Monday, February 28, 2011

RECIPE - Grilled Filé-mignon with Herbs (Filé-mignon Grelhado com Ervas)

In Fortaleza, my Brazilian hometown, now's a good time to dine on the best cuts of beef - filé-mignon, tenderloin, sirloins. (See the previous post on Flavors of Brazil for an explanation why). Consequently, my eye has recently been turning to Brazilian recipes for this lean, tender and flavorful morsel of beef. The following recipe, from Brazilian food-and-wine magazine, Prazeres da Mesa, grabbed my attention for two reasons - first, because its simplicity ensures that the taste of the beef isn't lost in heavy-handed or overly-rich sauces, and second, because the recipe was developed by Chef Cézar Cassiano, of Grupo Noah in São Paulo, not for a restaurant but rather to be served in a hospital. From my limited experience of hospital food, I've never seen a dish like this on the food cart! But if I'm ever in hospital, let's hope it's in Hospital São Luiz in São Paulo, and let's hope this dish is on the menu.
RECIPE - Grilled Filé-mignon with Herbs (Filé-mignon Grelhado com Ervas)
serves 4

4 individual filés-mignon, about 1/2 lb (250 gr) each
salt to taste
8 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp light soy sauce
1 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 Tbsp fresh sage
1 Tbsp fresh basil, torn into smaller pieces if the leaves are large
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
10 cloves garlic
Peel the garlic cloves, and lightly smash them with the side of a knife or cleaver, making sure they stay whole. Season the steaks with salt. Reserve.

Heat a deep, heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. Add 6 Tbsp olive oil and heat until hot but not smoking. Add the steaks and fry for about 4 minutes per side, depending on desired degree of doneness. When done, remove the steaks from pan and reserve, keeping warm.

Add the remaining two Tbsp oil to the same pan. Turn the heat to medium, then add the garlic and rosemary. Cook until the garlic is just browned, but not burnt. Remove the pan from the heat - then remove the garlic, reserving the pan with flavored oil.

In another small frying pan, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil over high heat. When hot but not smoking, add the fresh parsley, sage and basil and fry briefly - until the herbs are crispy. Remove the herbs, and drain them on a paper towel to absorb excess oil.

Return the larger frying pan to the heat. When hot, add the reserved steaks, plus the vinegar and soy sauce. Heat, turning the steaks over once, for a short time, until the meat is hot and the sauce has thickened a bit.

Place one steak on each of four plates, and mound some of the crispy fresh herbs on top. Serve immediately.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Cost of Meat in Brazil - Some Interesting Changes

Compared to the cost in North America or Europe, the price charged for animal protein in supermarkets and butcher shops in Brazil is very cheap - both in actual cost and in percentage of the cost of all food purchases. As Brazil's export market for meat, particularly beef, grows the trend has been over the past few years for a gradual increase in the cost of meat.

In an article in today's O Povo, one of Fortaleza's daily newspapers, the increasing cost of meat has had an unanticipated and interesting twist added to it. The article is primarily concerned with beef prices in Fortaleza, and indicates that while the cost of what are called "secondary cuts" - cuts similar to chuck, brisket, round - continues to rise, there has been a dramatic fall in the cost of "noble cuts" such as filé-mignon, sirloin, and tenderloin.

What has happened, apparently, is that the price for noble cuts rose dramatically in the second half of 2010, sometimes by close to 100%. As a result, consumers turned their attention to the lower-priced secondary cuts. Sales of noble cuts dropped, and sales of secondary cuts rose. As a result of this change in consumer behavior, there is currently an excess quantity noble cut meat on the market, and a deficit of secondary cut meat. So, as will happen according to the law of supply and demand, prices have gone down for noble cuts, and up for secondary cuts.

For example, consider the case of filé-mignon. According to the article, in December of 2010, this cut of beef was retailing for between R$45 and R$50 per kilo (equivalent to USD $12 - $14 per pound). This past week, it has been selling for half of that - R$22 to R$25 (equivalent to USD $6 - $7 per pound). Conversely, the cost for patinho (similar to bottom round steak) during the same period of time has increased from R$12 to R$14 per kilo. In other words, in December filé-mignon was twice as expensive as patinho and today they are equally priced.

Whether the Brazilian consumer will now reverse their pattern of consumption once again and start buying more filé-mignon and less patinho remains to be seen. That would, naturally, increase the cost of the more noble cuts again to what they were historically. But in the meantime, I'm planning to visit my neighborhood butcher and stock up on bargain-basement-priced filé-mignon while it lasts.

If this post has you dreaming of a tender, lean filé-mignon, the next here on Flavors of Brazil will provide you with a perfect recipe for that marvelous cut of beef.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Brazil's Oscar-Nominated Documentary - Waste Land

On Sunday, when the 83rd annual Academy Awards are given out in Hollywood, California, Brazilians will be watching the Feature Documentary Category with particularly close attention. One of the nominated films in that category, Waste Land by directors Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and João Jardim, is about one of Brazil's best-known artists, Vik Muniz, and his work with the garbage pickers of Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill, located just outside Rio de Janeiro.

Muniz, who currently lives in New York, is known primarily for his works of art fashioned from scraps and garbage, made on a huge scale, and then photographed to complete the work. The film is about Muniz and his work, but primarily about the lives of some of the pickers who live and survive at and on the landfill. There are approximately 2500 of these catadores, as they're referred to in Portuguese, but the film focuses on just a few of then and their relationship with Muniz. One of these garbage-pickers, Tião Santos, posed as Marat in Muniz' best-known work, Marat/Sebastião, seen in the film poster at the top of this post. Waste Land is emotionally involving, and the it illuminates a way of life far removed from most of our imaginings. It also shows the dignity that the catadores find in their work amidst the refuse and garbage of Jardim Gramacho. I, for one, am rooting for it to win an Oscar, and highly recommend it to readers of this blog.
Tião Santos as Marat

Besides garbage, Muniz has worked with many other unusual material in creation of his work. Including food. Which is why this post that seems to have nothing to do with food is doing here at Flavors of Brazil. Here are some works that Muniz created using food as a medium. He is a highly inventive artist, with a wicked sense of humor and a keen eye for irony. His work here is a visual bon appetit. Delicious and thought provoking.
Medusa (medium: pasta)

Mao Tse-Tung (medium: chocolate)

Kark Marx (medium: caviar)

Mona Lisa (medium: peanut butter & jelly)
Che Guevara (medium: beans)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

INGREDIENTS - Creme de Leite (cream)

In the last post on Flavors of Brazil, which included a recipe for the Brazilian version of Beef Strogonoff (estrogonofe), among the ingredients called for was a product called creme de leite (which simply means milk cream). In the estrogonofe recipe it substitutes for the sour cream found in many more traditional versions of Strogonoff, as sour cream is not generally available in Brazil.

