Friday, July 30, 2010

RECIPE - Cashew Tree Shrimp (Camarão Cajueiro)

This recipe for a first course or light lunch comes from the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte, which is one of the largest shrimp-producing states in Brazil as well as an important source of cashew nuts (castanha de caju). When buying cashews for this dish, don't pay extra for whole cashews - most bulk food stores and health food stores sell broken cashews for a significantly lower price than whole ones. It's also best not to buy ground cashews, as they are too finely ground for this dish. To get the proper grind for this recipe, simply briefly process the nuts in a food processor until they are in small chunks. Be sure to stop processing long before they become pulverized or begin to form a paste.

The sauce in the recipe - a passion fruit (maracujá)-flavored mayonnaise - might be difficult to make in areas where fresh passion fruits are not available. A delicious substitute is mayonnaise flavored with fresh lime juice.
RECIPE - Cashew Tree Shrimp (Camarão Cajueiro)
Serves 2

For the shrimp:
3/4 lb (380 gr) medium-sized shrimp, cleaned, headless, and peeled with only tails left attached
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 free-range eggs
1/4 cup dried bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely-chopped, roasted, unsalted cashew nuts (see above)
Neutral vegetable oil

For the sauce:
1 medium fresh passion fruit
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup whole-fat, unflavored yogurt
1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
Make the sauce: Cut the passion fruit in half. Place a fine sieve over a small bowl, and empty fruit pulp into the sieve. Reserve fruit halves. Let drain, then lightly squeeze the seed to extract more juice. Reserve the juice and the seeds. In another small bowl add the mayonnaise,yogurt and sugar, then stir to combine thoroughly. Add the passion fruit juice, and stir again. If desired, return the sauce to one of the fruit halves, or put in small serving bowl. Add a few of the reserved seeds and a dash of the juice to top of sauce to decorate.

Make the shrimp: Season the shrimp with salt and pepper to taste. Spread the flour on a large deep plate. Lightly beat the eggs in a small bowl. In another bowl, mix the bread crumbs and chopped cashew nuts. Dredge the shrimps, one by one, in the flour, then dip them in the beaten eggs. Let excess egg drain away, the roll the shrimps in the bread crumb-cashew nut mixture. In a deep, heavy saucepan or deep fryer fry the shrimp until the are golden. Drain on paper towel.

Place the sauce in the middle of a serving platter. Surround with the shrimp, and serve immediately.

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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Cashew Nut (Castanha de Caju)

Although to most Brazilians, and certainly to Brazilians from the country's northeast region, cashew (caju) refers to a red, orange or yellow fruit (technically a pseudo-fruit) that is eaten fresh or processed into juice, ice creams, drinks and candies, it's not the fruit, but instead the small seed pod attached to it, that's important economically in this part of the country. It's the seed that is exported world-wide from Brazil and which becomes the cashew nut that consumers in North America, Europe and Japan crave, and which they call a cashew.

The vast majority of Brazilian exports of cashew nuts come from the northeast of Brazil, and specifically from the state of Ceará. Of a world market of approximately 70,000 metric tons of cashew nuts, Brazil is the source of approximately 23,000 tons, or one-third of the total. Most of the exported cashew nuts from Brazil are destined to the USA, which imports about 35,000 tons annually, according to the latest statistics. The largest exporting country is India, which exports more than half of the world's consumption of cashew nuts. Incidentally, it is only in Brazil that the fruit itself (the "cashew-apple") is consumed. In India and Africa the taste is not much appreciated, and more than 95% of the fruit is discarded during cashew nut production for export.

The extraction of the nut (or seed) itself from the seed pod is difficult, and the outer shell of the pod contains chemicals that irritate the skin. Thus the export market for cashew nuts consists almost entirely of pre-shelled nuts. Great care is taken in the extraction process, which is partially mechanized, to preserve the entire nut unbroken, as unbroken nuts command a much higher price internationally than do broken or chipped nuts.

Cashew nuts are exported from Brazil in both raw and roasted states, though the majority are exported in while still raw, and are roasted in the country of import. Click here for a YouTube video (in Portuguese) which demonstrates the entire production-for-export operation in Ceará.

Here in Fortaleza, where caju fruit is king, there are still a number of small shops where cashew nuts (castanha de caju) are roasted in small batches and sold by weight. Normally the nuts are not salted after roasting, though you can ask for a dash of salt to be added to your purchase if you wish. Prices are extremely reasonable by North American standards. Last week I bought 500 gr (slightly more than a pound) of roasted, whole cashew nuts for R$8 (ten reais), which is about USD $4.50. They were delicious and when served for friends one evening recently disappeared at an alarming speed. It's a good thing they're cheap, because they don't last long on the pantry shelf. Served slightly salted, roasted cashew nuts are one of the best accompaniments to a cocktail there is. Next time you serve caipirinhas, accompany them with roasted cashew nuts for an "all-Brazilian" cocktail hour.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Caju, The "Cashew but Not-A-Cashew" Fruit

This week, during my walks around Fortaleza, I've noticed that the fruit vendors who sell their wares at traffic lights, busy corners and on the seafront promenade once again have cashew (caju) fruit on their trays or ready-bagged in plastic bags. The return of fresh caju is a sign that the winter harvest season has arrived, and caju will be be available fresh for the next couple of months only. After that, we'll have to rely on juices, frozen pulp, ice creams, cajuina, and conserves to tide us over to next year and another winter harvest (remember, July and August are winter months south of the Equator).

I call caju the "cashew but not-a-cashew" fruit because for most North Americans and Europeans the word "cashew" refers to a kidney-shaped nut which can be eaten raw or toasted, plain, salted or sugared. That small nut comes from part of the caju fruit and is eaten here in Brazil, but it's known as castanha de caju (which translates into English as "nut of the cashew fruit). In actuality, the Portuguese terminology is more precise than the English, as the nut is only a part of the story, and for Brazilians caju refers to all the edible parts of the fruit that are not the nut, rather than to the nut itself.

It's complicated, linguistically, botanically and gastronomically, to keep all this sorted out, but the bottom line is that the tree known in English as the cashew tree (in Portuguese cajueiro, and in Latin, Anacardium occidentale) produces a kidney-shaped seed pod containing a single seed (the "nut"). This seed pod hangs at the end of a pseudo-fruit which is red or yellow, large and smooth-skinned and sweet in flavor. This is the caju as it's known in Brazil, and though it isn't well known in most parts of the English-speaking world, it's called the "cashew apple" in English. So when a Brazilian speaks about caju, it's normally the pseudo-fruit he or she is referring to, not the nut itself. The situation is exactly opposite in English, where "cashew" refers to the nut, and not the pseudo-fruit. Clear?

