Tuesday, December 29, 2009

One VERY large mango - Part 2

Well, it appears that it's not always true that good things come in small packages. In yesterday's post about an extremely large mango, I mentioned that I was waiting for breakfast today to taste the fruit. I know all too well that sometimes a very large piece of fruit (of any type) can be disappointing when tasted. Of course, the classic example of this those enormous strawberries that arrive from Mexico and California in early spring. Looking like a perfect strawberry from the outside, the first cut into the flesh reveals the first deception - the inside is white, cottony and often hollow. The taste is even more disappointing - just as cottony as the texture.

So it was with a bit of reluctance that I cut into the mango early this morning. I sliced off one side of the mango, with the knife parallel to the flat side of the mango's large pit. The inside was a beautiful, sunny orange, and from the pulp came that distinctive sweet and piney aroma of mango - with a very light touch of resin/turpentine in this case. Often that aroma and taste of pine overwhelms in large mangoes - making the mango like a fruit version of a heavy Greek retsina. In this case, the aroma was there, but was in the background, as it should be in the best mangoes.

I scored the flesh with a serrated knife, in parallel and perpendicular lines about 1/2 inch apart. Then I popped the skin inside-out, took a photo for this post, and then cut the cubes free from the skin.

All that remained was to taste the fruit. After the first bite, I knew that this mango was not only the largest mango I had ever seen, it was the best mango I'd ever eaten. To my taste, it was perfectly sweet - sugary, but not overly-so. The resin taste was present, but as in the aroma, remained as a background note. The texture was smooth and almost creamy, and the mango was noticeably non-fibrous. It was juicy, but eating it didn't require a quick shower to clean up after, as sometimes happens with extra-juicy mangoes. Perfection, all the way around.

Now I just have to convince my friend's mother to visit her hometown more often, and to bring back not one, but a whole basket of these fruits of paradise.

Monday, December 28, 2009

One VERY large mango

The mother of a good friend of mine returned yesterday to Fortaleza, where I live, from her hometown, Ibicuã, in the interior of Brazil's Ceará state. She had been there to celebrate Christmas holidays with family and friends. She brought back a basket of mangos, which are in season at this time of year in Northeastern Brazil.

I know that there are a tremendous number of varieties of mango in this part of the world, and I have seen them from the size of a plum to the size of a grapefruit. But nothing had prepared me for the size of the monster-mango that she presented to me this morning. I do not have a kitchen scale in my house, but I'm sure that it weighs at least three pounds (2.2 kgs), and I have measured its length; it's 9 inches (22 cms.) long. Checking online at the excellent Brazilian agricultural site Toda Fruta (in Portuguese only), I've been able to determine that it is of the variety called Coitê. According to Toda Fruta, the Coitê mango is a traditional Brazilian variety, and is widely cultivated in Ceará. It is large, averaging around 650 gr. (1.4 lbs) per fruit. It has a highly resinous flavor, and is sweet. This type of mango tree is capable of bearing fruit all year round.

It appears to be perfectly ripe, and the aroma is enticingly sweet. Tomorrow, I'll have part of it for breakfast, and will report afterwards on its taste. If it tastes as good as it looks, I'm in for a great breakfast!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

RECIPE - Spicy New Year's Sausage (Virada Picante)

New Year's parties in Brazil tend to be buffets, with food available for snacking throughout the evening. Early on, the table might be filled with salty snacks, savory dishes and finger foods. As the evening progresses, sweeter foods and desserts take the place of the snacks and appetizers. This recipe for spicy sausage is a traditional New Year's dish from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, and livens up any buffet or cocktail platter on which is is served. The quantity of peppers can be modified to suit one's taste and capacity for spicy food.
RECIPE - Spicy New Year's Sausage (Virada Picante)

1 lb. (450 gr.) homestyle linguiça (other artesanal sausages with garlic may be substituted)
1 Tbsp. neutral vegetable oil
2 cups red onion, coarsely chopped into cube shapes
1 Tbsp. dried, flaked red pepper (or fresh Thai red peppers)
2 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley
2 Tbsp. finely chopped green onions (green and white parts)
4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 loaf baguette or other French or Italian bread, warmed briefly
Prepare the sauce: If using fresh Thai peppers, crush into a paste with mortar and pestle. If using dried peppers, place in mortar. Add olive oil, then parsley and green onion. Crush lightly with pestle, but do not over-mix. Let sit at least four hours for flavors to blend.

