Monday, October 31, 2011

Jericoacoara - A Step Back in Time

The small beachfront town of Jericoacoara (or Jeri as it's most commonly known) is located on the north coast of Ceará, about 200 miles (290 km) from Fortaleza. It's not that far as the crow flies, but even by car or express-bus the trip from the capital to Jeri takes a good part of the day. Why? The reason is that the road to Jeri ends about 12 miles (20 km) from Jeri itself in a place called Jijoca. From there to Jeri you can only  travel by dune buggy or by specially modified open-air minibus - from Jijoca to Jeri the road is nothing more than a path in the sand, first on the dunes, then along the beach. Jeri is not accessible by paved road, nor even gravel road. To travel the 12 miles across the sand to Jeri takes well over an hour.

And when you arrive there, the streets of Jeri are not paved, nor even gravelled either. They're sand as well  - the entire village of Jeri perches on the beach. High heels will do you no good here - to walk on the sand streets of Jeri you need tennis shoes, flipflops, or nothing (barefoot works very well). Jeri is casual and laid-back, at times seeming to be in a time-warp. In Jeri it can still seem like the 60s - the hippies that founded the village are still there in force, it's just that they're now third-generation hippies.

Jericoacoara is in an area of environmental protection, and a road to it will hopefully never be built. It's the village's isolation and beauty that draw the tourists that drive the local economy. Jeri is so isolated that it didn't have electricity until 1989, and even today there are no streetlights at night - just the lanterns and lamps of small shops, bars, restaurants and inns to brighten the darkness a bit.

Today Jeri has sophisticated boutique hotels and gourmet restaurants, but it hasn't lost its hippie past - most of the accommodation in the village is in small inns and pousadas, and most of the restaurants serve basic local fare, with emphasis on seafood. At night, many of the bars have live music and all serve cheap and potent cocktails, most of them based on cachaça and local fruit juices. Local "herbal" intoxicants remain popular too - another vestige of Jeri's hippie era.

Because of its location on the northernmost stretches of Ceará coastline, Jeri is one of the very few places in Brazil where it's possible to see the sun set into the sea. A popular ritual, for locals and visitors alike is to climb the 200 foot high sand dune that dominates the village at about 5 pm and watch the sun set in the sea from the dune's windy heights.

Jericoacoara is a popular weekend get-away for residents of Fortaleza, but because of the travel time involved isn't really worth visiting unless you can afford to spend at least two nights there - any shorter amount of time and you'll spend more time traveling to and from Jeri than you will relaxing and enjoying it.

Our next few posts on Flavors of Brazil will feature a couple of local signature dishes from Jericoacoara. A taste of Jeri, as it were.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

RECIPE - Crayfish Stew (Pituzada)

The São Francisco river, the longest river in Brazil that runs entirely in Brazilian territory, flows northeasterly from the heights of Minas Gerais through the interior of Bahia and empties into the Atlantic on the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas. Residents along its 1800 mile (2900 km) course affectionately refer to the river as Velho Chico (Old Frank or Old Francisco). During colonial times travel along the São Francisco was the only practical transportion link between the Portuguese colonies in what is now southeastern Brazil and the colonies of the northeast.

The river is little used for long-distance travel today, as it has been damned extensively and, for long stretches, is no longer navigable. The territory it travels through is a bit of a backland and one of the most conservative and traditional parts of Brazil, where old ways and customs still hold.

The São Francisco  and water taxi from Dona Gilda's restaurant
Across the river from the small town of Piranhas, Alagoas, perched atop a hillside and accessible only by water taxi from Piranhas sits a small restaurant called Angicos, owned and run by 65-year-old Maria Gilda Correia Nunes, known to all as Dona Gilda. Dona Gilda's restaurant is famous for its crayfish stew (pituzada) which she has been making for 30 years. The crayfish she uses come from the river that she can view from the front door of her restaurant.

For centuries, families that lived on the banks of the São Francisco river caught crayfish in their millions in small wooden traps baited with coconut meat. Dona Gilda's crayfish suppliers still use the same kind of trap, but as Dona Gilda says where they used to regularly trap 22 lbs (10 kgs) of crayfish a day in a single trip, now they're lucky to catch one tenth of that. But there is still enough crayfish being caught to supply the restaurant's needs and the catch is considered sustainable at current volumes.