However confusing the terminology is, caju is one of the most well-loved and most iconic fruits of Brazil's northeast, where the tree originated and has been cultivated for centuries. Because of it's distinctive and unusual appearance, with a bean-like appendage dangling from a beautiful red or yellow fruit, the caju is used extensive in graphic design, printed fabrics, advertising and other visual media to suggest the tropics of northeastern Brazil. The photos that accompany this text are proof of the visual appeal and graphic possibilities of the caju. Even Brazil's super-popular president, Lula, uses the caju fruit to link his career to his northeastern roots (see photo above right).

The next couple of posts will discuss the caju further, and will treat the fruit and the nut as two different foods. Although they come from the same tree, caju (cashew-apple) and castanha de caju (cashew nut) really might just as well come from two entirely different trees. They have almost nothing in common, except botanically, are marketed separately and used differently in eating and cooking.  So, here on Flavors of Brazil, we'll separate them as well.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

RECIPE - Tangerine Caipirinha "Veloso Bar"

This sophisticated, and daringly different take on a caipirinha, Brazil's "national cocktail" is the creation of Deusdete de Souza, bartender at São Paulo's Veloso Bar and four-time winner of "bartender of the year" award in the  Veja São Paulo Guide to Eating and Drinking. In addition to the expected cachaça and tangerine, the intensity of the drink is punched up with bits of hot chili pepper - specifically the pepper known in Brazil as dedo-de-moça (meaning "little girl's finger" in English).

One of the most interesting recent trends in mixology here in Brazil is the expansion of the caipirinha vocabulary, using the traditional cocktail as a platform for inventive and innovative flights of fancy. Sometimes these creations "crash and burn", but this one works out very well indeed. Delicious.
RECIPE - Tangerine Caipirinha "Veloso Bar"
Makes 1 drink

1 small tangerine or mandarin, unpeeled, carefully washed and with extremities removed
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar (or to taste)
ice cubes
1 small dedo-de-moça pepper (or other small hot red pepper), split down the middle, seeded, and cut into fine strips (quantity can be adjusted up or down depending on preference)
2 oz (50 ml) golden cachaça

With a sharp paring knife, cut the tangerine in half horizontally, then into slices. Remove seeds. Place the tangerine slices in a tall tumbler, add the sugar, then macerate with a pestle or handle of a large wooden spoon. Add ice cubes, then cachaça. Fill glass with additional ice if needed. Using a bar spoon, mix the drink from bottom to top, then serve.

Recipe translated and adapted from Claudia magazine, Abril Editora

Monday, July 26, 2010

INGREDIENTS - A Tangerine By Any Other Name Would Taste As Sweet

Amidst the wonders that is the fruit section of a Brazilian market or supermarket - between the stacks of sapoti, acerola, buriti, and other fruits with names that are unknown or unpronounceable - usually sits a nice selection of tangerines. For a North American or European visitor to Brazil the sight of tangerines in the market brings a sense of comfort - "here's something familiar, delicious, easy to handle and eat, and dependable" - and often leads to buying a bagful. Usually it's a good purchasing decision, for the tangerines in Brazil are most often juicy, sweet and delectable.

Tangerines, like all citrus fruits, are not native to Brazil, but they have adapted well to growing conditions in this country and are one of the most commonly available fruits year round. Brazil is the third-largest tangerine-producing country in the world, being surpassed only by China and Spain. The annual harvest is about 1.2 million tons per year, and most of the production is consumed domestically.

Tangerines were brought to Brazil by Portuguese colonists early in the colonial period, and have been consumed in Brazil for centuries. In early colonial times transportation between various settlement areas in Brazil was difficult if not impossible due to topography and ocean currents and consequently there was little contact between the colonies of what is now the north, the northeast, the southeast and the south of Brazil. Due to lack of contact and trade, colonies went there own wayin many things, and developed local differences, preferences and terminology. Because of this, what we know in English as the "tangerine" goes by a large number of names in Brazil, and the name used varies principally by region.

Today, the tangerine has at least the following names in Brazil (there are probably more):
  • In the south of Brazil, in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, it's called bergamota or vergamota
  • In the southeast, in the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, it's known as mexerica
  • In the northeast, the local name is laranja-cravo (clove orange in English)
  • In the states of Piauí and Maranhão, it's a tanja
  • In the city of Curitiba be becomes a mimosa
  • In the central-western states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, it's called poncã

All of which makes the English-language nomenclature - tangerine, mandarin, clementine - quite simple and straightforward, doesn't it?

However you call it, and wherever you eat it, though, an easy-to-peel, cold, sweet tangerine is one of the most refreshing fruits on earth, in Brazil or anywhere else. It's no wonder that million-plus tons of tangerines cultivated every year in Brazil never makes it to the export market.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

RECIPE - Fried Needlefish (Angulhinha Frito)

This quick recipe for crispy-fried needlefish is an at-home version of the dish that is served at beach bars throughout Brazil. It's a perfect finger food to serve outdoors on a hot day, accompanied by cold, cold lager beer.

This recipe from the small Brazilian state of Alagoas adapts itself to any small fish, just as smelt, whitebait, or whatever your fishmonger might have that's in the 2-4 inch category. The fish need to be cleaned first, but nothing more - leave on the heads, fins, tails and scales. It's up to the eater to decide how much of the fish he or she wants to eat. Some fussy eaters carefully remove the two fillets and discard the rest of the fish. Others gobble them whole, especially savoring the crunch bits from the tail and head.
RECIPE - Fried Needlefish (Angulhinha Frito)
Serves 2

1/2 lb (300 gr) cleaned needlefish or other small silver fish
Juice of one lime
Salt to taste
1 cup (250 ml) all-purpose flour
3 cups neutral vegetable oil, peanut oil preferred
Washed lettuce leaves for decoration
Season the fish with lime juice and salt. Put the flour in a paper bag, then dredge the fish in the flour. Shake the excess flour off the fish and lay them on a cookie sheet, making sure they don't touch each other.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy frying pan, and when hot, but not smoking, add the fish, in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. Fry for 10 minutes, or until cooked and nicely crisped. Remove the fish and let drain on paper-towels.

Line a serving platter with the lettuce leaves, place the fish on top, then add the lime wedges.

