tab, he left without paying any of his hotel bill, which totalled R$14,488, or about USD $7500. The charge for caipirinhas alone, which cost R$15 each at the hotel, was R$6000, or USD $3000.

According to an article in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, after being arrested, the tourist was taken before a magistrate who charged him, and then let him go free on bail, as there were no provisions under Brazilian law to detain him until trial. After signing a note promising to appear before a Brazilian court whenever summoned, he was released and taken to the city's American Consulate. His passport was not taken nor was he forbidden to leave Brazil, and the consulate refuses to say if he has left Brazil or not.

The newspaper article says that Mr. Utley's defense for skipping out was that his credit card had been counterfeited and cancelled, and he couldn't pay his bill. So he decided to return to the United States and send payment from there. But, according to Mr. Utley's statement, lack of funds wasn't the only reason for leaving the hotel on the QT. He told police that although he had reserved the hotel for fourteen days, he left on the thirteenth day because he was having heart problems due to his seven bypass grafts and wanted to get back quickly to the US for treatment.

Let's do a little calculating here. Four hundred caipirinhas in thirteen days with seven bypass grafts. That works out to just about four caipirinhas per graft per day. That's a serious thirst and an impressive feat. Too bad it all went south before he got on that plane to the USA. Besides, what was he thinking trying to catch a Delta flight to the US? Delta doesn't even serve caipirinhas as far as we know!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 10) - RECIPE - Pan-fried Filhote

We'll wrap up our series of "On the Road" posts about the city of Belém and its unique regional cuisine, based on the bounty of the world's largest river system, with this simple recipe for pan-fried filhote, one of the typical fresh-water fishes of the Amazon. The entire culinary culture of Belém, like the very life of the city itself, depends on the riches of the river and the rain forest that fills its basin. In Belém everything can be traced back, at some degree, to the waters that flow more than 4000 miles across the basin and to the plant and animal life that flourish there.

The Amazonian rain forest is the most bio-diverse ecosystem on our planet, and the food resources there, properly managed and controlled, could continue to nourish the bodies and souls of the regions inhabitants for millennia to come. Let us hope that we humans wisely shepherd this most unique of the world's natural resources.

This recipe is a typically regional way to cook filhote. The fish is only available in the region, however, but the recipe adapts wonderfully to all sorts of fresh-water and salt-water varieties of fish. Try it with catfish, with halibut or any other white-fleshed firm fish of your choice.
RECIPE - Pan-fried Filhote
Serves 4

4 filhote steaks (or filets) about 1/2 lb (250 gr) each
2 limes
1 serrano or japapeno pepper
3 cloves garlic, crushed
salt to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
1 Tbsp extravirgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion, green part only
additional olive oil for frying
lime wedges for garnish
Prepare the fish: wash the fish in fresh running water and refresh it with the juice of one the two limes. In a ceramic dish combine the juice of the the other lime, the white wine, the 1/2 cup water, the whole chili pepper, the garlic , the olive oil and the chopped herbs. Soak the fish in this liquid for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Remove the fish from the soaking liquid. Dry thoroughly with paper towels. Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium high heat. When hot, add a small amount of olive oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking add the fish and cook over high heat for a minute or two on each side, until the fish is nicely browned on both sides and just beginning to flake. Do not overcook.

Remove from heat, then serve the fish immediately, accompanied by wedges of fresh lime.

Recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 9) - A Very Big Puppy - Filhote

Probably the biggest puppy we ever saw was a two-month-old St. Bernard - it had to have been at least 100 lbs (50 lbs) and it was still a long way from being fully grown. At least he was the biggest puppy we'd ever seen until Flavors of Brazil's recent road trip to Belém, situated near the mouth of the Amazon River system. There we saw a puppy that was about 6 feet long (2 meters), probably weighed over 600 lbs (500 kgs) and instead of being furry and fluffy and cute was wet, slimy and ugly as hell. But it was delicious!