Her stew, which is traditional in the use of coconut milk and the seasoning combination of green onion and cilantro, can be made with shrimps instead of crayfish if you cannot source crayfish at your local market or fishmongers. But if you do find crayfish, there's not a better way to serve them than Dona Gilda's pituzada.
RECIPE - Crayfish Stew (Pituzada)
Serves 2

1 lb (500 gr) crayfish
2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cubed
2 large onion, cut into thick slices
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into thin slices
1 medium boiling potato, peeled and sliced
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups (500 ml) coconut milk
2 whole eggs, hard-boiled and peeled
chopped green onion, green parts only, to taste
chopped cilantro, to taste
annatto powder to taste (can substitute sweet paprika)
salt to taste

In a large saucepan heat the olive oil, then add the onion and carrot and fry for about five minutes, or until the onion is softened and transparent but not browned. Add the tomato and cook for about another minute, then add the potato slices, coconut milk and annatto or paprika. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the whole crayfish, cover the pan and cook for another five minutes. Add the whole eggs and heat them through, then remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the contents of the pan into a deep serving dish and serve immediately, accompanied by white rice. Be sure to place another deep serving dish on the table for the crayfish shells.

Friday, October 28, 2011

SEAFOODS OF BRAZIL - Crayfish (Pitu)

Sort of a halfway-step between shrimps and lobsters, with some traits more like the former and others more like the latter, crayfish (or crawfish) are just as delicious as either of their cousins. They have a bit more meat in their tails than do shrimps and have a particularly sweet and intense flavor that the larger lobster often lacks.

There are two words in Brazilian Portuguese for this little creature - langostim and pitu - and the choice of which one to use is largely regional. Langostim is clearly of Romance origin and is related to the French langoustine, while pitu comes from the Native-American indian language tupi. Pitu is used more in the north and northeast of Brazil, while langostim is more common in the south and southeast.

Just as there are two words for crayfish, there are actually two different species which share the name. One of them, Macrobrachium carcinus, is a fresh water species, and the other, Metanephrops rubella, lives in salt water. The fresh-water variety is found in great numbers in the thousands of rivers which lace the Amazonian basin, and the salt-water variety can be found in the seas from the south coast of Brazil to Argentina.

In Brazil, crayfish are cooked in almost all the ways that shrimps and lobsters are - steamed, braised, cooked in soups and stews or even grilled. At simple thatched-hut beach restaurants all along the coast of Brazil, a bowl of whole crayfish simply cooked in a seasoned broth of coconut milk, onions, chili peppers and cilantro is a favorite mid-day snack - eaters pull the crayfish apart with their fingers and pry the meat out of the tail and claws, sucking on the smaller legs to extract the last little bits of goodness.

The tupi word pitu is also the brand name of one of Brazil's most popular brands of cachaça. The classic Pitú label, which has been around since the thirties, prominently features a crayfish. Pitú is cheap and rough - it's not a connoisseur's cachaça. It's the drink of laborers and outdoor workers. Pitú can be found in almost any of the small streetfront bars in working-class neighborhoods in Brazil, and workers on their way to work, or on their way home, pop in for a pinga - a shot - to gear themselves up for a hard day's work or to relax themselves afterwards. Pitú-brand cachaça is exported to North America and Europe where it can be bought in specialty liquor stores for many times its Brazilian price.

Even though crayfish can be substituted in most recipes for shrimp or lobster, we'll publish in upcoming posts a couple of the most popular Brazilian recipes which specifically call for crayfish.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gastro-tourism Takes Off in Brazil

Tourism is a enormously important industry in Brazil. Visitors to Brazil from all around the world come in their millions every year to experience the natural beauty of this country and to participate in one of the most welcoming and enchanting cultures on the planet. In 2010 more than 5 million foreign tourists traveled to Brazil and while in the country spent a collective total of US$5.9 billion.

These are big numbers, but they are dwarfed by the size of the domestic tourist market in Brazil. There are a lot of Brazilians, just under 200 million of them, and apparently a good number of them like to visit other parts of their own country. Domestic tourist numbers in 2010 were five times the number of international visitors, totalling 51 million visits. While traveling outside their own state, Brazilians spent approximately US$25 billion in 2010. That's not chump change.

The federal govenment of Brazil and the governments of the 27 states of Brazil realize the economic importance of the Brazilian tourist industry, and there is a very active Brazilian national tourist bureau (EMBRATUR) and many state and municipal tourist bureaus throughout the country.