Serve immediately.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Needlefish (Agulhinha) - A Perfect Snack at the Beach

Brazil's beaches range from desert isle-style isolation to the mass of humanity that is an urban beach on a Sunday or holiday. Unless one is absolutely the ONLY person on the beach and it's miles from the nearest inhabited community, there will be at least one beach bar selling ice-cold beer, soft drinks, fruit juice and a variety of snacks and meals. Brazilians tend not to take coolers full of supplies to the beach, they buy food and drink there - spending the day in the sun or in the shade of a palm thatched barraca or under an umbrella, keeping cool with dips in the sea and cold beer, and eating small plates of food.

Much of the food served at a Brazilian beach comes from the sea. Fish and shellfish dishes are particularly appealing within sight and sound of the waters from which the main ingredients came. One of the most popular beach snacks consists of small fish which have been simply cleaned, breaded and fried, served crispy and salty and eaten whole. In Northeastern Brazil, small specimens of the family of fishes known (for obvious reasons) as needlefish (directly translated into Portuguese as agulhinhas "small needles") are one of the most commonly served in this style and are particularly loved by local beach-goers. There are numerous species of needlefish, ranging up to 3 to 4 feet in length, but the ones that are served at the beach are more likely to be in the range of 3-4 inches.

Served on a hot day on the beach, accompanied by a beer that's colder than freezing, needlefish make a distinctively satisfying snack - one that's entirely appropriate to time and place, and one that's very evocative of the lifestyle of the praia (beach in Portuguese).

In the next post on Flavors of Brazil, I'll provide a recipe for making this dish which can easily be adapted to almost any small fish.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Brazil's "Os Jolokianos" - Lovers of the World's Hottest Pepper

Many Brazilians love hot peppers and put pepper sauce (pimenta in Portuguese) on everything from eggs to rice to pineapples. But, contrary to what many people believe, other Brazilians have little tolerance for anything hot or spicy and flee from the slight hint of pepper heat. Variations in levels of toleration of hot peppers range from the regional to the personal. For example, in Brazil's Northeast, very little use is made of hot peppers, while in the cuisine of Bahia, they are omnipresent and almost obligatory.

In São Paulo, a group of hot pepper enthusiasts, led by photographer Fabiano Batista Marçal, have joined together to celebrate their passion. They call themselves "Os Jolokianos" in homage to the Bhut Jolokia pepper, officially recognized as the hottest in the world, with a Scoville rating over 1 million (Tabasco sauce rates between 2500-5000 on the same scale.) The following is a translation of an article by Olívia Fraga about Os Jolokianos that appeared in the Paladar food section of the newspaper Estado de São Paulo:

Shortly after it was proclaimed the world's hottest pepper in 2000, the Bhut Jolokia pepper went viral on the internet. Because of this,  São Paulo photographer Fabiano Batista Marçal was able to get his hands on a half-dozen of jolokias. The result? Heart beating a thousand times a minute, sweat and tears pouring down. And thus was born his love affair with the "ghost pepper" as its sometimes called.

This passion grew so strong that, when he began tasting and testing the pepper, de decided to video his reactions and post them on YouTube. (Click here for a link to the videos) Friends - even including his ex-wife - were also encouraged to test the pepper while being filmed. Three months later, to improve the visibility of the pepper, Marçal created the site Os Jolokianos.

Before being seduced by the Bhut Jolokia, the photographer haunted supermarkets and food shops in search of "peppers that really burned." He had already worked his way up through the varieties of peppers, and Habaneros and Red Savins no longer had much effect. "Brazilian peppers were never too crazy either," he says.
Entering into a Brazilian site that sold peppers, Marçal was attracted by an announcement for seeds for "nuclear peppers", a generic term that groups together super-hot peppers, including the Trinidad Scorpion, the Fatalii from Africa, and the 7 Pod - all with Scoville ratings of more than 1 million.He planted seeds from all of them, but wasn't successful.

It was just lack of experience, he believes. "I finally encountered Carlos Velazco from Planta Mundo. Besides seeds, he sent me some samples of jolokia planted by the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico. They were slightly smaller than Indian peppers and cost $15 each pepper, "Fabiano says.

From that point on, everything was posted on his site on the Internet. Marçal loved the flavor of the jolokia. He began with a very cautious tasting, making sure that the pepper didn't touch the tip of his tongue. He delayed swallowing, so that he could talk while sampling. The pepper stung, scratched, caused hot flashes, coughing fits and a runny nose. Was there any doubt this pepper was a chemical weapon? "My ex-wife ate a quarter of a dehydrated jolokia and almost died. But the best was a friend of my neighbor who couldn't talk for 11 minutes," he says.

But Marçal still wasn't satisfied. He wanted to to taste a fresh jolokia, whole, from India, the origin of the variety. He found a vendor in Rio de Janeiro who was selling Tezpur Jolokia for $9 each. "It was then that I ate a whole pod, as we call the entire fruit, fresh and unseeded."

He survived.

Today the Jolokianos website sells Bhut Jolokia sauces in Brazil and outside the country. "There's a big community of pepper fanatics in Brazil," says Marçal, who today is official taster at Jolokianos and who buys the fresh peppers from a number of Brazilian producers.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

RECIPE - Golden Chicken with Pine Nuts (Frango Dourado com Pinhão)

This recipe for chicken in a pine-nut laced béchamel sauce comes from Aline Mutz Guerra, who is chef at the highly-regarded Estrela da Terra restaurant in Curitiba, the capital of the Brazilian state of Paraná. Curitiba is widely considered one of the most livable cities in Brazil, with a strong economy, good transportation and infrastructure and a highly-educated population. In the past Curitiba welcomed immigrant communities from many European countries, plus Japan, but today most of the population growth comes from Brazilians migrating to Curitiba from other areas in the country. It is estimated that at least half of the current population was not born in Curitiba.

Aline Mutz Guerra is a Carioca (a person from Rio de Janeiro) who, when she moved to Curitiba, barely knew how to cook. Largely self-taught, she began by cooking for family and friends, making use of local traditional recipes and ingredients. Eventually she opened her own restaurant and in 2009 was appointed chef at Estrela da Terra, which has been open for 16 years and which is housed in a old house which has been awarded heritage status by the city of Curitiba.

The photo below shows how Mutz Guerra presents Golden Chicken with Pine Nuts at Estrela da Terra. With North American pine nuts, which don't have the size or the dramatic color of the Brazilian pinhão, it is better to mix them in with the chicken and béchamel sauce rather than to try to duplicate the decorative technique Mutz Guerra employs.
RECIPE - Golden Chicken with Pine Nuts (Frango Dourado com Pinhão) 
Serves 4

For the béchamel
2 Tbsp. corn starch
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup Philadelphia-style cream cheese
2 cups whole milk

For the chicken
2 entire chicken breasts, boneless, with with skin attached
salt to taste
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
1 cup green peas, fresh or frozen
1 1/2 cups pine nuts, toasted in dry frying pan until lightly browned
1/2 lb (200 gr) grated mozzarella cheese
Make the béchamel. Dilute the corn start in cold water. Bring the milk just to the boiling point over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the diluted corn starch and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens. Add the cream cheese, stir to dissolve, then remove the sauce from heat and reserve.