Many, many Brazilian recipes call for creme de leite, and if the recipe forums and culinary FAQ websites are to be believed, there is a lot of confusion as to what creme de leite is and is not. Cooks from other countries who are trying to use a Brazilian recipe are often stumped when trying to find an acceptable substitute for creme de leite. Equally so, Brazilian cooks who try to cook their favorite recipes with creme de leite when outside Brazil don't know what to use.

Basically, creme de leite is nothing more than what we generally know in English as cream. It is the fatty portion of milk (the part that rises to the top in unhomogenized milk) containing about 30-40% milk fat. In Brazil, it can generally be bought in two forms - fresh, which is purchased refrigerated and which must be kept refrigerated, and UHT-treated, which is purchased unrefrigerated and can be stored at room temperature until the container is opened. At that point, any unused portion must be kept in the fridge. Fresh creme de leite is normally sold in plastic bags, and the UHT version is sold either in small cans or in Tetra-brik boxes.

The UHT-treated creme de leite is heat-treated to ensure long shelf life, and it is also churned slightly so that it has a significantly thicker consistency than the fresh. Because of this thicker consistency, when substituting other ingredients for creme de leite, it's best to use something like sour cream or creme fraiche. Plain North American or European fresh cream will not have the same consistency and the result will be different. Obviously sour cream will change the taste of the final dish, though creme fraiche will less so.

Just as expat Aussies carry Vegemite with them when migrating or travelling and Americans go to great lengths to find peanut butter overseas, Brazilians living outside Brazil often express "saudade" (nostalgia) for creme de leite and beg visiting relatives to bring some along with them. Or, on their visits home to Brazil, they fill any empty space in their suitcases with creme de leite for use across the seas.

None of the substitutes are perfect reproductions of Brazilian creme de leite, but for most purposes, other dairy products can successfully be swapped. But if you're making a Brazilian dish with creme de leite for Brazilian guests, don't expect them to say it tastes just like Mama made - because she used creme de leite and you didn't

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

RECIPE - Brazilian Stroganoff (Estrogonofe)

Originating in the Czarist Russia of the 19th century, the recipe for the beef and cream dish called Stoganoff became known worldwide in the 1950s. Brazil was part of that international expansion, and from its first appearances on the menus of the sophisticated São Paulo restaurants of that decade it has grown to become an iconic Brazilian dish.

As mentioned in the previous post on Flavors of Brazil, in finding a new home in Brazil stroganoff became estrogonofe, and the recipe changed to adapt to the Brazilian palate and to the availability of Brazilian products. The sour cream found in the 1950s American version of Stroganoff is replaced in the Brazilian recipe by creme de leite. And the cream sauce is made more assertive by the addition of a number of prepared, bottled sauces.

The Brazilian recipe calls for filé mignon and a lot of it - 2.2 lbs. (1 kg). Beef is relatively less expensive here than in North America or Europe so the quantity is not surprising. The recipe can be made with a smaller amount of beef. Other less expensive cuts of beef can be substituted, though as the dish has a short cooking time, do not choose a cut that requires a long cooking period to become tender.
RECIPE - Brazilian Stroganoff (Estrogonofe)
Serves 5

2.2 lb (1 kg) filé mignon or other cut of lean beef, cut into thin 1-2 inch strips.
salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. neutral vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium white onion, chopped
2 1/2 cups creme de leite (or sour cream)
1/3 cup ketchup
3 Tbsp. mustard (any creamy style, do not use whole-grain)
2 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce (Molho inglês)
2 cups sliced mushrooms (in Brazil, estrogonofe is generally made with canned mushrooms. Fresh mushrooms can be substituted)
Season the strips of meat with salt and pepper to taste. In a heavy frying pan add 1 Tbsp. of the oil, and fry the meat until well-browned. Cook in batches to avoid overcrowding. Reserve the meat, keeping warm.

In the same pan, heat the remaining Tbsp. oil, then add the garlic and cook until just beginning to brown. Add the onions and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until the onion is transparent but not browned. Return the meat to the pan, then add the creme de leite, the ketchup, the mustard and Worcestershire sauce, stir to mix and then add the mushrooms. Cook for five minutes to allow the flavors to mix and the mushrooms to cook.

Serve immediately, accompanied by white rice and, if desired, packaged shoestring potatoes.

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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Estrogonofe - Brazil's love affair with Beef Stroganoff

In its Russian homeland the dish of cubed beef cooked in a cream- and mushroom-based sauce called Beef Stroganoff dates back to the middle part of the 19th Century. The first known recipe for the dish can be found in a 1861 Russian cookbook by Elena Molokhovets called "A Gift to the Young Housewife."

It wasn't until the 1950s, though, that Stroganoff found popularity outside Russia. In that postwar decade, the dish became a symbol of international sophistication and gastronomic luxury in restaurants and at fancy dinner tables around the world. It enjoyed huge popularity in the USA, in Europe and Asia, and also in Brazil, where it became established as part of the national cuisine.

Although Stroganoff can still be found occasionally in North American and Europe, it no longer has the cachet it once enjoyed, and is sometimes treated almost ironically. Not in Brazil, though. Here the dish has become Brazilianized and is still served with pride by dinner-party hostesses and found at almost every buffet table in the land. The name has been adapted to Brazilian tongues, becoming Estrononofe, and the dish has been adapted to Brazilian palates, principally by adding additional ingredients to the sauce.

The original Stroganoff (the 19th century version) consisted of beef strips sauced with prepared mustard and bouillon, finished with a touch of sour cream. There were no mushrooms or onions involved. In its 1950s worldwide breakout, mushrooms and onions were generally added, the mustard was dropped, and the sauce became primarily a cream sauce made with sour cream. Today's Brazilian estroganofe is likely to contain, in addition, ketchup, mustard and Worcestershire Sauce (called English Sauce "molho inglês" in Portuguese). As sour cream is generally not available in Brazil, creme de leite, as similar product, is used in its place.

In Brazil the traditional side dishes for estroganofe are white rice and packaged shoestring potatoes. It is generally not served with egg noodles as it might be in the USA or in Europe.

I'll post a traditional Brazilian recipe for estroganofe in the next post here on Flavors of Brazil.