These tourist bureaus mount publicity campaigns inside and outside Brazil to stimulate tourism to Brazil. Traditionally the focus of these campaigns, which include TV commercials and print advertising, has been the elements of Brazilian that are the most well-known to tourists - the beaches, the natural wonders, the historic cities, the music and Carnaval. However, recently we've noticed that tourist bureaus have begun promoting what one might call gastro-tourism, at least to the domestic sector of the market. There is a large population, well-educated and well-off, in Brazil that wants to experience the culinary culture of regions of Brazil other than their own, and these new campaigns attempt to appeal to this sector.

Everyone knows, for example, that the afro-Brazilian cuisine of the state of Bahia is one of the most important cultural features of that state when it comes to attracting tourists. Every tourist who visits Bahia knows they must try acarajé  when they are there, and often it's the desire to have another acarajé that brings them back.

In the most recent issue of the Brazilian food and wine magazine Prazeres da Mesa, there is a full-page ad from the state tourist bureau of the northeastern state of Pernambuco which illustrates this trend of  promoting gastro-tourism. Instead of photographs of blue seas and deserted palm-lined beaches, or of the follies of Carnaval in Recife, the photos in the ad are of two of the most famous desserts linked to the culinary traditions of Pernambuco - bolo de rolo and bolo Souza Leão. The headline of the ad reads "Along with sugar, the Portuguese brought the sin of gluttony [to Pernambuco]. And so they had to build the [historic, baroque] churches." The text at the bottom of the ad explains - "The passion of Pernambucanos for sweets is, without a doubt, a heritage of Portuguese colonization. Sugar-cane cultivation gave birth to, in the kitchens of our sugar-cane plantations, a tradition of cakes and sweets. Recipes that are part of our history and, even today, a part of our table. Come try them."

This is sophisticated marketing of a destination aimed at a sophisticated audience. An audience that knows how important sweet-cooking is to the culinary traditions of Pernambuco, that recognizes the iconic recipes and one that might be tempted to travel to Pernambuco to sample bolo de rolo and bolo Souza Leão  in the land of their origin.

Here at Flavors of Brazil, we're all in favor of gastro-tourism and are enthusiastic participants ourselves. In the past twelve months, we've taken gastronomically-focused trips to Rio de Janeiro and São Luís, Maranhão, and reported on them on this blog. After seeing the ad pictured above, maybe our first gastronomic expedition for 2012 should be to Pernambuco. Who knows?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

RECIPE - Steam-roasted Back Ribs (Costela no Bafo)

Beef ribs, and specifically the larger ribs known as back ribs, are surrounded by some of the most flavorful meat on the the entire butchered cattle carcass. And though they are wonderfull grilled with a smoky or sweet barbeque sauce, or braised in red wine or other liquid, Brazilians know that sometimes they're bestsuited to being served unadorned at table, without the presence of other flavors to complicate the picture. With just a  little seasoning and nothing more, the meaty and succulent flavor of the ribs shines through in full simplicity.

This recipe for oven-roasted back ribs, which comes from the tiny northeastern Brazilian state of Paraíba, results in very tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat that separates easily from the bone. It's a useful recipe to have when you want to showcase the meat itself or if you don't have access to an outdoor barbeque - the other way Brazilians like to cook their back ribs (costela).

Because back ribs are very rich - the meat has high fat and connective tissue content - keep the trimmings to a minimum when serving them. Boiled potatoes and a simple salad make the perfect accompaniment. Brazilians often serve french fries with back ribs , so if you prefer you can substitute fries for the boiled potatoes. We think that boiled potatoes are better suited in this case, but the choice is yours.
RECIPE - Steam-roasted Back Ribs (Costela no Bafo)
3 portions

3-rib section of beef back ribs
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 small onion, finely chopped
salt to taste
In a small bowl combine the chopped garlic and onions, the Worchestershire sauce and salt. Mix together to make a paste. Rub this paste into the meaty side of the rack of ribs and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).

Put the seasoned ribs into a dutch oven with a top, or in a deep roasting pan. Cover the dutch oven or pan with aluminum foil, making sure to make a tight seal. If using a dutch oven, you can put the top on over the aluminum foil. Place in the preheated oven and roast for 1 1/4 hours.

Remove the aluminum foil and return the pan to the oven for about 10-15 minutes to allow the surface of the meat to become browned.