 Preheat the oven to 400F (200C). Put the chicken breasts, skin side up, in an ovenproof casserole dish. place in preheated oven, and cook for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the skin is golden. Remove the dish from the oven, let the chicken cool slightly, then remove the skin and cut the chicken breasts into bite-sized chunks. Reduce oven temperature to 350F (180C)

In a ovenproof serving dish mix the chicken, the corn and peas, the pine nuts and the béchamel. Salt to taste. Sprinkle the top with grated mozzarella. Place in oven and cook for 10 minutes, or until the top is golden and crusty.

Serve immediately.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

RECIPE - Beef in Beer with Pine Nuts (Carne ao Molho de Cerveja com Pinhão)

This informal beef stew comes from the state of Paraná in southern Brazil, and demonstrates its southern origin by the inclusion of pine nuts (pinhões) which are cultivated in that state, and by the use of beer as a cooking liquid. In the more tropical regions of Brazil, further north, neither beer or wine are used in stews and casseroles, but in southern Brazil, which has a rich tradition of European immigration, both of these alcoholic liquids are common in such dishes. Paraná is home to significant communities of descendants of German, Ukrainian, and Polish settlers, and beer of part of the culinary pantry of the state.

The recipe calls for Brazilian pine nuts, which come from a different family of pines than do the pine nuts commonly available in Europe and North America. Although there will be a slight difference in taste, normal pine nuts may be used in this recipe with great success.
RECIPE - Beef in Beer with Pine Nuts (Carne ao Molho de Cerveja com Pinhão)
Serves 4

2 medium onions, quartered
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. neutral vegetable oil
2 lb (1 kg) chuck steak (acem), cut into 2" (4 cm) cubes
2 tsp. annatto powder (can substitute sweet paprika)
1 Tbsp. Dijon-style mustard
3 bay leaves
2 tsp. dried oregano
6 oz. pilsner or lager beer
1 cup (250 ml) water
salt to taste
1 Tbsp. corn starch
1/4 cup (50 ml) water
1/2 lb (250 gr) pine nuts
Put the onion, garlic and vegetable oil in a blender or food processor and blend completely. Heat a heavy saucepan with cover over medium-high heat, add the blended onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly just until it begins to brown. Add the chunks of beef, and continue cooking until the meat is browned on all sides.

Add the annatto or paprika, mustard, bay leaves, oregano, the beer and 1 cup of water to the browned meat, plus salt to taste. Bring to a boil, cover the pan, reduce heat and simmer until the meat is tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Add additional water if needed to prevent drying out.

Dilute the corn starch in 1/2 cup cold water. Uncover pan, add the corn starch and pine nuts. Continue to simmer with the pan uncovered for about 10 minutes or until the liquid thickens and the pine nuts are heated through.

Serve immediately with potatoes or noodles.

Recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Pinhão - Brazil's "Pine nut on steroids"

The pine nut, which is the fruit of a pine tree hidden inside a woody structure known as a pine cone, is one of the oldest known foods of the human species. Anthropological studies show that the Stone Pine tree has been cultivated for its seeds (pine nuts) for at least 6,000 years, and that pine nuts have been harvested from wild trees for much, much longer. In North America, cultivation and harvest of pine nuts from the pinyon family of pines most likely goes back just as far, though the anthropological track record is not as easy to prove as it is in Europe.

In contemporary North American and European cuisines there is extensive use of the pine nut. Without pignoli (pine nut in Italian) is it impossible to make a true pesto sauce. In Greece and the Middle East pine nuts are an important ingredient in the filling for baklava. There is wide use of pine nuts in the traditional Native American cooking of the Southwestern USA, and in the cuisine of Mexico, where pine nuts are used in some recipes for chiles en nogada, an iconic Mexican recipe.

Pine nuts are important in Brazilian cuisine too, and have been cultivated and eaten since long before the arrival of Europeans in 1500. However, the pine nut of Brazilian cooking (pinhão in Portuguese) is not from the same family of trees as European and North American pine nuts. It it harvested from the Araucaria pine, which is a large and geographically widely-dispersed family of pine-like trees of the Southern Hemisphere. Member of this family which have been successfully transplanted to the Northern Hemisphere include the Norfolk Island Pine and the Monkey Puzzle Tree.

Pine nuts from Araucarias dwarf their Northern Hemisphere cousins. Whereas Northern Hemisphere pine nuts range up to about 1/2" in size, the pinhão is normally between 2 and 3 inches long. It is also a rich, dark brown color as opposed to the light beige of the Northern Hemisphere pine nut. And the taste of the pine nut is sharper and stronger south of the Equator too.

Tremendous quantities of pinhões (the plural of pinhão) are consumed every years in Brazil, mostly in the Southern and Southeastern regions where the Araucaria are native and grow rapidly. Latest figures show an annual harvest of about 4,300 tons of seeds. In Lages, a city in the southern state of Santa Catarina, there is an annual  pinhão festival, the Festa Nacional do Pinhão, featuring all kinds of foods cooked with pinhões as well as pinhão wine.

In the next few posts on Flavors of Brazil, I'll provide some recipes for dishes featuring pinhões. Most of them can very successfully be made substituting Northern Hemisphere pine nuts. Although the dish will not look the same due to the difference in size and color of the pine nuts, the taste will be very similar.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

RECIPE - Everyday Beans (Feijão)

There are about 195 million people in Brazil, and probably almost as many recipes for making beans (feijão). Some people soak the beans, some don't. Some people add animal fat, such as bacon or salt-pork, others don't. Some people add garlic, while others wouldn't consider it. Every cook has a personal recipe, most likely inherited from a mother, a grandmother, or a maid.

The recipe that follows is an attempt to reduce all these recipes into their most basic form. Treat this recipe not as an instruction on how to make Brazilian beans, but rather as a road-map to lead you to create your own recipe, your personal feijão. Vary it to see what you like best - add a chunk of smoky bacon one time, leave out the garlic another. Use black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans (but probably not chick-peas). Use olive oil or neutral vegetable oil. Make it soupier, make it thicker. Eventually you'll have not the recipe but the process internalized and you'll never again need a recipe to make Brazilian beans. You'll just make them.
RECIPE - Everyday Beans (Feijão) 
Serves 6

2 cups dried beans, any type
6 cups cold water
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 med. onion, finely chopped
salt to taste
Spread the dried beans on a rimmed cookie sheet and carefully sort for spoiled beans and small stones. Place the beans in a colander and run cold water over them to wash thoroughly. Put them in a large bowl, cover with cold water (at least 2" higher than the surface of the beans). Leave overnight, in the refrigerator in hot climates. In the morning, remove any beans that are floating - they are likely spoiled.