Slice the sausage into bite-sized pieces. Fry in the vegetable until thoroughly cooked and browned. Add the red onion, and cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion is transparent, but still slightly crunchy.

Place the sausage slices and red onion on a serving platter, Drizzle the sauce over. Serve with slices of wam bread.

(Translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora)

The Lucky Foods of New Year's

In many cultures, traditional and modern, there are strong links between food and superstition or magic. Some foods bring good luck, others carry bad luck along with them. Some can be used to entrance a lover, or others can send one on his or her way.

This symbolic connection between food and superstition is very strong in Brazil. It is an important part of the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, as it is in the celebrations of the Christian churches. Carnaval has its culinary associations, and so do the important religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.

At the turn of the year, Brazilians associate specific foods with the renewal of the calendar, attempting to include some in the menu for New Years, and avoiding others which might bring bad luck in the year to come. Some of these food traditions are indigenous to Brazil, but many have been brought there by the many immigrant groups that populated this country. For example, many Brazilians include lentils (lentilhas in Portuguese) in a New Year's menu, as even a small amount of this legume will increase one's good luck - this tradition comes to Brazil from Italy, though many Brazilians are unaware of this Italian origin.

The ritual eating of pomegranates (romã in Portuguese) is said to bring money in the year to come. One must eat seven seedlets, without swallowing the seeds themselves. These seeds must be dried and carried in one's wallet throughout the year to ensure that the wallet remains full of money.  The fig (figo in Portuguese) also brings prosperity to those who consume it at New Year's.

Because swine use their snouts to root forward in the soil, eating pork is considered lucky by Brazilians, and supposedly ensures that one's pantry will remain full in the New Year. Turkey and crab are unlucky at this time of year, and should be avoided. 

And finally, champagne livens not only the party at which is it served, but the lives of those who imbibe it at New Year's all year long.

Brazilian New Year's Traditions

Brazilians love New Year's Eve and New Year's Day - for many, this holiday period is as important a celebration as are Christmas and Carnaval, the other two major holidays in Brazil. New Year's Eve is usually called "Reveillon" in Brazil, borrowing the term from the French.

Reveillon is a time of celebration, both festive and religious or symbolic. Throughout the country, it is customary to wear only white on New Year's Eve, and the clothes must be new in honor of the new year. In some cities, Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza in particular, the evening includes not only private parties, but huge gatherings on the cities' beaches with fireworks displays at midnight, and free concerts with some of the most important music stars in the country. Rio's beaches are also the scene of an Afro-Brazilian religious ritual, in which white-clad women and men walk to the edge of the sea and there leave offerings for the goddess of the sea, Yemanjá.
At private parties, in homes and in social clubs, New Year's Eve's menu usually consists of a number of appetizers, or other finger food, rather than a full-course sit-down dinner. The symbolic beverage of choice, naturally, is champagne, but many prefer to drink beer, whiskey, or cocktails. The following post has a traditional New Year's recipe from Minas Gerais.

 New Year's parties in Brazil really only begin at midnight, with guests arriving up to the last minute, and continue well past dawn on January 01. For obvious reasons, therefore, New Year's Day itself is a day of rest and recovery, and is considerably quieter than the previous evening.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

RECIPE - Cream of Hearts of Palm Soup

Although hearts of palm (palmito) are usually seen on a salad plate or buffet table, the subtle woodsy flavor of this tropical vegetable translates beautifully into more complex dishes, such as this recipe for a cream soup, which has been translated and adapted from the recipe collection of Brazil's popular daytime TV show Mais Você

RECIPE - Cream of Heart of Palm Soup
Serves 6

1 large can or jar hearts of palm, preserved
6 cups light chicken or vegetable broth
3/4 cup whole milk
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 Tbsp. butter
1 medium onion, sliced
salt and white pepper to taste

Drain the hearts of palm, then slice into thin rounds. Reserve. Melt the butter in a medium sauce pan, and lightly saute the sliced onion until golden.  Remove the onion, and add the broth. Bring to boil over moderate heat, then reduce heat to simmer. Whisk the cornstarch into cold milk until dissolved, and then slowly pour the mixture into the hot broth. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Continue to cook, continually stirring, until the mixture thickens slightly. Add the slices of hearts of palm and remove from heat. Off heat, stir in the grated cheese and serve immediately. (If a thicker soup is desired, the quantity of cornstarch may be increased slightly, up to 2 Tbsp.)