Remove the ribs from the pan, place on a platter, and cover loosely with aluminum foil. Let stand for 15 minutes, then cut into three pieces, each one with a rib, and serve immediately.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happy World Pasta Day 2011 (Feliz Dia Mundial de Macarrão)

We've just learned here at Flavors of Brazil that today, October 25th, the entire planet is celebrating World Pasta Day. This date was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the first World Pasta Congress held in Rome, naturally, on October 25, 1995.

Although the origins of pasta are halfway around the world from Brazil in ancient China, and it was the Italians, not the Portuguese, who spread the love of pasta around the globe, Brazil loves pasta just as much as anyplace else on Earth. Call it massa, macarrão, espaguete, lasanha, or anything else you want it, just be sure to eat one of the most basic, most delicious and most variable foods that has blessed the human race before World Pasta Day ends at midnight.

And if you want to toast your pasta while you eat it, make sure it's with a nice dry red wine!

Monday, October 24, 2011

BEEF CUTS - Costela (Back Ribs)

barbequed back ribs
One of the most flavorful cuts of beef, large meaty back ribs (known as costela in Portuguese) are a favorite cut of meat in a traditional Brazilian churrasco. Churrasco can mean simply "grilled meat" but it more commonly means a prolonged weekend meal for family and friends consisting of a number of meats grilled over wood or charcoal, outdoors, accompanied by numerous appetizers and canapes, side dishes, relishes and pickles, and lots and lots of icy Brazilian lager-style beer.

Technically, a butcher will tell you that back ribs are cut from the carcass' 6th through 13th ribs (the largest ones). The smaller ribs that are closer to the animal's frontquarters are the short ribs. Normally back ribs are available only in specialty butcher shops and even there might have to be be pre-ordered. One can purchase an entire rack of back ribs, but that's a serious quantity of meat - some of the ribs are 18 inches (45 cm) long and a whole rack contains 6 or 7 ribs. The sheer size of a rack of beef ribs means that it's quite complicated to cook, whether in an oven or on a grill. Most people order a portion of a rack only - 2 or 3 ribs.

In Brazil, back ribs are a highly desired cut of beef, and are consequently one of the more expensive cuts. In North America the ribs are valued less and because they surround the ribeye they are often "leftovers" in the butchering process, and can be picked up relatively inexpensively.

If being grilled, back ribs must be allowed to cook until well done, since rare or medium-cooked ribs are not tender at all and, though flavorful, can be too chewy to enjoy. It's the long cooking that tenderizes the meat.

Alternatively, back ribs can be cooked in the oven and there benefit from the presence of moisture to help them become tender. Back ribs, like their cousins the short ribs, take marvelously to the braising process, in which meat is cooked with liquid at a relatively low temperature, for a long time. Or the ribs can be roasted covered, which allows the trapped steam to aid in the tenderizing process. Either technique will result in tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs.

Coming up on Flavors of Brazil - some ideas on how to cook back ribs Brazilian style. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Neighbors' Cuisine - An Andean Dinner in Fortaleza

As Brazilian gastronomy continues to develop its passion for regional and traditional roots, often combining them with contemporary techniques and new or long-forgotten ingredients, it is beginning to similarly explore the gastronomic heritage of Brazil's neighbor countries in South America. Though they share a continent, Brazil and the Spanish-speaking countries that consitute most of the remainder of South America are culturally not very similar in most respects - linguistically, ethnically, geographically, to name a few. But these days, Brazilian chefs are looking across this culinary frontier and cross-cultural Latin American influences are popping up everywhere on the Brazilian food scheme.

An excellent, and absolutely delicious, example of this mixing of South American cuisines was a dinner that Flavors of Brazil attended this week here in Fortaleza. As part of the Universidade Federal do Ceará (UFC) Festival of Culture, currently underway, local Fortaleza restaurant L’Ô hosted a six-course dinner entitled "Revisiting Andean Cuisine" to showcase the food traditions of Peru and Bolivia.

Two visiting chefs created the menu and cooked the dinner at L’Ô. Fábio Barbosa, a Brazilian, is the executive chef of La Mar Cebicheria, a Peruvian restaurant in São Paulo, and Checho Gonzalez, a Bolivian, is the chef at Ají, in the same city. Working together, they composed a dinner that highlighted ingredients and techniques from the heights of the Andes - a world away from the tropical coastal city of Fortaleza. Each course was paired with Chilean wines from the foothills of the Andean Cordillera.