Monday, February 21, 2011

RECIPE - Açorda

This utterly simple and wonderfully delectable dish is one of many that made its way relatively unchanged from Portugal to Brazil. In its home country it is associated with the mountainous Alentejo region which stretches southward from Lisbon in the direction of the Algarve. Here in Brazil, it's most well known in the state of Rio de Janeiro, where the Portuguese culinary influence remains strong, and in the mountainous interior state of Minas Gerais, whose climate of warm days and cold nights closely mirrors that of the Alentejo.

Açorda is true comfort food, warming and simple. Try it on a rainy evening, or if you're in a region where there are nights of snow, try it then. It needs be served only with a green salad and a simple dessert. If you want to make the meal authentically Portuguese/Brazilian, that dessert could be pudim (flan or creme caramel).

There are many variations of açorda - some with seafood, some with salt cod, some with meat. But this is the basic and most likely the original version.
RECIPE - Açorda 
Serves 4

1 round loaf European-style peasant bread (Italian, Portuguese, etc.) - one or two days old is best
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup loosely-packed chopped cilantro
salt to taste
extravirgin olive oil to taste
boiling water
2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
Cut a slice off the top of the bread, and pull out the soft bread from inside in chunks, leaving a hollow shell. Put the garlic cloves in a mortar, add a bit of salt, and using a pestle make a paste. (Alternatively, use a small bowl and wooden spoon).

In a large heavy frying pan, heat olive oil over medium heat, then add the garlic paste and cook just until it begins to brown. Do not let overcook. Add the bread crumbs, and cook for a minute or so, mixing so that all the bread is coated with oil.

Stir in half of the cilantro, and then begin to add the boiling water, about a half cup at a time. Stir and mix continuously, breaking up the bread as you go. Continue adding water in small quantities until the bread has broken down and forms a pap, or very loose paste. (See photo above for correct consistency). Be careful not to add to much water.

Add salt to taste, then add the beaten eggs, mixing and stirring thoroughly until the eggs are totally absorbed and cooked through. Remove from heat, then stir in the remaining cilanto.

Return the cooked açorda to the shell from the loaf of bread and serve immediately.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


A few months ago, a new bar/restaurant opened a few blocks away from my home here in Fortaleza. It looked pleasant enough, but there really wasn't anything to distinguish it from many similar bars on other corners throughout the city and throughout Brazil. It has a few tables and chairs out on the sidewalk, and a few more inside along with a bar and a few drink coolers. I was intrigued by it's name though - Araticum. The name sounded like one of the many words in Brazilian Portuguese that are derived from native Indian languages - it didn't look like a Portuguese word. I asked a couple of my Brazilian friends here what it meant, but the word wasn't familiar to them either.

I've been walking by Araticum or driving past it regularly since it opened, but haven't given it a try yet. My curiousity about the name, though, hasn't disappeared and finally the other day I had the time and inclination to check it out in my online dictionary. And lo and behold, araticum is one more of the cornucopia of fruits that flourish in Brazil - in fact, it's one that's already been written about on Flavors of Brazil, but under a different name - an araticum is an ata (or, depending upon what part of Brazil you come from, you might know it as anona, fruta-do-conde, pinha, or cabeça-de-negro). It's scientific name is Annona sp. There's even a word for it in English, as the fruit is cultivated extensively in the Caribbean - it's called custard-apple.

Thanks to the marvel of the Internet, within minutes I went from not having any idea what an araticum was to knowing what it's alternative names in Portuguese are, what it's English name is, and even what it tastes like, as I've eaten it before. Now I just have to sample the food at Araticum - my linguistic curiousity has been satisfied, but my culinary one hasn't.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Summer Day Cocktail - The Popsicle Caipirinha (Caipirinha com Picolé)

Put a popsicle in it. That seems to be the way to really cool down a caipirinha during the heat of the Brazilian summer - at least according to the very hip São Paulo bar Boteco São Bento, it is. The bar has taken to making the fruit- and liquor-based cocktail in large glasses, with fresh fruit crushed in the drink as is customary, and then plopping a popsicle of the same fruit flavor into the glass. The popsicle cools down the drink as it melts and instead of diluting it, as melting ice cubes do, the frozen treat keeps the fruit component of the drink strong and flavorful.

At the two branches of Boteco São Bento the popsicle caipirinha is made not with cachaça but instead with sake. Just like the original dry martini recipe from the early years of the 20th century eventually evolving into a multitude of drinks - all called martini because they were served in a classic martini glass - the recent trend in Brazil is to call any mixture of liquor and crushed fresh fruit in a glass a caipirinha (or some variation on that name). Personally, I think there's only one way to make a true martini or a true caipirinha - everything else that riffs on the theme should be called something else. So I have no problem with a vodka-based caipiroska or a caipirissima made with rum because the name is different. But if you want to make a caipirinha, with our without a popsicle in it, it has to have cachaça.

That linguistic rant out of the way, the idea of adding a popsicle to a fruit-based cocktail of any sort is a grand idea, and Flavors of Brazil applauds whoever at Boteco São Bento who came up with the idea. As their popsicles are anything but traditional with the use of sake, Boteco São Bento also alters the fresh fruit component of the drink when making popsicle caipirinhas. Two favorite versions at the bar are the Manga Quente (Hot Mango) which combines crushed fresh mangoes and key limes with a mango popsicle, and the Uva Itália (Italian Grape) combining fresh red grapes and lychees with a grape popsicle. Pictured to the right is their Manjericaba, made with jabuticaba and basil (manjericão) topped with a jabuticaba popsicle.

Brazilian artisanally-made popsicles are generally of high quality and great flavor and I look forward to doing some experimenting of my own with the formula. I'm already thinking that you could do a great take-off on the classic piña colada by making a cocktail of rum and fresh pineapple juice and then adding a coconut popsicle. Plus, I do intend to make a true popsicle caipirinha one of these days - with nothing but cachaça, fresh limes and a nice tart lime popsicle. I promise to report back on the results.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

RECIPE - Tilapia with Lime Sauce (Tilapia ao Molho de Limão)

This simple and quick everyday recipe for farmed tilapia can be adapted to almost any type of white-fleshed fish, except for those which flake easily. You'll need a fish that doesn't fall apart during the grilling process. If tilapia is available in your local markets and you haven't tried it, this recipe is a perfect excuse to buy some - it highlights the flavor and texture of the fish, and doesn't overwhelm it with sauce or with other ingredients.