(If you don't have time for an overnight soaking, follow instructions above, but after washing the beans put them in a large heavy saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring the beans to a boil over high heat, let them boil for 2-3 minutes, then turn off heat, cover the beans and let stand for one hour.

Drain the soaked or pre-boiled beans and place them in a clean large saucepan. Cover with water to approximately 2" higher than the surface of the beans in the pot. Add 1 tsp. of the oil and bay leaf, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to bring bean liquid to a very slow boil, cover the pan, and cook until the beans are just tender. Cooking time can range from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the variety and age of the beans. Begin testing the beans after 30 minutes for doneness.

Meanwhile, heat the 2 Tbsp. oil in a heavy-duty frying pan, then add the onion and garlic and saute until they are golden. When the beans are done, add two serving spoonfuls of beans to the pan, then use the back of the serving spoon to mash the beans into the onions and garlic. Return this mixture to the beans in the pot, salt to taste, bring once again to to low boil and cook for 5-10 minutes for the flavor to develop and the liquid to thicken.

Serve immediately, or cool and store in refrigerator or freezer for reheating later.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rice and Beans (Arroz com feijão) - Getting Down to Basics

There are no reliable statistics to offer concrete numbers, but it's safe to say that the overwhelming majority of the population of Brazil eats rice and beans (arroz com feijão in Portuguese) every day of their lives. It is the absolute core of Brazilian cuisine and of Brazilian nutrition. Eating rice and beans is not limited to certain geographical regions, nor is it associated with social or economic classes - the ultra-sophisticated "ladies who lunch" in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, the subsistence farmers in the Amazon, and the windsurfers along the northeastern coast don't have a lot in common in many way, but they all eat rice and beans daily. A Brazilian friend of mine returned from Canada some time ago and among the things his mother found most wondrous and strange about that country far to the north was that Canadians didn't eat rice and beans every day. "What DO they eat, then?" was her question.

Rice and beans, of course, plays a large part in the cuisines of many other parts of Latin America - Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, etc. But it is in Brazil where this combination of an Asian grain (brought to Brazil by the Portuguese)** and a native legume (known to the Indians long before the arrival of Europeans) reaches its prime importance. It provides the nutritional basis for the feeding of the nation.

Rice and beans is eaten by everyone largely by tradition and preference, but also because it is the least expensive way to support human life nutritionally in Brazil. The very poorest Brazilians eat rice and beans and very little else. As one ascends the economic scale the variety of other foods increases, and the amount of nutrition obtained from rice and beans diminishes, but it never drops to zero. Fortunately, besides being inexpensive, rice and beans is a very nutritious dish. It provides protein and carbohydrates, plus iron, vitamin B, calcium, lysine and amino acids. With the addition of a small amount of fruit or vegetable (primarily for vitamin C content) one can survive a lifetime on a diet of rice and beans. Nutritionally, the best proportion is three parts of rice for each part of beans, which are the standard proportions in Brazil.

Regionally, the type of beans used in making this dish varies. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, black beans are favored, while in the northeast a bean similar to Pinto beans is preferred. The rice used, however, is almost universally long-grain white rice. Naturally, if the rice were brown the dish would be nutritionally richer, but long-held custom requires white rice. The rice is steamed or boiled, and the beans are cooked until just soft. The broth for the beans is normally seasoned with at least onion and garlic, plus if economic conditions allow, some form of animal fat or meat - things like bacon, smoked pork, or carne de sol.

Rice and beans, because of their absolute importance in Brazilian nutrition, have become symbolic to most Brazilians of their culture and their lives. The mixture of white rice with brown or black beans is taken to exemplify the racial mixing which is characteristic of Brazil. A well-known Brazilian singer, Daniela Mercury, used this symbolism on the cover of her 1996 album Feijão com Arroz, which was lauded as the best album cover in Brazilian history by an important music magazine. (Incidentally, the album is also marvelous musically, and is worth searching for.) In Brazilian Portuguese, the phrase "arroz com feijão" has come to mean anything that is ordinary or everyday - someone who is looking to change their life might tell their family or friends that they want to get out of this "rice and beans" and find a new life. In actuality, they might find a new life, but they are unlikely ever to get out of the habit of eating rice and beans daily. It's in the blood.

** Check the comments for this posting for a reader's response regarding the possible routes by which Asian rice arrived in Brazil - perhaps via Portugal, perhaps via Africa. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

RECIPE - Cupuaçu and Lemongrass Milkshake (Leite Batida de Cupuaçu e Capim-Santo)

Since the pulp of the cupuaçu fruit is full of nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants I've been trying to find some recipes that use frozen cupuaçu pulp to create a healthy dish or drink. Many of the traditional Brazilian recipes for this exotic and spectacularly delicious fruit call for large amounts of sugar, cream, sweetened condensed milk and/or eggs to create the creams and custards which are most closely associated with cupuaçu.

I recently came across this recipe for a layered smoothie/milkshake that combines the rich, creamy taste of cupuaçu with the citric snap of lemongrass (capim-santo in Portuguese). Served icy-cold directly from the freezer, it's a waker-upper that gets top marks for flavor and for healthiness. With the increasing availability of frozen cupuaçu pulp in North America and Europe and with fresh lemongrass becoming more and more available everywhere, here's an exotic drink that you can enjoy at home in your morning robe.
RECIPE - Cupuaçu and Lemongrass Milkshake (Leite Batida de Cupuaçu e Capim-Santo)
Makes 2 drinks

2 Tbsp. finely chopped lemongrass (center leaves only)
2 cups nonfat milk
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar (can substitute honey)
1 cup frozen cupuaçu pulp (defrosted)
Place lemongrass, milk and sugar in bowl of blender or food processor. Blend or process for one minute.

Pour mixture through fine sieve into glass jar. Cover and place in freezer for 30 minutes.

Pour half of the cupuaçu pulp into each of two large tumblers. Then top with the lemongrass mixture from the freezer. Decorate with sprigs of lemongrass if desired, then serve immediately.