The meal was a superb showcase of the best of Peruvian and Bolivian cuisine. The dinner included two first course plates, two main dishes and two desserts. Unusual ingredients, such as the Peruvian fruit lucuma and enormous kernels of Andean hominy corn were given prominence. So were typical sauces as seasonings, like salsa criolla, salso chimichurri and salsa antichuchera - the peppery sauce used to season the Andean version on kebabs or satays, anticuchos.

The complete menu is pictured below.
Tiradito (ceviche) of whitefish
Escabeche of octopus with salsa criolla and mango cream
Mixed seafood in salsa anticuchera on a bed of mashed potatoes and chimichurri sauce
Chicharonnes of baby spareribs with salted potatoes, hominy corn and shredded sun-dried lamb
Lucuma in coconut-scented tapioca with coffee syrup
Bunuelo fritters with dulce de leche and cinagni coulis


Friday, October 21, 2011

RECIPE - Tamarind Batida (Batida de Tamarindo)

If you ask almost anyknowledgeable cocktail enthusiast to free associate the words "Brazil" and "cocktail", chances are almost certain that the word that will pop out of his or her mouth will be "caipirinha." This combination of crushed whole limes, cachaça (a liquor distilled from sugar cane), sugar and ice is Brazil's most famous cocktail export and can be found on bar menus around the world.

But the caipirinha is not Brazil's only cachaça cocktail. There's a whole other family of cachaça plus fruit juice drinks that are enjoyed throught Brazil - drinks called batidas (prounced bah-CHEE-das). What distinguished a batida from a caipirinha is the addition of a touch of sweetened condensed milk. There are as many flavors of batidas as there are fruits in Brazil, which means there are theoretically thousands of possible batidas. The most popular are probably lime (limão) and passion fruit (maracujá) but any fruit that strikes one's fancy is suitable. Flavors of Brazil recently tried a cashew fruit (caju) batida and it was wonderful.

Since we've been publishing tamarind recipes this week, we thought we might as well post a recipe for tamarind batida. But please don't limit yourself to this one fruit if you decide you like batidas. Try any fruit that you can blend, whether tropical or not. As they say, "It's all good."
RECIPE - Tamarind Batida (Batida de Tamarindo)
Makes 1 drink

2 oz (50 ml) cachaça
1 1/2 oz (35 ml) tamarind juice (or any other fruit juice)
1 oz (25 ml) canned sweetened condensed milk
ice cubes
Put all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with a tight lid. Shake vigorously for two minutes. Pour through a strainer into a chilled cocktail glass - martini or similar. Serve immediately.

If desired you can pour the drink over fresh ice cubes in an old-fashioned glass.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

RECIPE - Lamb Loin with Tamarind Sauce (Lombo de Cordeiro ao Molho de Tamarindo)

This recipe for rare-cooked loin of lamb with a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce is the creation of chef Jeff Colas from Maison do Bomfim restaurant in the charming baroque city of Olinda in the state of Pernambuco. With a marvelously-preserved architectural heritage and brightly painted houses that line the steep cobblestone streets of the town, Olinda has long been an artists' colony and in recent years has become a favorite vacation spot for tourists whose interests go beyond beach, sun and sand. Many of the historic homes of Olinda have been turned into art galleries, artisan shops, inns or restaurants.

Lamb isn't often seen on restaurant menus in Brazil - in fact in traditional Brazilian cooking goat sits in the place that lamb occupies in many cultures' culinary pantheon. But when you find it, it can be very good indeed. This dish pairs the meat with a sauce made from tamarind juice. The sharp acidity of the juice cuts the  fattiness of the meat, and the sugar softens its bite. Because the sauce is very rich (it uses dark beer as its primary liquid) and the lamb is too, it's best to serve this in relatively small portions and to accompany it with steamed vegetables rather than a starch.
RECIPE - Lamb Loin with Tamarind Sauce (Lombo de Cordeiro ao Molho de Tamarindo)
4 portions

For the lamb:
3 Tbsp butter
2 invidual lamb loins, boneless
coarse salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

For the sauce:
1/2 cup (100 gr) granulated white sugar
3/4 cup (200 ml) tamarind juice
3/4 cup (200 ml) dark beer
2 cups (500 ml) water
3 basil leaves
3 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 whole small chili pepper (jalapeno or serrano)
In a medium sauce pan combine all the sauce ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer the sauce for 40 minutes, or until it has reduced in volume by half. Remove from heat, discard all the solid ingredients, and reserve.