Heart Of Palm - The Palmito Avoids Extinction (We Hope)

In Brazil, as well as in Europe and North America, hearts of palm (palmito in Portuguese) have long been considered a gourmet delicacy. The flavour of these buds of a number of species of palm trees is subtle, yet distinctive. Hearts of palm are not conducive to transport or storage in a fresh state, and so are universally available only in tins or jars, preserved in a simple brine. They are most commonly served both here in Brazil and abroad as a stand-alone appetizer, drizzled with olive oil, or as part of a salad plate or buffet table.

Hearts of palm have always been an expensive treat, and still are so today. If you live in Europe or North America, transportation is part of that cost, as palm trees only grow in tropical environments. However, the main reason for the expense of hearts of palm is that in order to harvest the bud of the palm tree ("hearts" of palm are in fact buds of palm) the entire tree must be sacrificed. The bud is the growing tip of the tree, and once it is removed, there is no way for the tree to continue to grow. Hearts of palm are harvested from young trees, but it still takes a number of years for a tree to reach maturity. There is no annual harvest when it comes to palm trees.

There are a number of species of palm from which hearts of palm can be harvested. Until the 1990s, the most common species used in commercial production was the içara palm (Euterpe edulis), which grows all along Brazil's southern coastline. However, over-harvesting and poaching of this plant resulted in its becoming endangered, and extinction of the species was a possibility.

Fortunately, most production of hearts of palm in Brazil and in other tropical countries like Costa Rica and Ecuador has switched to other species, notably pupunha and açaí palms. These species are easier to cultivate, and quicker-growing, and thus are not endangered by properly considered harvesting schemes. Interestingly, the açaí palm is the same tree from which the increasingly popular açaí fruit is harvested, thus allowing the cultivation of two distinct food products from one plant. Because of this switch, the içara palm is no longer in danger of exinction, though it does remain endangered, according to it's listing by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As a long-time lover of hearts of palm, it's "heartening" to know that I can eat this delicacy without a guilty conscience.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

UTENSILS - Soapstone cookware

One of the softest minerals found on Earth, steatite is commonly called soapstone. Because it has a high proportion of talc, steatite often feels "soapy" to the touch, and it is this property which has given it its common name. In Brazil, this stone is known as pedra-sabão which can be exactly translated as soapstone. Steatite is common in the historic mining districts of Minas Gerais state where in the 17th and 18th centuries large amounts of gold and precious stones were mined.

Soapstone is especially common in the hills surrounding Ouro Preto, a beautifully preserved city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 18th century, stone carvers in Ouro Preto began to use soapstone as a medium for sculpture because it was so easily carved. They also used the same mineral to create useful household objects, in particular for the kitchen. Soapstone pots and pans were first created in Ouro Preto at that time, and in Minas Gerais they are still used in traditional and in modern kitchens.

When soapstone cooking utensils first came into use, cooks quickly discovered that they had one important advantage over metal or clay pots - the stone retains heat much longer than other materials do, and thus soapstone utensils are perfect for stews, for beans, or for soups - anything which is slow-cooked and which benefits from long exposure to low heat.

Soapstone pots and pans can still be found in stores in Ouro Preto and throughout Minas Gerais, and are surprisingly inexpensive considering their utility, durability and beauty. A good soapstone pan will last a lifetime. The only problem with these objects is that they are heavy and somewhat fragile - so taking one home as a souvenir of Minas Gerais is not necessarily an easy thing to do! But if you persevere, you will find a soapstone pan or pot will quickly gain an important place in your kitchen and will be an evocative souvenir of the three-century-old cooking traditions of the baroque mining towns of Minas Gerais.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

INGREDIENTS - Ora-pro-nobis

The name "ora-pro-nobis" is not Portuguese; it's Latin, and means "pray for us" in that language. It refers to a cactus that is much appreciated in the traditional cuisine of Brazil's Minas Gerais state. No one can say for sure where the unusual name came from, although legendarily it was given to this particular plant when it was being harvested in the garden of a Catholic father, and the harvesters overheard the father praying when they were picking the leaves.