You see, the word for puppy in Portuguese is filhote (filho means son). But in Belém the word isn't applied just to young canines, it is also the name of a very large member of the catfish family, one of the largest fresh-water fishes in the world. This creature's scientific name is Brachyplathystoma filamentosum, and it also bears the alternative name piraíba.
filhote en route to market

This fish exists only in the rivers of the Amazon rain forest. It lives in the deepest parts of the river system, which are very deep indeed, and when caught on a line it puts up a tremendous battle. Fishing for filhote is a favorite activity for sports fishermen from all around the world who come to the Amazon to fish.
filhote at the market

But filhote is caught primarily not because of its value as a sports fish, it's caught for its delicate and delicious flesh. Filhote is one of the favorite eating fish of the region, if not the absolute favorite. Filhote has a clean, clear taste with none of the "muddy" flavors that often mar the flavors of other members of the catfish family. The flesh is a bright white in color and when cooked properly it flakes but doesn't fall apart.

Because the taste of filhote is subtle, most Belenenses prefer to eat it quite simply - to let the taste of the fish shine through. The most common ways to serve this fish are pan-fried, grilled or roasted, lightly seasoned, and without rich sauces. We'll provide a recipe in the next post.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 8) - Tropical Ice Cream Paradise

In the hot, muggy, often stifling climate of Belém, simply being able to refresh oneself from time to time with a cone or cup of ice cream is a potential lifesaver. And if that ice cream comes from Belém's most well-known and loved chain of ice cream store, Cairu, it's also a potential lifechanger. For if you visit one of Cairu's 10 locations around the city, whether in the tourist/entertainment center Estação das Docas  or in a residential neighborhood you'll taste ice cream as good as the best that Italy or Argentina has to offer, with the added bonus of a range of flavors that exists nowhere else in the world.

Cairu sells all the standard ice cream flavors, of course, and their quality is probably high. We say probably, because when faced with the list of flavors posted on the wall choosing vanilla or strawberry over one of the local fruits of the jungle wasn't even an option for us. During our recent visit to Belém we made repeated trips to Cairu and not once did we order a flavor of ice cream we had ever had before in our lives, nor did we order a flavor we'd already tried at Cairu, tempted though we were.

Cairu's speciality is the confection of superb ice cream flavored by the tremendous cornucopia of fruits that flourish in the tropical rain forest. Fruits like bacuri, cupuaçu, ixu, murici, açaí, taperebá - all with flavors as exotic as their names. Some, like cupuaçu, which is related to chocolate, are creamy and smooth and others, like taperebá and murici have the sharp acidic tang of plenty of vitamin C. Cairu also has an interesting selection of local flavors that are not fruit-based, such as castanha-do-Pará (brazil nut) and tapioca. All of Cairu's ice creams are made in house, using only natural flavors, sugar and dairy. There are no artificial flavors or preservatives. Considering the quality of the product, we found Cairu's prices to be surprisingly reasonable. A single cone or cup (a very large scoop) was R$4.00, just over USD $2.00 and a double R$7.00, about USD $3.50.

It's 9:40 in the morning as we write this post, and it's already 31 degrees (88F) here in Fortaleza.  We'd kill for a scoop of Cairu's taperebá ice cream right about now. In the tropical heat, it's definitely good for what ails you. Too bad it's 800 miles away!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 7) - RECIPE - Tacacá

Photo by Adalton Ramos
As with our earlier recipe for pato no tucupi in this series of posts about the Amazonian cuisine of the city of Belém, this recipe for the city's favorite afternoon pick-me-up, tacacá, isn't something that you're likely to try at home. Unless your home is within striking distance of the Amazon River, that is. The main reason is that with the exception of shrimp, the main ingredients of tacacá are just not available outside the rain forest region, even in other parts of Brazil. Trying to find jambu leaves or a bottle of tucupi in your local A&P, Safeway or Waitrose's is an exercise in futility.