Season the lamb loins with the salt and pepper to taste. In a non-stick frying pan melt the butter and when it's hot and bubbling but not smoking add the lamb loins. Sear them on all sides over high heat, working quickly to turn them in the melted butter. Do not overcook - the lamb should be rare inside. When seared, remove from the heat, and reserve the loins, keeping them warm.

Bring the reserved sauce quickly to a boil. While heating the sauce, cut each lamb loin into thick slices. Plate the slices decoratively, then drizzle the sauce over them and serve immediately. Pass the remaining sauce in a gravy boat for those who wish more sauce.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

RECIPE - Tamarind Juice (Suco de Tamarindo)

photo from Come-se
One of the most refreshing tropical juices there is, a glass of chilled, acid-sweet tamarind juice over ice in a tall glass will revive flagging spirits in the hottest of climes. There's nothing that "hits the spot" when the heat becomes unsupportable like a glass of tamarind juice, and Brazilians by the millions use the juice to keep cool in this tropical country.

Here in Brazil making tamarind juice is a snap, because every supermarket carries small packets of frozen tamarind pulp. The pulp is pure fruit and is unsweetened and without preservatives. To make juice, you just need to pop one or two packets in the blender, add sugar to taste and the amount of water suggested on the packet - blend it for a minute or so and bingo! you've got chilled tamarind juice ready for the glass.

For those who don't have access to these frozen packets, it's still easy to make tamarind juice at home, although it does take a bit more time (including time to cool the juice). In Asian and Latin markets everywhere you can buy packages of partially dehydrated tamarind pulp, usually containing seeds as well. Here's a picture of a typical package:

The way to use this pulp is to put as much as you need in a mixing bowl, boil some water, and the pour just enough water over the pulp to cover it. Let the bowl stand for a minimum of thirty minutes. Using another bowl with a sieve over over it, pour the contents of the first bowl into the sieve. Let drain, then using a wooden spoon, press the pulp to extract as much juice as possible. Continue to press until you have only seeds left in the sieve.

Let the sieved pulp cool, then add as much water as desired to reach juice consistency. Sweeten to taste and chill well in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Tamarind (Tamarindo)

reconstituted tamarind pulp
Of the many species of tropical fruit trees, none is more widely distributed than Tamarindus indica, which is known in English as the tamarind tree and in Portuguese as the tamarindeiro. Although its scientific name would indicate that it is native to India (indica) it actually originated in the savannas of Africa and still grows wild there. It was carried to South Asian in earliest times and today the Indian subcontinent is where the majority of the world's tamarind tress grow. It is also extensively cultivated in the North and Northeast of Brazil, and was brought to this country from India by Portuguese navigators, traveling from India to Brazil by way of Portugal.

The tamarind tree is valued not just for its fruits, but also as an ornamental tree. The tree is slow-growing and reaches tremendous age and size. It can reach up to 100 feet (30 meters) high, with a spread of 40 feet (12 meters) and trunks have been measured up to 25 feet (approx. 8 meters) in circumference. Its foliage is bright green, fine and feathery. The fruit, which is actually an elongated seed pod, is a velvety light brown with a juicy, acidic pulp surrounding the seeds in immature fruits. In dried, mature fruits, the pulp becomes less liquid and more of a paste than a pulp.

Tamarind pulp is valued in traditional Brazilian cuisine, and in many tropical cuisines elsewhere, for its acidity, which perks up and enlivens a dish just as a splash of fresh lime or lemon juice does. It is an important ingredient in sauces, preserves and chutneys. Part of the flavor profile of Worcestershire sauce comes from the presence of tamarind. The pulp can also be thinned out with water and sweetened with sugar to make a refreshing tart drink. This tamarind "juice" is very popular in the heat of northern Brazil and is considered to have significant cooling properties. Brazilians often "prescribe" tamarind juice for digestive problems.

The tamarind does have scientifically proven medicinal value, for many purposes, not just as a digestive. Because of its high levels of vitamin C it is a powerful antiscorbutic, and the pulp has value as a laxative as well. Native folklore also attests to the hangover-reducing properties of tamarind juice.

Fresh tamarinds are available in supermarkets in some regions of Brazil. In other regions, frozen pulp, completely natural, is available in market freezers and can be reconstitued with water to make juice or merely thawed when pulp is called for.

In upcoming posts, we'll feature some traditional recipes from Brazil which call for tamarind. In North America you can sometimes find fresh tamarind in Latin or Asian food markets, and in those same markets you can find semi-dried pulp in small packages. By soaking this pulp in hot water and removing the seeds you can make your own ready-to-use tamarind.