Tilapia is a fish that can be successfully, sustainably farmed in an environmentally-friendly manner. The cultivation of farmed tilapia is very important commercially in my Brazilian home state of Ceará, accounting for nearly a third of the state's commercial fish harvest annually. It is a delicately flavored by delicious fish, and one that deserves a higher profile. As our seas and oceans are harvested dry of wild fish, species like the tilapia that can be farmed without damaging the environment are likely to claim more and more space at the dinner table and on restaurant menus around the world.
RECIPE - Tilapia with Lime Sauce (Tilapia ao Molho de Limão)
Serves 4

2 tilapia fillets (or other non-flaking white fish)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
1 cup creme de leite, sour cream or crème fraîche
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. freshly grated lime peel (use microplaner if possible)
salt and pepper to taste
 In a medium sauce pan, melt 1 Tbsp. of the butter then add the chopped onion. Saute until the onion is transparent but not browned. Add the wine, bring to the boil then reduce until the wine is almost totally evaporated. Reduce heat to low. Add the creme de leite, sour cream or crème fraîche, and heat thoroughly but do not let boil. Add the grated lime peel, stir in, then remove from the heat. Reserve, keeping warm.

In a heavy frying pan, add the remaining Tbsp. butter and melt over medium heat until it bubbles. Season the fish fillets with salt and pepper to taste, then add to the frying pan. Cook, turning over once, until the fish is nicely browned and just opaque throughout. Do not overcook.

Place the cooked fillets on a serving platter, then top with lime sauce. Pass additional sauce in a gravy boat. Serve with boiled potatoes and a green vegetable.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Importance of Fish and Seafood in Brazilian Cooking

With one of the world's longest coastlines, it isn't surprising that Brazil is a country full of fish and seafood eaters. The tropical and sub-tropical waters of the South Atlantic support a large fishing industry, and traditional Brazilian cuisine makes liberal use of the sea's bounty. In fact, Brazil's per capita consumption of fish, which is 26 pounds (12 kgs) annually, corresponds exactly with the World Health Organization's recommended consumption - 12 kgs. By contrast, Americans consume only 16 pounds (7.5 kgs) annually per capita. Of course, Brazil still lags behind world champion fish eaters the Japanese, who annually consume 88 pounds (40 kgs) of fish.

There are some interesting statistics, however, in a recent report from my home state Ceará's Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture that indicate that it's not just the Atlantic ocean supporting the seafood diet of Brazilians. The two states that have the highest levels of fish consumption are Amazonas and Pará. Although Pará does have a stretch of oceanic coastline, the predominant source of fish for the inhabitants of both of these states is the Amazon River system. Consequently, in the region where fish consumption is highest in Brazil, the fish on the table is likely to be a freshwater species.

Harvesting Tilapia
Ceará's consumption of fish is 12 kg per capita, which follows only Amazonas and Pará and gives the state 3rd position in the rank of fish consumption in Brazil. The state's 40,000 registered commercial fishermen annually harvest 88,000 tons of fish and seafood, most of which goes to feed the national population. It's interesting to note in the report that in that harvest of 88,000 tons of fish, 25,000 tons are tilapia - a freshwater fish, originally from Africa, that is sustainably farmed extensively in Ceará. So even in a coastal state like Ceará, about a third of the fish consumed is freshwater and produced by aquaculture.

As the oceans' stock of wild fish continues to be depleted by overfishing, aquaculture will of necessity become increasingly important to the world's food supply in the years to come. Making sure that aquaculture is a sustainable and non-polluting industry will also become equally important. From the report by Ceará's fishing and aquaculture department, it appears that the state has already made significant progress along that route.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

RECIPE - Xinxim de Galinha

One of the most iconic dishes of the Afro-Brazilian culinary tradition of the state of Bahia, xinxim de galinha not only satisfies the earthly appetite of those who eat it, but also honors the Orixá (goddess) Oxum in the religion that arrived in Bahia from its home in Africa along with the millions of slaves transported to Brazil during colonial times. It's highly likely that xinxim de galinha itself has African ancestors as well.

Xinxim de galinha is a relatively straightforward but marvelously delicious chicken stew - pieces of chicken are quickly browned, then cooked in a thick rich sauce until the chicken is tender. In xinxim, the sauce consists of ground dried shrimp and nuts combined with Bahia's ever-present, brilliant yellow palm oil, dendê.

Of the ingredients in the recipe, only dried shrimp and palm oil are not likely to be available in most any North American or European supermarket. In most metropolitan areas, these can be found, nonetheless, in Asian, African or Latin American markets that cater to immigrant communities. For dendê, look in African or Brazilian markets - in African markets it will be labelled "palm oil." It's bright orange color will identify it. Dried shrimp are used in many different cuisines, and should be obtainable in Chinese, Southeast Asian, Latin or African markets.

Xinxim is normally served with plain white rice, and some sort of hot chili-pepper sauce for those that prefer to add a bit of heat. A simple salad of a piece of lettuce topped by a few slices of tomato and onion is all the garnish that's required.
RECIPE - Xinxim de Galinha
serves 8

3 fresh limes
3 Tbsp. salt
4 lbs (2 kgs) cut-up pieces of chicken, skinned
3 large onions
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup ground roasted cashews (can be ground in a food processor or spice grinder)
1/2 cup ground roasted peanuts (can be ground in a food processor or spice grinder)
1 cup peeled dried shrimp
1 cup loosely packed chopped cilantro
1 Tbsp. chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. finely grated fresh ginger
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded
2 cups water
1 Tbsp. extravirgin olive oil
1/2 cup dendê palm oil.
Squeeze the limes, to extract all their juice, but don't discard the skins. In a large bowl, combine the lime juice, 4 cups (1 liter) water, 1 tray ice cubes, the reserved lime skins, and 2 Tbsp salt. Add the chicken pieces and let stand for 15 minutes. Drain and dry the chicken pieces. Reserve.

In a blender or food processor combine the onions, the ground cashews and peanutes, the garlic, cilantro and parsley, the ginger, 1/2 cup of the shrimp and one cup of water. Process or blend until smooth.

In a deep, heavy pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat, and brown the chicken pieces, a few at a time, making sure not to overcrown the pan, and adding additional oil as required.

Return the browned chicken to the pot, add the blended sauce ingredients, one more cup of water, and the other 1/2 cup of dried shrimp. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook for about 20 - 30 minutes, stirring from time to time to make sure the sauce doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan and burn, or until the chicken pieces are tender. Add the dendê oil, heat for another minute or so, then remove from heat.

Serve immediately.

Monday, February 14, 2011

FOODS OF THE GODS - Xinxim de Galinha

High above ancient Greece on the peaks of Mt. Olympus, the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses dined only on ambrosia and drank nothing but nectar. However, in the traditions of Afro-Brazilian religions, particularly candomblé, the gods and goddesses, known as the Orixás, each have their favorite foods. One Orixá might love acarajé, and another not be able to abide it. Devotees of each Orixá honor their deity by offering plates of their favorite foods, and later by eating the offering at the end of the ritual or ceremony.