Nonetheless, without a recipe for tacacá, this particular edition of Flavors of Brazil On the Road would be incomplete, so here it is, from the pages of Cozinha Regional Brasileira. Keep in mind, that most of the tacacá vendors in Belém have never seen a recipe for the soup, and if asked what quantities of this or that are required would have no idea. They'd say you need just enough manioc starch (goma) to give the broth a nice silky texture, enough chili peppers to liven the dish without burning out the mouth, and just enough jambu leaves to make your tongue and palate tingle but not deaden entirely. But here's the recipe, quantities and all.
 RECIPE - Tacacá
Serves 2

For the tucupi
4 cups (1 liter) tucupi
3 cloves garlic, peeled
A few leaves, Amazonian chicory
1 bunch Amazonian basil

For the jambu
1 bunch jambu
salt to taste

For the shrimp
1 lb (500 gr) dried, salted large shrimp with shells

For the manioc starch
1 cup manioc starch (tapioca flour)
1 cup cold water

For the  tacacá
8 cups (2 liters) water
salt to taste
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch  Amazonian chicory
chili peppers in vinegar (to taste)
Make the tucupi: In a saucepan combine the tucupi, the garlic the chicory and basil. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then lower the heat and reserve, keeping hot.

Prepare the jambu: Heat plenty of water in a saucepan and when it comes to the boil, add salt to taste. Blanch the jambu for a minute or two in the water and refresh immediately in a bowl of ice water. Reserve.

Prepare the shrimp: Thoroughly clean the shrimps. Soak them in cold water until needed to partially desalinize them. Reserve.

Prepare the manioc starch: In a medium mixing bowl, gradually stir the starch into cold water until it has all dissolved. Reserve.

Make the tacacá: In a third saucepan, mix the water, salt, garlic and chicory. Heat over medium heat and when it comes to the boil remove the garlic and chicory. Slowly add the dissolved manioc starch, stirring constantly with a spoon or whisk to ensure that lumps don't form.

Serving: use hollowed-out dried gourds or deep soup bowls. In each bowl combine the tucupi and the manioc starch in proportions of  3/4 tucupi to 1/4 starch. Add a few jambu leaves and a few shrimp to each bowl, plus chili peppers if desired, and serve immediately, very hot.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 6) - Tacacá

At the end of the afternoon in Belém, around four or five, just after the daily torrential downpour ends, a collective hunger pervades local residents. It's the same hour as tea in London, churros and hot chocolate in Madrid, or coffee and Viennese pastries in Vienna, but nobody in Belém indulges in any of those treats. Here the end of the afternoon means only one thing. It's time to "take tacacá." Although tacacá is a soup, in the local dialect one doesn't drink or eat it, one takes it - tomar tacacá.

One might think that the last thing anyone would want in the muggy heat of an Amazonian afternoon is a steaming hot bowl of soup. But if one thinks that way, one's not from Belém. For Belenenses (inhabitants of Belém), a bowl of tacacá cures all ills and soothes the soul like nothing else. It also tides one over until dinner quite nicely.

Taking tacacá has long been a ritual all throughout the Amazonian basin, though anthropologists tell us it originated among the Amerindian tribes in the region nearest to Belém. How, when and why it is served are controlled by age-long custom. Among the unwritten rules and regulations: tacacá is street food, purchased and eaten on the street. Tacacá vendors, usually women and known as tacacazeiras, sell their product from carts and stalls situated on the street, on the corner or in a park, just like Salvador's famous baianas and their acarajé. Tacacá must be served in a gourd, never in a plastic or ceramic bowl. The gourd sometimes nestles in a small woven basket to make it easier to pick up when filled with hot tacacá and traditionally decorated gourds are often lovely objets d'arts. Tacacá must be sipped directly from the gourd, not brought to the mouth via a spoon, although a small toothpick is often provided to help pick out the solid ingredients. Finally, and seemingly perversely, tacacá has to be very, very hot.

tacacá gourd
To sit on a small plastic stool on a busy street in Belém at 5 pm, watching the tacacazeira dish out portion after portion of tacacá while sipping from one's own gourd is to participate in the life of the city and to share a culinary ritual that goes back millennia.
proper technique

So what, exactly, is this soup that's so much a part of Belém's identity? For readers who've been following these recent Flavors of Brazil posts on the foods of Belém it won't be a surprise that the basis of tacacá is manioc. The broth that is at the center of tacacá is seasoned tucupi (the liquid that results from squeezing grated manioc root), thickened with manioc starch, also known as tapioca. The broth is enlivened with with a dash of hot chili peppers preserved in tucupi. Cooked in the broth are leaves of the anesthetic jambu, which deadens the mouth and makes the tongue tingle, and dried shrimp. That's all there is to it - spicy broth, jambu leaves and a few shrimp.

