Saturday, November 13, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Cavaquinha, Brazil's Least Attractive Seafood

Brazil has long been famed internationally for the beauty of its inhabitants. The world's top model is the extravagantly beautiful Gisele Bündchen, from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, and many of her compatriots regularly walk the catwalks of Milan, Paris, and New York. Male model and DJ Jesus Luz had his 15 minutes of fame recently as Madonna's boyfriend, though it appears she has recently moved on. And any tourist who has visited the beaches of this country can tell you that the felicitous racial mixtures that make the Brazilian people have resulted in a large number of very attractive people.

When it comes to comestibles, however, it appears that beauty might be even less than skin deep. There is a crustacean (Scyllarideae), currently in season here in Brazil and which is being fêted in special menus and in festivals all along Brazil's coast, and which must be one of the ugliest animals ever to end up as dinner. It's a cousin (or an ugly step-sister a la Cinderella) of the lobster and it's known in Brazilian Portuguese as either the cavaquinha (meaning ukelele-lady) or lagosta sapata (slipper lobster). A quick look at the photos below will show why this animal has picked up these names - the resemblance is clear, as is the similarity of the cavaquinha to any number of bad-horror-film aliens.

Once the cavaquinha is killed and dressed it's an entirely different story, however, as what the exterior of this lobster lacks in physical beauty is made up for by the sweet, clean flavor of the white flesh. With its flattened tail, the cavaquinha produces a large solid piece of tail meat that can be served in almost any way that suits traditional lobster, from simply boiling or grilling to more complex, sauced presentations. As with all lobsters, it's important not to overcook cavaquinha. If left to cook too long, the soft meat turns rubbery and chewy. According to Chef Geraldo Rodrigues of São Paulo's Restaurante Freddy, when purchasing a cavaquinha it's important to turn the animal over and press on the thinner shell of the animal's tail. If it is firm and resists pressure it's a good specimen. If it's soft, then there isn't enough meat inside. He counsels against purchasing frozen cavaquinha since with a frozen cavaquinha it is impossible to do this "pressure test." And he should know - his restaurant is currently in the midst of its 10th annual cavaquinha festival. In those ten years, I'd think that Chef Rodrigues has tickled a lot of cavaquinha tummies testing them out.

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