Many of the most traditional foods of the African-based cuisine of the state of Bahia, on Brazil's northeast coast, are very closely linked to one or more of candomblé's gods and goddesses. The traditional Bahian table looks very similar in secular and religious settings, and the recipes carried down from generation to generation don't vary depending on whether the dish is destined to highlight a family festival, or to be placed before the altar in a terreiro de candomblé.

One of the most well-loved traditional Bahian dishes, xinxim de galinha (pronounced something like she-she-je-gal-een-ya), is intimately linked to one of the most popular Orixás - Oxum, goddess of fresh water, rivers and waterfalls, wealth, love, and beauty. Young and lovely, meticulous and vain, Oxum dresses luxuriously in yellow, her favorite color, and is often characterized as carrying a metal mirror in which she can admire her own beauty. When devotees of Oxum fall into a trance and become possessed by the goddess, they are dressed in white and yellow and given Oxum's metal mirror. In the syncretic tradition of identifying Orixás with Catholic saints or divinities, Oxum is often identified with one or another of the aspects of the Virgin Mary - Our Lady of Conception or the Virgin of Candelaria.

Not surprisingly, considering Oxum's love of the color, xinxim de galinha is a vibrant yellow dish of chicken in a sauce of ground dried shrimp and nuts, enlivened and made golden by the addition of dendê oil. The pieces of chicken are fried first, then cooked until tender in the thick, rich sauce. Xinxim is always served with plain white rice. In the next post, we'll provide a traditional recipe for xinxim de galinha.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

RECIPE - File Mignon with Jabuticaba Sauce (Filet mignon com molho de jabuticaba)

Most of Brazil's annual crop of the small, purple fruit called jabuticaba is eaten fresh, as if they were table grapes. However, enterprising cooks and chefs in this country have found a place for this marvelous fruit in the kitchen as well. Most commonly the fruit is made into jellies, or vinegars, or distilled into liqueur. More adventurous cooks are finding that the acidic and sweet flavor of jabuticaba is a versatile addition to all sorts of dishes, both savory and sweet.

Because of its acidity, jabuticaba is particularly suited to meat dishes that are rich and filling. The acid cuts the richness of the meat, eliminating the sensation that a dish might be overly fatty. This is similar to the use of oranges or cherries in dishes featuring duck. The menu of one upmarket restaurant in Rio de Janeiro highlights foie gras with jabuticaba sauce. Another, in Belo Horizonte, serves it with wild boar.

This recipe, translated and adapted from the Brazilian food blog Temperando a Vida com Ana Toscana, combines a thick file mignon with a sauce composed of jabuticaba spiked with cachaça. Since jabuticaba isn't widely available outside Brazil, it will be difficult for readers of this blog to duplicate this recipe - however, I would guess that it could easily serve as an inspiration for a smiliar dish substituting another fruit such as dried apricots or sour cherries for the jabuticaba. As long as you still use cachaça in the sauce, you can still call it Brazilian!
RECIPE - File Mignon with Jabuticaba Sauce
Serves 4

4 individual file mignons, approximately 1 1/2 - 2 inches (3-4 cm) thick
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 lb (250 gr) crushed and deseeded jabuticabas
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and finely minced
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup (300 gr) granulated white sugar
1 cup (250 ml) cachaça
4 cups (1 liter) mild chicken stock
Prepare the sauce: In a thick heavy saucepan, caramelize the sugar, adding a small quantity of water if desired. (For instructions on how to caramelize sugar, click here). Add the crushed jabuticabas, the garlic, onion and carrot and let cook for a few minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, add the cachaça , then return to the heat and flambé the cachaça . (For instructions on how to safely flambé, click here). Add the stock, bring quickly to the boil, then reduce heat and cook for 25 minutes or until the sauce has thickened and the fruit is soft.

Remove from heat, and when sufficiently cool, pass the sauce through a sieve to remove the jabuticaba skins. (Can be cooked in advance up to this point).

Return the sieved sauce to a pan, and heat until it simmers. Meanwhile cook the file mignons as desired on a grill, under the broiler, or in a grill pan. Whisk the butter into the sauce.

Place one file on each of four plates, and pour some sauce over. Serve immediately, with additional sauce in a gravy boat. Accompany with your choice of potato and a green-leaf salad.

Friday, February 11, 2011


In yesterday's post about summer flavors of ice cream in Brazil, I mentioned a flavor of ice cream called jabuticaba. I'm sure that the word meant nothing to most readers of Flavors of Brazil - all except those who might have run into the jabuticaba in it's home territory, which is Brazil and more particularly the state of Minas Gerais. Although the jabuticaba (from a Tupi word meaning "place where turtles are found") grows in most regions of Brazil, it's association with Minas Gerais is so strong that the jabuticaba tree appears on the coat of arms of the city of Contagem, and another city in Minas Gerais, Sabará, hosts a jabuticaba festival annually.

Jabuticaba grows on a large deciduous tree, which can reach 8-10 meters (25-25 feet) in height. The fruit grows directly from the trunk and branches of the tree, which gives the jabuticaba tree a very unusual appearance when in fruit. The fruit itsel is a small and round, about the size of a table grape. It has a single seed, a thick skin and a dark, deep purple color. During jabuticaba season in Minas Gerais when thousands of street vendors sell fresh jabuticaba in small net bags, the sidewalks and streets are stained the same deep purple by discarded jabuticaba skins.

The bulk of the jabuticaba crop is eaten fresh, but the fruit has many culinary and medicinal uses as well. Culinarily it is turned into jelly, juice, liqueurs and vinegar. The fruit is high in beneficial antioxidants, and has high levels of iron. In traditional indigenous medicine, jabuticaba juice is given to pregnant women, which aids them because of its high iron content. Also a tea made from the dried skins of jabuticaba is used in traditional medicine as a treatment for asthma, diarrhea and is gargled to alleviate sore throats.

Because of these potent medicinal properties, jabuticaba is considered a prime candidate to follow guaraná and açaí to the markets of North America and Europe as the next "super-fruit." At the moment the market for this fruit and for its products in almost entirely domestic, but that situation might change dramatically in the near future.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ice Cream - Flavors for the Brazilian Summer

January and February are the two hottest months of the year in most of Brazil - a situation that's 180 degrees removed from the Northern Hemisphere. These are the dog days (canícula in Portugese) of summer south of the Equator. Temperatures in Rio de Janeiro in summer often climb into the 40s - but here we're talking Celsius, not Fahrenheit, and the equivalent of 40C in Fahrenheit is 104. Brazil's hottest capital cities, Cuiabá in the state of Mato Grosso and Teresina in Piauí, have mid-afternoon temperatures that often exceed 110F during the hottest months.