But to call tacacá simply a soup with a few shrimps and some greens is to sell it short. A well-prepared tacacá is marvelously delicious and a true end-of-the-afternoon pick-me-up. The spicy liquid, the tingly sensation in the mouth and the rich, salty tang of the shrimp awaken all your senses without leaving you feeling full or over-satiated. It's just what you need to carry you through the end of the day. It's the chicken soup which nourishes the soul of Belém.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt.5) - Manioc, Let Me Count the Ways

As we mentioned in last Friday's post about the three cornerstones of the cuisine of Belém, the staple carbohydrate upon which the cuisine in built is the tropical tuber manioc (Manihot esculenta), alternatively known in English as cassava or sometimes yuca. Manioc is to Belenense cooking what rice is to Chinese, wheat is to Italian cooking and the potatoes is to Irish - the supplier of the major portion of the population's daily nutritional intake. In the Amazonian region of Brazil, where Belém is located, up to 33% of the daily caloric intake comes from manioc in some form or another.
Bitter manioc tuber

What is most astonishing about this tuber, first domesticated in the southwestern portion of the Amazonian basin as long as ten thousand years ago, is its chameleon-like nature. Manioc shows up in all kinds of shapes, forms and consistencies in Belém and it's hard to imagine that two dishes as different as the soupy broth called tacacá and the crunchy, gritty flour called farinha that is sprinkled on top of grilled meats share a common ingredient. And that ingredient could only be manioc. Manioc can look like mashed potatoes, as when it tops arrumadinho, the Brazilian take on shepherd's pie. It can look just like french fries. Or it can be an airy, light form of bread - as in Brazilian  pão de queijo. It even makes an appearance at North American dessert tables, disguised as tapioca pudding. Those pearly balls in the pudding are manioc, as are the "bubbles" in Asian bubble tea. It's an infinitely versatile food, and the cooking of Belém would be radically different without it.

Producers, vendors and cooks of manioc in Belém sort manioc plants into two types, normally called sweet (doce) or bitter (amargo). It's a good thing that they do, too, for bitter manioc is highly poisonous in its natural, uncooked form. Both types of manioc contain cyanide poison in their tubers, roots and leaves, but the quantity is much less in sweet manioc. A kilogram of sweet manioc contains approximately 20 mg. of hydrogen cyanide, but the same quantity of bitter manioc can contain 50 times as much. Since as little as 40 mg. of this chemical can be fatal, bitter manioc is toxic indeed.

Fortunately, the toxins present in bitter manioc can be removed by processing and cooking the plant, something that Amerindians discovered at the time they first domesticated manioc. This detoxification can be accomplished by long cooking - the technique that's used when cooking manioc leaves, which must be cooked for an entire week without stopping before they are served. Tubers are processed by mashing or milling the root, then squeezing out the liquid which contains most of the toxins, and cooking the remainder.
Ground manioc leaves, Ver-o-peso market, Belém

Brazilian Portuguese makes it easy to differentiate between sweet manioc and bitter, though there are regional dialectical differences which cloud the picture. The bitter type is called mandioca, from a Tupi word that is also the basis for English manioc. Sweet manioc is called mandioca-doce, mandionca-mansa, macaxeira, or aipim depending on region. In English, dangerously, both bitter and sweet are called manioc or cassava.
Tucupi, Ver-o-peso market, Belém

As we explore the gastronomy of Belém in this series of On The Road posts, we'll run into manioc again and again. It already showed up in a liquid form in yesterday's recipe for pato no tucupi (duck in tucupi). Tucupi is made by squeezing the liquid from bitter manioc tubers, then letting the liquid sit until the starch settles out and can be removed. The remaining liquid is cooked to rid it of poisons, resulting in  tucupi. That settled starch, by the way, is later dried and becomes tapioca. Just one more transformation of this remarkable plant.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 4) - RECIPE - Duck in Tucupi (Pato no Tucupi)

Such is the fame of Pato no Tucupi, the most iconic dish of the Amazonian cuisine of Belém, that in the annual listing of the city's best food published by Veja magazine, Pato no Tucupi has its own category. According to the food guide, one restaurant is the city's best Italian, another has the best meat, while a restaurant called Lá em Casa (Back Home) is crowned with the honor of serving the city's best Pato no Tucupi.