Recipe translated and adapted from Espaco Viva Mais.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

RECIPE - Cupuaçu Flan (Pudim de Cupuaçu)

The creamy, rich flesh of the cupuaçu (click here to read more) makes it particularly suited to milk-based sweets and dessert. Things like custards, creams, mousses and flans. In fact, when dealing with this fruit from the rainforest of the Amazon, if you remember its close botanical relationship with chocolate, you can easily imagine what kinds of desserts welcome the complex flavor of cupuaçu. If it's good made with chocolate, it's likely to be good made with cupuaçu.

Here's a recipe for a flan flavored with cupuaçu. Flans are as common and as prized in Brazil as they are anywhere else in Latin America. A culinary gift from the Iberian peninsula, the flan traveled with European colonizers to Mexico, to Peru, to Chile and Argentina, and to Brazil. This one is easy to make and delicious. The only difficult part might be finding cupuaçu pulp, but do check the freezer of your local health food store. With the increasing popularity of cupuaçu in the Northern Hemisphere if it's not there now, it's likely to be so soon.
RECIPE - Cupuaçu Flan (Pudim de Cupuaçu)
Serves 8

1 cup granulated sugar
1 can sweetened condensed milk

3/4 cup (200 ml) water
4 whole free-range eggs
1 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 cup frozen cupuaçu pulp
Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).

Caramelize the sugar, then line a glass or ceramic cooking dish with the sugar. (For a photo tutorial on how to safely caramelize sugar, click here.)

Add the remaining ingredients to a blender, then blend until smooth and creamy. Pour the liquid into the caramelized baking dish, then put the dish into a large glass casserole or lasagne dish. Pour in boiling water until water reaches the top of blender liquid. Carefully place on middle rack in pre-heated oven. Cook for approximately 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Remove from heat. Let cool completely.

To serve, briefly set the baking dish is hot water to melt the caramel, then reverse the dish onto a serving platter. Serve immediately.

Monday, July 12, 2010

INGREDIENTS: Cupuaçu - Chocolate's upstart cousin

Anyone who has paid much attention to the problems of deforestation and loss of biodiversity in Brazil's Amazon rainforest probably knows that the area has the highest rate of biodiversity in the world. One in ten of the total number of animal and plant species on Earth inhabit the Amazon rainforest. Some experts have estimated that in that region, one square kilometer of land might host 75,000 types of trees, and 150,000 species of higher plants. (Those numbers are not typos!) The total number of species that have been catalogued to date is approximately 438,000, and there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands more still to be discovered.

Recently, several Amazonian plant species which have always been important food and/or medicinal sources in Brazil have started to gain fame outside of Brazil, principally in North America, Europe and Japan. They are often marketed as "superfood" and outrageous claims are made as to their healthful properties. This is not to say that these foods don't have such properties, it's just that they are sometimes overmarketed as a panacaea for every kind of ill. In the past Flavors of Brazil has featured discussions of the açaí berry and of guaraná, both of which come from the Amazon. (Click their names in bold print to read more about these fruits.)

Recently, I've noticed that both here in Brazil, and in publications in North America the word cupuaçu (pronounced coop-oo-ah-SOO) is starting to pop up more and more, and some are claiming it to be the next Amazonian superfood. I've eaten cupuaçu ice cream, had cupuaçu mousse, both of which have been commonly available in Brazil for a long time, but now I'm seeing cosmetics and soaps made with it, extracts and creams available in health food stores, and frozen pulp for making cupuaçu juice at home. I began to wonder if it lived up to its hype.

A very little research led me to the first surprising fact about this fruit of the rainforest - it's a member of the genus Theobroma, meaning "food of the gods", whose most famous member is cacau, the tree that gives us chocolate. Theobroma cacau is the cacau tree, and Theobroma grandiflorum is the cupuaçuzeiro, the cupuaçu tree. This tree grows wild in the rainforest, and reaches heights of up to 70 feet. The cupuaçu fruit itself is large, up to a foot long (30 cm.) with a hard brown shell enclosing several seed pods, each of which contains the custardy, creamy fruit called cupuaçu.

Although describing what something tastes like is extremely difficult - most things taste like themselves - the highly aromatic and flavored cupuaçu fruit is often described as tasting like a mixture of chocolate, pineapple and/or bubblegum. I would agree with that flavor profile, and know that I know the botanical family tree of the cupuaçu I understand where that "hint of chocolate" comes from. I personally find the bubblegum flavor comes through stronger than the pineapple, but some of my friends find that the pineapple taste and aroma is predominant.

In addition to sharing similar flavors, cousins cacau and cupuaçu share another characteristic. Both fruits provide a rich hydrating fat, called a "butter." Cocoa fat (or cocoa butter) is used both in cooking and as a lotion for its hydrating properties. The fat of the cupuaçu fruit is equally suited to both roles.

In the next few posts, Flavors of Brazil will feature some traditional and typical recipes for dishes made with cupuaçu. Like açaí and guaraná, if cupuaçu isn't available yet in your nearby health food store it will be soon. Try it - you'll find the flavor exotic and appealing, the creamy texture divine, and if the ads and blurbs can be believed, you'll be ingesting one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Not a bad deal, I'd say.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Brazil's Time in the Sun - The New Decade

I'm not sure what we will eventually call the decade we're just embarking on - it's still not clear if we left "The Noughties" or "The Noughts" or something else last New Year's Eve at midnight. Will it be "The Teens"? I kind of hope not, as that has an unmistakable adolescent ring about it. Whatever the nickname turns out to be for the decade from 2010 to 2019 (or does the decade run from 2011 to 2020?) I'm convinced that it will be decade in which Brazil takes center place on the world stage. This rapidly growing country of 195 million people is already the Latin American economic powerhouse, and economists predict that by the end of the decade Brazil will have the world's fifth-largest economy.

Brazil has long been thought of, if it's been thought of at all, outside of Latin America as a beautiful, sexy but dangerous country full of beaches, gorgeous inhabitants and poverty. Although there is some basis to that stereotype, the reality of Brazil and it's position in the world has changed dramatically in the recent past, and it can no longer be reduced to a few postcard views and sensational newsclips in the eyes of the world.

With the end of the 2010 World Cup this weekend in Africa, Brazil is already looking ahead to the first of two big worldwide showcases for Brazil in this decade, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which will be held in 12 cities in Brazil from June 13 to July 13, 2014. Since Brazil's team has already been defeated at this year's edition, local coverage has already begun to emphasize the next World Cup here in Brazil. Of course there are already TV commercials from World Cup sponsors, and the TV networks are full of stories of the challenges facing the organizing committee. And yesterday in Johannesburg, in a splashy public ceremony Brazil officially started its World Cup celebrations with a concert by well-known Brazilian musical artists, a speech by Brazil's overwhelmingly popular president, Lula, and the unveiling of the official logo for the 2014 games, pictured at right. The logo is a stylized version of the World Cup itself, in Brazil's colors of yellow and green with the year 2014 written in red.