Brazilians are wild about ice cream (sorvete) all year round, but the craziness reaches epidemic proportions during the summer, for reasons that are quite obvious. Line-ups out the door, people walking down the street trying their best to prevent a dripping cone from staining their clothes, kids with smiles a mile-wide and a face smeared with ice cream - these are all signs of summer in Brazil.

During the colder months, Brazilians eat lots of cream and chocolate-based ice cream flavors, but when the thermometer's about to pop, they are more likely to choose a fruit-based flavor. These flavors are sharper and more acidic which somehow makes them more refreshing in the heat. They are also less caloric, and thus don't feel as filling. Most sorveterias (ice cream shops) vary their offerings seasonally to meet the changed demand in summertime and fruit-based options abound.

An article in today's Folha de São Paulo newspaper highlights the summer menu changes at one of the best sorveteria chains in Brazil - Mil Frutas (A Thousand Fruits). Mil Frutas has shops in São Paulo, in Rio de Janeiro and in the coastal resort of Búzios. For the past eight years, it has been crowned the best sorveteria in Rio by the gastronomic guide Veja Comer & Beber. And every summer, it's chart of flavors highlights Brazilian fruits.

Pineapple with cilanto
According to the article, this year owner Renata Saboya has created new flavors that combine fruits and herbs. Two of her new flavors are pineapple with cilantro (abacaxi com coentro) and passion fruit with honey and rosemary (maracujá com mel e alecrim). Additionally, some fruits which are available only during the summer, like jabuticaba, pitanga, and cajá, find a place in Mil Frutas' freezers at this time of year.

The ice cream at Mil Frutas uses the simplest ingredients - cream, sugar, and fruit. There are no preservatives or artificial flavors or colors. It's the essence of summer in a cone (or a cup, or a dish). And it's one of the best heat-beaters on Earth.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

RECIPE - Bananas Flambéed with Cachaça (Banana Flambada com Cachaça)

There's nothing particularly Brazilian about flambéed bananas - unless the liquor used for the flambéing is cachaça. Then it becomes very Brazilian indeed (as well as marvelously delicious).

This recipe calls for bananas to be sautéed in a mixture of carmelized sugar and butter, then flambéed with cachaça. If you're not sure how to flambé safely, click here for simple instructions. If you don't have access to cachaça, you can use other types of spirits, such as cognac, brandy or rum, as long as the liquor is 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). Liquors with a higher proof are dangerously volatile, and those with lower proof may not light.

This dessert can be served plain, or if you wish, accompanied by whipped cream, crème fraîche , or vanilla ice cream.
RECIPE - Bananas Flambéed with Cachaça
Serves 4

1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 cups granulated white sugar
4 sweet, just-ripe bananas (banana prata), halved lengthwise
1 Tbsp cachaça
In a heavy, deep frying pan, preferably cast-iron melt the butter, then add the sugar. Cook, stirring constantly until the mixture carmelizes, turning a rich brown. Add the bananas a saute them on both sides until they are cooked through and softened. Add the cachaça and flambé the dish.

Remove from heat, and using a spatula, carefully place two pieces of banana on each of four dessert plates. Spoon a bit of the carmelized sugar mixture over. Serve immediately with any of the suggested accompaniments.

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

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

RECIPE - Top Hat Bananas (Cartola)

The banana dessert called cartola is one of Brazil's favorite desserts and can be found on restaurant menus, and served at family dinner tables, all around the country. The word cartola literally means "top hat" (à la Fred Astaire or Eustace Tilley) but I've been unable to find out why that type of headware has bestowed its name on the dessert.

Cartola is a variation on the common technique of sautéing bananas in butter to create a dessert dish. In the USA the same basic technique is the origin of New Orleans' famous Bananas Foster, and there are countless other variations. What makes cartola unique is that the sweetened and fried banana is combined with cheese. It does sound like an ungainly combination I know, but as weird as bananas-and-cheese might sound, the taste is marvelous.

In Brazil there are two schools of thought as to what type of cheese should go into making cartola. One of them is that a cheese that melts, like mozzarella (the pizza-type), should be used. The other school prefers a non-melting cheese that browns and bubbles but doesn't melt. For this to happen, a whey cheese must be used, and in Brazil they most common of these is called queijo coalho. Queijo coalho is like a firm feta in texture, but doesn't have feta's saltiness. Like feta is it usually preserved and sold in brine. Unless you have a source of queijo coalho, it's probably best to make cartola with good quality mozzarella.

This recipe can be made with a sweet variety of banana (here in Brazil the choice is usually banana-nanica) or with very ripe plantains (banana-da-terra). Do not use green plantains, as they are not sufficiently sweet to be used in dessert cooking. If you're using plantains, let them ripen until the outside is totally black before making cartola with them.
RECIPE - Top Hat Bananas (Cartola)
Serves 4

4 sweet bananas, or 2 large, very ripe plantains
1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter
4 slices firm mozzarella cheese, or queijo coalho
1/4 cup granulated white sugar
2-4 tsp. ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350F (170C). In a small bowl, combine the sugar and cinnamon to taste, using more or less cinnamon as desired.

If using sweet bananas, cut them in half through the middle, and then again lengthwise (you'll have 4 pieces per banana). If using large plantains, cut them into four, and then again lengthwise (you'll have 8 pieces per plantain.

In a large heavy frying pan, heat the butter over medium heat, until the butter is melt and bubbling. Add the banana pieces, and fry them until they are golden and softened, turning them over carefully about half-way through. Remove from heat, then drain the bananas on paper towels. Reserve.

Generously grease a casserole or square cake pan with additional unsalted butter. Add the reserved banana pieces, lining up each set of four pieces parallel and closely together. You will have four "sets" of bananas. Top each set with a slice of cheese of approximately the same size (trim if necessary). Sprinkle the cheese generously with the sugar/cinnamon mixture.

Place the casserole or cake pan in the preheated oven and cook until the cheese is heated through (and melted if using mozzarella).

Using a spatula, remove each portion carefully from the [an, and place on a dessert plate. Serve immediately, accompanied by vanilla ice cream if desired.

Monday, February 7, 2011

FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Banana varieties

Among the countless thousands of comestible fruits in Brazil, pride of place belongs to the banana, even though it only came to Brazil after the arrival of the Portuguese. It is the most commonly eaten fruit in the country, and Brazil's production is second in the world, trailing only India's.