The late founder of Lá em Casa, Paulo Martins, is often credited for bringing Brazil's attention to the culinary richness of the Amazon. An early advocate of the values of the Slow Food movement, Martins sniffed, smelled and tasted his way through the region's markets, forests and rivers, continually searching for those ingredients which exemplify the food ways of the Amazon. Although Sr. Martins died tragically young a few years ago, the kitchen of his restaurant continues under the supervision of his daughter, Daniela, and his influence continues to grow locally and nationally. Brazil's acknowledged top chef, Alex Atala, often speaks of Sr. Martins and how he was personally influenced and inspired by the chef from Belém.

On Flavors of Brazil's recent road trip to Belém, leaving Pato no Tucupi off the menu was unthinkable, and to our way of thinking, Lá em Casa was the logical place to sample it. The restaurant is located in the city's art and entertainment complex, called  Estação das Docas. Situated on the banks of the river,  Estação das Docas is a mix of performance spaces, shops and boutiques, restaurants, bars and even a craft brewety. Formerly a group of abandoned waterfront warehouses and depots, the area now is busy day and night with locals and tourists alike.

At  Lá em Casa Pato no Tucupi is served traditionally. A large tureen comes to the table. Inside are several very generous pieces of duck in a thick yellow broth that also contains some spinach-like greens called jambu. The broth itself is the tucupi. The traditional side dishes are white rice, hot yellow peppers in vinegar and  manioc farinha. The serving is large, and although the restaurant claims it serves only a single diner, it can easily serve two persons. (Sharing a dish for two persons is very common in Brazilian restaurants and asking to share will cause no embarrassment or problem anywhere).

Our Pato no Tucupi was wonderful and it was immediately clear that the dish is a prize-winner by rights. The duck was fall-off-the-bone tender and very lean, not fatty at all. The broth was complex and refreshingly acidic and the jambu was just plain fun. Eating jambu causes a slight by very distinctive anesthetic effect on the tongue and palate. It's as if one's mouth had "gone to sleep." Tingly, numb - the sensations are strange and wonderful. The effect lasts only a short time after finishing the dish, about 10 minutes, but it's an absolutely unique experience. The effect is caused by a compound found in jambu called spilanthol, an ingredient in many proprietary toothache powders and other such medicines.

Pato no Tucupi wouldn't be Pato no Tucupi without tucupi. And tucupi is not something you can make at home. Belém's central food market, Ver-o-peso, has hundreds of tucupi vendors, and the ingredient is available sporadically Brazil outside the Amazon basin, but it is not exported. Because of this, we realize that the recipe below is not something that you're likely to cook at home - you'll just have to fly to Belém yourself if you want to try it. But a culinary visit to Belém without a recipe for Pato no Tucupi would be incomplete. So here it is - enjoy.
RECIPE - Duck in Tucupi (Pato no Tucupi)
Serves 6

2 small free-range ducks (about 2 lb, 1 kg, each)
juice of 5 limes
5 heads of garlic, smashed
2 cups white wine
4 very mild chile peppers (Anaheim or similar)
salt to taste
6 quarts (6 liters) tucupi
1 bunch alfavaca (Amazonian basil)
1 bunch chicory
6 bunches jambu
Wash the ducks well in running water. In a large bowl combine the ducks, lime juice, three of the smashed whole heads of garlic, the white wine, 1 chile pepper, salt and water to cover. Marinade the ducks, refrigerated, for hours in this liquid.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Remove the duck from the marinade, pat dry and in a non-stick roasting pan, roast the ducks for 90 minutes. While the ducks are roasting, combine the tucupi, 3 chile peppers, 2 heads of garlic, the alfavaca and the chicory in a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Reserve.

Remove the ducks from the oven, let cool slightly, and cut or chop into serving-sized pieces. In a large saucepan, combine 2 quarts of the seasoned tucupi and the duck meat and simmer until the duck is very tender and beginning to fall off the bone. Meanwhile, wash the jambu in plenty of running water, the blanch in boiling water, refreshing immediately in cold water. Reserve the jambu.