Of course, the 2014 World Cup is only the first of two huge international sporting events during the decade. In 2016 Rio de Janeiro will host the Summer Olympic Games, the first time they've been held in South America.

As the spotlight shines on Brazil in the lead-up to these events, I'm convinced there will be international appeal for all things Brazilian - music, film, fashion, sports and of course food. I hope that during the next while, Flavors of Brazil can do its own tiny bit to make the culture of this marvelous country more well known thoughout the world. I can't wait, it's going to be a great decade.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

RECIPE - Rice with Kale (Arroz de Couve)

Recently, Flavors of Brazil has featured some traditional recipes from Brazil which are unlikely to every be tested or tasted by this blog's readers - one or more of the ingredients are not commercially available in North America or Europe, where the bulk of Flavors of Brazil's readers come from. As one of the purposes of this blog is to share what I've learned of Brazilian culinary traditions, I don't intend to stop posting such recipes - I, for one, enjoy reading recipes that I know I'll never, ever cook, but that I find unusual, different or unique. I hope that the blog's readers do to.

However, it is also good, from time to time, to post recipes that are traditional Brazilian but which can be cooked with relative ease almost anywhere in the world. Such recipes can be equally interesting, and provide the added bonus of being straightforward and easy to cook at home. I continually look for such recipes to post on this blog.

The recipe below is one such recipe. It's a traditional dish from the state of Maranhão, a state which has been featured in several recent posts. It's called Rice with Kale (Arroz de Couve in Portuguese) and it's an easy, delicious and healthy side dish perfect for serving with meat or fish main courses.

Kale is a green that is has a prominent position in the cuisines of many regions of Brazil, such as Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo and Minas Gerais. (Click here for kale cooked in the style of Minas Gerais.) It's available year round in supermarkets, and is one of the healthiest foods to be found. Give this recipe a try, I know it will end up being a favorite.
RECIPE - Rice with Kale (Arroz de Couve)
Serves 4

2 cups kale, washed, trimmed and cut into thin strips
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups cooked long-grain white rice (freshly cooked or leftover)
salt to taste
In a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the strips of kale and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes, or until the strips slightly wilt and turn a brilliant green. Stir in the rice, and heat, continuing to stir, until the rice and kale are thoroughly mixed, and the rice is coated with oil and heated through. Remove from heat.

Serve immediately.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

RECIPE - Bilimbi conserve (Conserva de Biri-Biri)

Bilimbi, an acidic cousin of the star fruit, is used in amny dishes of the cuisine of southern Bahia as a replacement for citrus fruit, and is also appreciated on its own as a jam, pickle or relish.

This recipe, from the beautiful small resort town of Porto Seguro in southern Bahia, is a simple way to preserve the bounty of the bilimbi harvest for use during other seasons of the year, when the bilimbi is not available fresh. Since almost every backyard in Porto Seguro has a bilimbi tree, the local inhabitants never have a problem with a shortage of bilimbi at harvest time, rather the reverse - what to do with the abundance of bilimbi ripening all over town. This is one solution.
RECIPE - Bilimbi conserve (Conserva de Biri-Biri)

2 quarts (liters) cold water
sea salt to taste
12 bilimbis, thoroughly washed
fresh ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 thick slice yellow onion
In a large pan, bring the water to a boil. Turn off the heat, add the bilimbis, then immediately cover the pan and let cool to room temperature.

Sterilize a one-quart canning jar, using standard techniques and safety measures. Pack half full with bilimbis, then add the bay leave and onion slice, and the remaining bilimbis. Pour the cooking liquid over the fruits to fill the jar. Seal the jar and process using the boiling water method, or alternatively, seal the jar and place in the refrigerator. Let stand for at least 2 weeks, then serve as an accompaniment to meat dishes or with cocktails and aperitifs.

Recipe translated and adapted from Viagem Gastronômica através do Brasil by Caloca Fernandes (Editora Senac)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Biri-Biri aka Bilimbi

Originating in tropical Asia (Phillipines or Molucca Islands) the fruit of the bilimbi tree (Averrhoa bilimbi )is an important food source in Asia, Africa and in one small region of Brazil, the southern coast of the state of Bahia. It is virtually unknown elsewhere in Brazil, but plays an important role in the cuisine of southern Bahia, where it is known as most commonly as biri-biri but also as bilimbi, or caramboleira amarela.

Bilimbi is a close relative of the carambola or star fruit and shares a high level of acidity with that plant. It is used in Asia to provide acidity to curries and sauces, and it the major ingredient in many jams, relishes, pickles and chutneys. It also has medicinal uses, and with its high acidity is used in cleaning and bleaching solutions. In Malaysia is is even used to clean the traditional dagger, the kris.

In Porto Seguro and other towns of southern Bahia many residents have a bilimbi tree in the backyard. The tree was probably brought to the region by Portuguese colonists who found it in Asia, and brought it to their tropical colonies in the Americas. No one is sure why the bilimbi is so extensively cultivated in southern Bahia and almost nowhere else in Brazil, though some food historians speculate that it might be due to the fact that the region is not suited for cultivation of citrus fruits, and consequently the bilimbi is cultivated to provide a culinary replacement for citrus fruits and juices in dishes where acidity is required or desired.

The fruits of the bilimbi tree are about the size and shape of a small zucchini and are a bright green. They can be eaten raw, but are extremely sour due to their acidity and are usually cooked to reduce  acidity. In Bahia they are used to make both savory and sweet conserves, and the presence of these on a table is a distinctive trait of the traditional regional cuisine.

Bilimbi can be successfully grown in the USA, though only in tropical regions or Florida and Hawaii. Seeds are available online at Tropilab, Inc.

In the next few posts on Flavors of Brazil, I'll provide recipes for a savory conserve of bilimbi as well as a sweet bilimbi jelly.

Monday, July 5, 2010

RECIPE - Piranha Soup (Caldo de Piranha)

The famously ferocious piranha is an important food fish in the Pantanal - the world's largest wetland, located in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. During the half of the year that the Pantanal is flooded, its rivers, lakes and ponds abound with fresh-water fish, including the needle-toothed carnivorous piranha. The piranha is generally caught with nets, though their teeth wreak havoc on the nets and they must be extracted with extreme care if one wishes to avoid a nasty bite. But residents of the Pantanal prize the flavor and taste of the piranha so much that they are willing to take the risks involved in fishing for them.