Even though the fruit is not native to Brazil, it flourishes, and can be grown successfully almost everywhere in the country. The bulk of the commercial crop of bananas in Brazil comes from the northeast region, followed by the north.

In North American and Europeans markets and shops, there is normally no choice in the variety of banana offered for sale - the shop either has bananas available or doesn't (Anybody remember "Yes, we have no bananas"?) Because of transport distance and time, consumers are restricted to buying varieties that can be picked green, have sturdy skins that can withstand handling, and ripen slowly. In Brazil, these same considerations don't apply, as the bananas for sale in a supermarket might have come from only 30 or 50 km. away, and could have been picked yesterday.

North American and European bananas are likely to be some hybrid of a banana family called called Cavendish. Originally from Vietnam or China, Cavendish bananas are suited to market conditions in non-tropical countries and have become the most commonly sold bananas in the world market.

In Brazil, the choice of bananas in markets is much larger, and most supermarkets, for example, have at least three or four varieties for sale at all times - much as American or Canadian supermarkets carry four or five types of apples. Each has different characteristics and uses, and the nutritional profile can differ greatly. Recently the Brazilian Department of Agriculture identified the six most common banana varieties in Brazil and published a taste and nutritional comparison of them. Here is a capsule of the Department's research and analysis.

Banana-da-terra (known in English as plaintain) - Description: up to 1 foot (30 cm) in length. Usually exhibits a flattened shape. Has less sugar than most bananas and more starch. Not eaten raw, but cooked when green (starchy taste) or when ripe (sweet taste). Nutritional characteristics: the most highly caloric banana, due to presence of starchy carbohydrates. Up to 60% higher calories than some other varieties of banana.

Banana-maçã (Apple banana) - Description: up to 6 inches (15 cm) in length. Sweet and with flavor reminiscent of apples. Skin is dark yellow and when ripe, the skin can turn completely black. Nutritional characteristics: the banana variety that is richest in manganese, important in the metabolism of proteins and carbohydrates.

Banana-nanica (dwarf banana) - Description: "dwarf" appelation refers to the plant that produces the fruit, not the fruit itself. The fruit is large, very sweet and highly aromatic. Nutritional characteristics: richest in potassium of all banana varieties.

Banana prata (silver banana) - Description: up to 10 inches (25 cm) in length. Not as sweet as most other eating bananas. Can be fried as well as eaten raw. The most commonly eaten variety in Brazil. Nutritional characteristics: Like the banana-maçã, an important source of manganese.

Banana ouro (gold banana) - Description: the smallest of all commercial varieties, up to 4 inches (10 cm) in length. Very sweet in taste. Nutritional characteristics: very high carbohyrate content, highly caloric.

 Banana pacova (pacova banana) - Description: the largest of all varieties, ranging up to 18 inches (50 cm) in length. Grown in the Amazonian north of Brazil and strongly identified with that region's cuisine. Nutritional characteristics: richest in magnesium, which plays a role in reducing blood pressure.

Personally, I've eaten all these varieties with the exception of banana pacova, for which it seems that I'll have to travel to the Amazon to sample. My fruit basket is seldom without one or two different varieties - almost always banana prata, which is the most common in my region and usually the cheapest (normally selling for about USD $0.20 - $0.25 a pound). I also try to have one of the two sweet varieties - both of which make a great dessert eaten as-is, or sliced and topped with good quality yogurt. They are sweet enough that the yogurt can be unsweetened.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Pimenta Jiquitaia - a Development Project by Brazil's Indigenous Amazonians

In the past few weeks media around the world have published photos of one of the last indigenous tribes in the Amazonian jungles of Brazil that remains "uncontacted" by modern society. It is estimated that there are up to 100 groups or tribes still remaining in the world's largest rain forest that have had no contact with the outside world. It is only in the Amazon and in western Papua New Guinea where there are still populations living as they always have - with non of the benefits, discomforts or dangers of the 21st century world.

There are, of course, many more tribes in those regions that have contact with the world outside their forest, but in Brazil, the amount and kind of that contact is often limited in an attempt to preserve traditional lifestyles and cultures. A governmental organization, FUNAI, is charged with protecting these people and their culture, which it has done with varying success. There are numerous NGOs as well who work with native groups to ensure the continued viability of traditional Indian cultures.

One of these NGOs, called the Instituto Socioambental (ISA), has a project to help the women of the Baniwa tribe in the upper reaches of the Rio Negro commercialize a traditional product called pimenta jiquitaia. It is a ground mixture of dried chile peppers and salt, something the tribe has used to season their food since before the arrival of Europeans to the Amazon. In traditional Indian cooking, spices and seasonings were never added during the cooking process - meats were grilled without seasoning, and broths and stews were similarly unseasoned. The Indians preferred to add seasoning directly to their food when it was in the mouth - tossing a bit of pimenta jiquitaia into their mouth as they chewed a piece of meat.

The Baniwa live in one of the most isolated parts of Brazil, a region known as São Gabriel da Cachoeira
Exibir mapa ampliado along the upper stretches of the Rio Negro - about 850 km. northwest of Manaus, where the Rio Negro joins the Amazon. Working with ISA coordinator Adeilson Lopes da Silva, the Baniwa women have begun to commercially produce pimenta jiquitaia using traditional techniques and ingredients (mostly pimenta malagueta, but also other varities of hot peppers.) It is hoped that sales of pimenta jiquitaia will provide needed income to the producers while at the same time introducing a traditional aboriginal food product to the larger world outside the rain forest of the Amazonian basin.

Friday, February 4, 2011

RECIPE - Doce de Leite

Whether you call it dulce de leche in Spanish, or prefer to use the Brazilian Portuguese doce de leite, this decadently rich and delicious treat is not that difficult to make at home. It does require patience, and an arm that's strong enough to keep stirring for quite a while, but the result is infinitely better than most store-bought versions, and will keep for a very long time in the fridge. (In fact, the dish was most likely invented as a technique to preserve fresh milk in hot tropical climates - sugar is a powerful agent of preservation.)

The ingredient list is short and sweet (sorry about the pun!). Total time required is about an hour and a half, plus time for the cooked doce de leite to cool down. If you wish to flavor your doce de leite you can do so during the final five minutes or so of cooking time by adding things such as grated coconut, powdered cinnamon, or cocoa powder to taste. Once cooled, the doce de leite can be used in a number of ways - it can be served as is, or used in an ingredient in the creation of another dish.

RECIPE - Doce de Leite
10 portions

2 quarts (2 liters) whole milk
4 cups (750 gr) granulated white sugar.
Combine the milk and sugar in a large heavy-bottomed pan (enameled cast-iron is best, but any heavy pan will do. Avoid pans that are thin, as the bottom of the doce de leite can easily burn). Stir with a wooden or silicone spoon until the sugar dissolves completely.