Bring the remaining 4 quarts of seasoned tucupi to a boil. Divide the duck meat between 6 deep soup plates. Divide the refreshed jambu equally among the plates, the pour hot tucupi over all. Let stand for a minute or two to let the jambu warm thoroughly, then serve immediately, accompanied by plain white rice and toasted manioc flour (farinha).

Friday, May 4, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 3) - The Three Cornerstones

The cuisine of Amazonian Brazil, and in particular the cuisine of the city of Belém, is complex and elaborate, even in its most traditional form. Ingredients are transformed almost beyond recognition. In fact, a single ingredient might show up in various metamorphic forms in the same dish. Giant fish are reduced to bite-sized chunks or smoked, dried and grated, nuts are ground into flour, leaves are cooked for a week without stopping to eliminate their poisons, and fruits are dried, pureed or distilled - all in the goal of increasing the flavor on the plate (or banana leaf) that arrives at the table.

No matter how much manipulation and reformation is going on, though, it's clear that the entire culinary culture of Belém rests on three basic types of foodstuffs. Almost every dish, savory or sweet, will have at least one of these groups in its ingredient list, many have two, and often all three groups are represented in a single dish.

Pato no Tucupi
These three groups of food which rest at the bottom of Belém's pyramid of ingredients are manioc in all its many forms, the animal life that abounds on and in the fresh waters of the Amazon River basin, and the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables to be found in the world's largest rain forest. Take, for example, the region's most iconic and famous dish, Pato no Tucupi (Duck in Tucupi). This marvelous and marvelously complex dish consists of river duck (pato) cooked and served in a broth of tucupi (wild manioc root which is peeled, grated and juiced, then cooked to eliminate the toxins) enlivened with the surprisingly anesthetic leaves of the jambu plant, native to the rain forest. All three food groups are represented in a bowl of Pato no Tucupi - manioc in the form or tucupi, riverine duck, and jambu, the exotic harvest of the jungle.

In upcoming posts Flavors of Brazil will highlight each of these categories of food as we explore the cuisine of Belém. But next up, there's the recipe for Pato no Tucupi.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 2) - The Links

Although our current series of posts on the Brazilian city of Belém is intended to give a good overall view of the gastronomic culture of that vibrant, and let's say it, HOT, city, this is not the first time Flavors of Brazil has dealt with the foods of Belém, of its state, Pará, or of the Amazonian region that contains half of Brazil's territory.

We first reported on the region back in February, 2010, when we posted an article about how the Amazonian fruit açaí was gaining space in North American and Europeans food consciousness, and have since published a dozen or so articles directly concerned with Belém.

Rather than repeat information that we've already published, we've decided to post quick and easy links to previous;y published material on the blog. These links are below.

Starting with our next post, we'll get into the matter at hand.
Flavors of Brazil posts about  Belém:

1.   Açaí Makes the New York Times - 24 Feb 2010
2.   INGREDIENTS - Jambu - 14 May 2010
3.   RECIPE - Jambu Rice (Arroz de Jambu) - 15 May 2010
4.   Pirarucu - An Endangered Giant - 06 Sep 2010
5 .  From the Rivers of the Rain Forest - Aviú - 22 Mar 2011
6.   MARKETS OF BRAZIL - Ver-o-peso Market, Belém - 30 May 2011
7.   The Story of Carmelita - Ver-o-peso's Queen of Amazonian Fruits - 31 May 2011
8.   SEAFOODS OF BRAZIL - Amazonian River Prawn - 01 Jun 2011
9.   FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Tucumã do Pará - 03 Jun 2011
10. Chibé - An Indigenous Staple Goes Upmarket - 29 Sep 2011
11. FISH OF BRAZIL - Tucunaré (Peacock Bass) - 31 Jan 2012
12. FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Bacuri - 01 Apr 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 1) - The Culinary Importance of Belém

From time to time Flavors of Brazil posts a series of related articles which we call "On The Road". Each series details the gastronomic culture - the culinary history, distinctive ingredients and dishes, and local recipes - of a Brazilian city or region. Each series is based on a visit we've taken to the locale featured, often a city we haven't visited before. In the past, these series have highlighted destinations such as São Luís, Maranhão, Rio de Janeiro and Jericoacoara, Ceará.