The plant itself is also unusual, as it is a climbing cactus, with spiny non-succulent stems, and flavorful leaves. Picking the leaves from the plant is an art, due to the spines on the stems. The plant flowers beautifully, but briefly, as the flowers often last only one or two days. The subsequent fruit is a small, yellow, rounded and waxy berry - from this fruit derives the English common name of this plant, the Barbados Gooseberry.

The leaves are used fresh, or they can be dried for later use. They are used to flavor salads, soups and sauces. In traditional recipes from Minas Gerais, ora-pro-nobis is often combined with chicken or ground meat dishes. In addition to being delicious, ora-pro-nobis is rich in protein, vitamins A, B and C, calcium, phosphorus and iron. Because of this iron, ora-pro-nobis has long been used in Brazil as a folk remedy for anemia.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

RECIPE - Chicken with cachaça and rapadura ( Frango na cachaça e rapadura)

This recipe for boneless chicken breasts in a cream sauce enhanced with cachaça and rapadura is a modern adaptation of a traditional recipe from the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará. It can be made with any brand or type of cachaça, depending on availability, although I like this recipe best with an aged and malted cachaça from Ypioca, one of Brazil's best producers of cachaça, called 160. If you can find Ypioca 160 it is worth the price - it is aged 6 years in oak barrels, and was named the best premium cachaça in the world by the International Cane Spirits society.

This recipe has been adapted and translated from a recipe published by Jocélio Pereira Azevedo. I was served it at the home of a talented amateur cook here in Fortaleza, Eduardo Mendes de Oliveira.
Chicken with cachaça and rapadura
Serves 6

6 half chicken breasts, skinless (boneless optional)
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
2 cups cachaça
2 Tbsp. grated rapadura
flour to coat chicken breasts
2 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. olive oil
3 cups finely chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup light cream (Half and Half)
In a shallow bowl or baking dish large enough to hold the chicken and cachaça, place the chicken breasts, generously seasoned with salt and pepper to taste. Cover with aluminum foil. Marinate for at least one hour, refrigerated.
Remove from refrigerator, pour the cachaça over, then sprinkle the rapadura on top. Re-cover with aluminum foil, and marinate overnight, or for at least 8 hours, turning the pieces in the cachaça from time to time.
Remove chicken from bowl or baking dish, reserving marinade.
Put a small amount of flour in a plastic or paper bag, and individually toss chicken pieces in flour, to coat lightly. Shake chicken pieces to remove excess flour.
Heat butter and oil in large, non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken pieces, a few at a time, and cook until nicely browned on all sides. Remove chicken from frying pan and reserve.
Pour out excess fat from frying pan, add onion and garlic, and cook over medium heat until softened and transparent. Do not let onion and garlic brown.
Return chicken to the pan, then pour over the cachaçamarinade. Flame the marinade*, and then cook the mixture over medium heat until liquid is reduced by 3/4 and the chicken is done.
Add the cream slowly, and let cook for approximately 5 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Check for seasoning, and add salt if required.
Serve immediately.

*To do this, light a match and lower the flame onto the mixtures until it lights then let the flame extinguish itself.

Rapadura - Sugar At Its Most Basic

At one end of the spectrum is white table sugar, which has been cleaned, refined and standardized as far as possible. At the other end of that same spectrum is rapadura, a traditional ingredient in Brazil's northeast, which is as close to sugar cane, the origin of Brazilian sugar, as possible. It's everything white table sugar is not - dark colored, dense, sticky and strongly flavored. It's nibbled whole as a simple pick-me-up or dessert, it's grated to sprinkle on fancy puddings and tortes, and it's melted to add sweetness and complexity to sauces sweet and savory. (For a delicious chicken recipe with a sauce containing rapadura and cachaça, click here)

Rapadura is basically nothing more than unrefined sugar cane juice which has been boiled and evaporated into a solid state. It is almost pure sucrose or fructose. It is an ancient product, and is usually artesanally made, even today. Similar primitive solid sugar products are well-loved in many parts of the world - panela in Colombia, piloncillo in Mexico and jaggery in India. Because these sugars are important in a number of national and regional cuisines, they are not difficult to obtain in ethnic food markets in North America - ask for them by regional name. I have found piloncillo in Latin American markets in a number of North American cities, and jaggery in Indian markets.