Place the pan over medium heat and bring slowly to a boil, stirring constantly with the spoon (approximately 15 minutes).

Reduce the heat, and continue to cook, stirring contantly, until the mixture is reduced to about 1/6 of its original quantity and developed a rich brown color and a shiny, creamy consistency. (approximately 45 minute to 1 hour). ** If you wish you can continue to cook for another 15 minutes or so, letting the mixture continue to thicken. When cooled, this doce de leite will have the consistency of fudge, and can be cut into pieces.

When the mixture has reached the desired consistency and color, pour into a glass casserole or lasagne dish and let cool completely. 

Cooled doce de leite can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Translated and adapted from website Tudo Gostoso.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Doce de Leite

If you've read the previous post on Flavors of Brazil, you'll already know that we've recently returned to Brazil from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although the two countries are neighbors and good friends (apart from football/soccer!) their cuisines are quite different. Some culinary traits, however, they do hold in common - particularly their love for grilled meats of all sorts, for pizza, and especially for the sweet preparation known as dulce de leche in Argentina and here in Brazil as doce de leite (pronounced dough-see gee LAY-chee). Both names merely mean milk sweet.

This thick, unctuous and very sweet mixture of milk and sugar is known throughout Latin America, from the Rio Grande in Mexico's north, to Cape Horn at the bottom of South America, and in recent years has begun to conquer new territories in the USA and Canada. It's only in the parts of the Americas that have an Iberian colonial past where it truly reigns as the king of sweets, though.

Basically, doce de leite is nothing more than milk sweetened with sugar that is boiled down until it is concentrated into either a creamy paste, or even further into a fudge-like consistency. It's not uncommon for doce de leite to be reduced to one-sixth of it's original quantity. While it is being boiled down, the mixture undergoes two browning processes -  carmelization and the Maillard reaction - which give the final product its characteristic caramel/butterscotch flavor and it's warm, toasty brown color.

In Brazil, kids (and sometimes even adults) love to eat doce de leite straight up - out of the jar or can. The bulk of it, though, is used in the creation of sweets and desserts. For instance, doce de leite is a favorite flavor of ice cream (sorvete) everywhere in Brazil - an idea that has been adopted by Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs, among others. Bakeries and confectionaries use it as a filling for cream puffs, sponge roll cakes and between layers of layer cakes. It makes a delicious dessert sauce when heated and thinned with whole milk or even better, cream.

Making doce de leite at home is not that difficult, though most Brazilians buy theirs at the shop. There are a wide range of doces de leite available, from large industrial producers, like Nestlé or Parmalat, to small and artisanal producers on dairy farms in every region of the country. In the next post, I'll provide a DIY recipe for making doce de leite in your own kitchen.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On the Road - Buenos Aires

Although this blog normally concerns itself with Brazilian food and Brazilian cuisine, I thought it might be interesting to post a few comments about Flavors of Brazil's recent visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina. This won't be a series of posts like other "On the Road" articles, just a few impressions and recollections of the nearby yet very different cuisines of Argentina.

We found that while food generally is cheaper in Brazil than it is in North America or Europe, it is cheaper still in Argentina - both in supermarkets and in restaurants. In the mid-1990s when  Brazil and Argentina reformed their currencies the Brazilian Read and the Argentinian Peso were valued as USD $1.00. Today, Brazil's very strong Real is worth about USD $0.60 and the Peso is worth USD $0.25. The variation in the amount these two currencies have devalued in the past 15 years shows on every supermarket receipt and restaurant tab. For Brazilians, food in Argentina is good value, for North Americans and Europeans it is even better value. For example, one evening in a typically meat-driven restaurant four of us each had a large steak, of excellent quality, a number of side dishes, no dessert, and a good bottle of wine for a total of AEP $50.00 - or about USD $12.50 per person. At the neighborhood greengrocers, we paid about USD $0.10 per pound for bananas, and $0.15 per pound for excellent apples. Cherries, which are exorbitantly expensive in Brazil when you can find them, were a bargain $1.00 per pound.

What's true about the cost of food in Argentina also applies, happily, to Argentinian wines. Although Argentina's reputation internationally as a producer of top-quality South American wines still tails that of Chile, the quality of Argentinian wines has improved enormously in the past decade or so, as has the variety of available wines. A bottle of Trumpeter Reserve 2007 (a blend of Tempranillo, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon), which sells in Brazil for the equivalent of USD $35.00, cost us USD $16.00 in a Buenos Aires wine shop. At it drank more like a thirty-five dollar wine than a sixteen dollar one, you can believe!

Argentinians are doing their best to uphold their reputation as being the world's most beef-crazed nation. They have recently lost their World Crown in tems of per capita consumption to neighboring Uruguay, but only by a small amount. Even so, they eat two times as much beef as Americans do, per capita, and three times what Canadians do. The beef is abundant and delicious in Buenos Aires - Argentinian beef is normally grilled, seasoned only with salt, and has a beautiful flavor profile, as it's all grass-fed.

Buenos Aires continues to look to mother-country Spain for guidance on proper meal times, and not to Brazil, North America or Northern Europe. In the evening, most restaurants are closed until about 9 pm, empty until about 11pm, and hopping from midnight on. It takes some adjusting to be able to dine, heartily, at that late hour. It certainly has an effect on bedtime, as it's impossible to sleep after such a large, late meal. However, bars are open to dawn, and clubs don't even open until after midnight, there's no shortage of things to occupy one's time in the wee small hours of the morning.

he city, though still very much a traditional food city (meat, Italian food, etc.) has become quite sophisticated and the contemporary food scene is flourishing. One recent trend which has caught on big in Buenos Aires is that of the closed-door restaurant - that is, a restaurant in a private home, somewhat clandestine, served family style for a small number of diners. Until one reserves, the location is not disclosed. We were lucky enough to dine one night at Casa Saltshaker, run by an expat American and fellow blogger, and had a marvelous meal. On the night we were there, the menu saluted the 70th anniversary of the end of the Franco-Thai war. Twelve guests, of whom half were Canadians surprisingly, spent the evening happily working their way through five courses with paired wines. Good food was eaten, excellent wines were sampled and new friends were made - an excellent way to spend a Saturday night, in Buenos Aires or anywhere else for that matter.

For more interesting blog articles on food and dining in Buenos Aires, Casa Saltshaker has an excellent blog, which you can visit by clicking here. As for Flavors of Brazil, we'll now move back to the subject at hand, Brazilian food.