Flavors of Brazil has recently returned from a fisrt-time visit to the city of Belém, capital of the Brazilian state of Pará and situated near one of the many mouths of the gigantic Amazon River system, just one degree south of the Equator. It was an eye-opening experience and a crash course in the food of Brazil's north, a culinary culture that is very different from the rest of Brazil. The next few posts on Flavors of Brazil will concentrate on what we saw, heard, smelled and tasted while we were there.

Those readers of this blog who've been with the blog for a while (and who are attentive students of Brazilian gastronomy!) will remember that the tremendously varied and inventive regional cuisines that make up Brazilian food culture are the result on the mixing and meshing of three primary gastronomic influences. These three influences are the tripod from which Brazilian cuisine rises and the various regional cuisines of this country grew from the many possible ways in which these influences can blend and combine. The three major influences are European, primarily Portuguese, food culture, African food culture and Amerindian food culture. European food culture came to Brazil with the various waves of European explorers, colonizers and immigrants. African food culture crossed the Atlantic in the belly of slave ships along with the approximately 10 million Africans forced in slavery in Brazil's sugar plantations and gold mines. And the Amerindian food culture arrived on foot with the very first humans to inhabit Brazil, thousands of years before either Europeans or Africans were aware that the Americas even existed.

Touches of these three primary influences, European, African and Amerindian, are found in most Brazilian regional cuisines, but only in one cuisine is one of these influences of almost exclusive importance. The spicy, rich cuisine of the state of Bahia owes its unique qualities almost entirely to the culinary heritage of Africa. South-central Brazil, the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, is where you'll find cooking that is most strongly influenced by the cuisines of Europe. And the north, the location of the world's largest rain forest and the world's largest river, is where Amerindian food ways most stongly inform the local cuisine. The gastronomic center of Brazil's north is Belém. One can't really know Brazilian cuisine without knowing the food of Belém, just as it's impossible to claim to know Brazilian cuisine without having sampled the African-influenced dishes and delicacies of Salvador, Bahia. The food of Belém and its region is fundamental to Brazilian gastronomy, and so in the next week or so, Flavors of Brazil hopes to open a small window on this fascinating, exotic and largely-unknown cuisine. We hope that reading about the city, its markets, shops, food-stalls and restaurants will give you just a bit of the Flavor of Belém, an important part of the Flavors of Brazil.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Continuing Rise of Alex Atala

Alex Atala
Three years ago, when the prestigious World's Best 50 Restaurants awards were announced in London, Chef Alex Atala's flagship São Paulo restaurant, D.O.M., was honored as the twentieth-best restaurant in the world. Two years ago, Sr. Atala's restaurant had climbed to 17th position, and in 2011, his rise in the ranks of the world's best restaurateurs continued as he moved into 7th place.

In the 2012 edition of the award, announced just this past weekend, D.O.M. was crowned the fourth-best restaurant in the world. For the third year running, Copenhagen's Noma restaurant was named the best in the world, and the second and third place restaurants were both Spanish - El Celler de Can Roca, located in Girona, and Mugaritz, located in San Sebastián.

D.O.M.'s ranking just behind this prestigious trio puts Chef Atala firmly in the top rank of the world's contemporary gastronomy scene. D.O.M. is now ranked higher than any restaurant in the USA, France, Italy or England. The top American restaurant, Per Se in New York is in sixth position, and the best restaurant in France, L'Atelier Saint-Germain de Joel Robuchon in Paris is ranked no higher than 12th.

There are three other Latin American restaurants listed in the top 50 - Astrid y Gaston of Lima, Peru in 35th place, and Mexico City's Pujol (36th) and Biko (38th).

Alex Atala's rapid climb has put São Paulo's star high in the gastronomic heavens, and this award being treated in Brazilian media, deservedly, as not only a personal honor for the chef, but a recognition that contemporary gastronomy is Brazil is as exciting as anyplace in the world. Brazilian chefs everywhere are celebrating D.O.M.'s new ranking and hope that next year Atala will continue his winning ways.

Flavors of Brazil joins a happy, enthusiastic and patriotic crowd of Brazilian gastronomes in saying, "Parabéns, Chef Atala!"