It's extremely unlikely that most readers of Flavors of Brazil will ever have the opportunity to make the following recipe at home. Availability of piranhas at local markets is a definite problem, and fishing for them entails risks. The geographical range of this fish has traditionally been restricted to South America, although, according to Wikipedia, aquarium piranhas have been introduced into parts of the USA with specimens occasionally found in the Potomac River and Lake of Ozarks. So readers from those regions just might be able to impress friends and family with a nice bowl of piranha soup. In any case, here is how it's made.

(Although I haven't tried to do so, I think this soup could be made successfully with many different small fresh-water fish, such as perch, walleye, pike, etc.)
RECIPE - Piranha Soup (Caldo de Piranha)

4 lbs (2 kg) piranhas - approximately 10 fish
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 Tbsp. fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 Tbsp. white wine or cider vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. neutral vegetable oil
2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 large green bell pepper, cut into julienne strips
1 medium onion, chopped
1 Tbsp. green onion, chopped
2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
Clean and descale the fish, then cut them into large chunks. Place the chunks of fish in a large bowl and season with the garlic, lime juice, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste, then let marinate in the refrigerator for approximately 2 hours.

In a large saucepan, heat the 1/2 cup of oil over medium high heat. Add the chunks of piranha and stir-fry for a few minutes. Lower the heat, then add boiling water to cover the fish, bring to a boil, then cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until the fish is tender. Remove from heat, then using a strainer remove the fish from the broth, reserving both.

Let the fish cool. Once cool enough to handle, carefully remove all bones from the pieces of fish. Place the fish pieces and the reserved broth in a blender or food processor and blend until you have a smooth mixture. Reserve.

In another saucepan heat the 2 Tbsp. oil over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, the green pepper strips and the copped onion and cook until the onions are transparent and all ingredients are softened. Add the piranha broth from the blender or food processor to the pan, then the chopped green onion and cilantro. Heat thoroughly.

Remove from heat, pour into a serving tureen and serve immediately, accompanied by hot-pepper sauce.

Recipe translated and adapted from Viagem Gastronômica através do Brasil by Caloca Fernandes (Editora Senac)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Eating Carnivorous Fish - The Piranha

The family of small fresh-water fish known zoologically as Characidae and known commonly as Piranhas has a reputation for ferocity and voraciousness that is more legend than reality. That's not to say that piranhas are vegetarians, or that they are dainty eaters, it's more that everything most people know about piranhas is exaggerated at the minimum and untrue at the maximum. The myth that a school of piranhas can reduce a human or cow to an instant skeleton appears to have been started by American President Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Brazil in the early 20th Century. At that time local Amazonian fisherman, in a successful attempt to impress the President blocked off a tributary of the Amazon with nets and filled it with starving piranhas. They then chopped up a slaughtered cow and threw the pieces into the stream, thereby setting off a "feeding frenzy" which quickly reduced the carcass to bones and provided the inspiration for hundreds of bad horror films, including at least 6 films entitled Piranha, according to IMDb.

There are about 40 species of piranhas in the rain forests, marshes and rivers of South America, ranging from Venezuela to Argentina, although the majority of piranha species live in Brazil - either in the rivers of the Amazonian Basin, or in the wetlands in west-central Brazil known as the Pantanal. What all piranhas have in common is a mouthful of particularly sparp and efficient teeth which makes them very good predators, their small size notwithstanding. All species of piranhas have a single row of sharp teeth in both jaws; the teeth are tightly packed and interlocking and are employed for rapid puncture and shearing.

Although the name piranha is well-known outside South America, it's not very well known that humans eat many more piranhas every year than the other way around. In the Amazonian region of Brazil, as well as in the Pantanal in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, piranhas are a commercial food fish and are eaten in a number of ways - grilled, roasted, and in soups and broths. As the piranha is a small and relatively bony fish, it takes of number of them to serve a tableful of eaters - but as the rivers and streams of the region abound in them, they can be eaten in good conscious. And with a bit of a sense of revenge.

Friday, July 2, 2010

RECIPE - Rice with Cuxá (Arroz de Cuxá)

Here is another recipe from the Brazilian state of Maranhão. It features the characteristic flavor of the acidic green vinagreira, in rice dish that approaches the complexity of a risotto.

Rice is one of the most important components of the cuisine of Maranhão and was brought there by Portuguese colonists who had first learned of the grain in Asia. Rice was cultivated in Maranhão as far back as 1745 and it was primarily rice from Maranhão that fed those colonies that became Brazil. In colonial times Maranhão rice was also exported to Europe. The predominance of rice cultivation in Maranhão led to the creation there of a number of dishes based on rice, combining the grain with bacon, carne de sol, crab, shrimp or vinagreira. Rice combined with vinagreira eventually came to be called rice with cuxá (arroz de cuxá in Portuguese.)

Rice with cuxá is typically served as a side dish to accompany seafood main courses such as crab or shrimp pie, or fried fish or shrimp. Local cooks say that it takes a long time to learn how to properly prepare rice with cuxá because when the proportion of rice to vinagreira is correct, the dish becomes inedible. If too much vinagreira is added the dish becomes bitter and overly acidic. If not enough, the dish remains bland and flavorless. Only someone who has been making rice with cuxá all their life knows exactly how much to throw in the pot.
RECIPE - Rice with Cuxá (Arroz de Cuxá)
Serves 4

1 lb (500 gr) dried shrimp (available in Asian markets)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup toasted white sesame seeds
1 1/2 cup cooked vinagreira leaves, chopped
4 cups water
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup manioc flour
3 cups cooked long-grain white rice
salt to taste
Chopped green onion to garnish
1 red chile pepper to garnish
Wash the shrimp in a sieve under cold running water. Reserve. Combine the onion and sesame seeds in a food processor and process until a homogenous paste is formed. Reserve. Bring the 4 cups water to a boil and add several handfuls of vinagreira leaves. Boil only until the leaves become limp and lose their bright color. Drain and immediately refresh the leaves in cold water. Drain again. Coarsely chop the leaves, and measure 1 1/2 cups.

Heat the oil in a large heavy frying pan and add the garlic and the onion/sesame paste. Cook until the mixture is lightly browned, then add the 1 1/2 cup water and the manioc flour. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 8 minutes. Add the shrimp and the chopped vinagreira and stir to combine. Finally add in the cooked rice, season to taste with salt, and continue to stir and cook until the rice is heated through.

Remove from heat, put onto a serving platter or in a bowl, garnish with the green onion and chile pepper then serve immediately.

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