Monday, October 17, 2011

RECIPE - Grilled Zucchini Rolls with Buffalo Mozzarella (Rolinho de Abobrinha com mussarela de búfala)

These delicious rolls made from strips of grilled zucchini stuffed with fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes can be served as canapes, as a salad or as an elegant first course. The recipe calls of mozzarella made from the buffalo milk, and in Brazil, this recipe is often made with cheese that comes from the island of Marajó, at the mouth of the Amazon. (Click here to read more about Marajó.) It can be made quite succesfully with any sort of fresh mozzarella (the kind sold floating in whey - often called bocconcini). Do not use aged mozzarella - the stuff you put on pizza. It's something entirely different and will not suit this recipe.
RECIPE - Grilled Zucchini Rolls with Buffalo Mozzarella (Rolinho de Abobrinha com mussarela de búfala)
Makes 12 rolls

3 medium zucchinis
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium tomatoes, quartered and seeded
6 oz (200 gr) fresh buffalo mozzarella, cut into twelve equal-sized pieces
2 tsp fresh oregano leaves, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Cut each zucchini lengthwise into six long strips - discard the two outside strips and reserve the four middle strips of each zucchini.

Heat a propane or charcoal grill to medium. Brush the zucchini strips with olive oil, then grill them for about 3 minutes on each side. Remove from the grill and reserve for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

Place each zucchini strip on a plate and put one tomato quarter and one mozzarella piece on top near one end. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle a bit of oregano on top and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Beginning at the end with the stuffing, roll up the zucchini strip and secure with a toothpick.

Put the zucchini rolls in a casserole or other baking dish lightly greased with olive oil. Bake for about 8 minutes until nice and hot. Serve immediately.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Marajó - Brazil's Island of Buffalos

The enormous island of Marajó sits at the mouth of the Amazon river system and is by all measures the largest riverine island in the world. Its 15,000 square miles (40,000 square kilometers) make it larger than the country of Switzerland or the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro. It is the 35th largest island in the world - of any type. It sits almost directly on the Equator and is hot and humid all year round.

The only access to the island is by air or water - there is no land connection. From the nearest major city, Belém, it is a three-hour ferry ride to Marajó. Ferries dock at the island city of Soure. Even on the island most transportation is by boat along the coast - there are very few roads.

The major economic activity on the island is ranching and there are significant herds of cattle and buffalo. The estimated buffalo population of Marajó is 600,000 which is just about three times the human population. The buffalo raised on Marajó are not Noth American buffalos (they're actually not buffaloes at all; they're bisons), but rather Asian water buffalos. Marajó is very low and flat and during the rainy season much of the island is flooded - making water buffalos a perfect species to raise. Buffalos are happiest in hot, muggy climates and up to their necks in water so Marajó must seem like paradise to them.

Making buffalo mozzarella on Marajó
The animals are raised both for their meat and for their milk. The species of buffalo is the same one that is raised in the Campania region of Italy, where its milk is turned into the famous mozzarella di bufala, and Marajó has a significant cheese-making industry - one that is growing by leaps and bounds as the demand for buffalo mozzarella grows. Islanders have always preferred buffalo meat to cattle, but it's only recently that there has been any demand for buffalo meat in other regions of Brazil. As the beneficial nutritional profile of buffalo meat becomes more well known, particularly in relation to the profile of beef, demand for buffalo meat has grown tremendously in recent years. Marajó supplies nearly all that demand domestically in Brazil and there is an increasing market for export as well.

Traditionally-dressed vaqueiros (cowboys)
Another growing industry on Marajó is eco-tourism and several of the large buffalo ranches offer guest accommodation and activities. Visitors to these ranches have an opportunity to experience the life of the vaqueiros (cowboys) who manage the huge herds of buffalo and cattle and who have a unique and rich culture that dates back centuries. Some even offer guests the chance to ride a buffalo - something that local police do all the time (see the photo below). And of course, all visitors to the ranches can regale themselves with lots of local (very local) buffalo-meat dishes and cheeses.

Friday, October 14, 2011

RECIPE - Virado à Paulista

In yesterday's post, which concerned the efforts of an informal group of young chefs to preserve the traditional cuisine of São Paulo, we mentioned that one of that city's councilmen has asked the municipal heritage committee to enshrine a dish called virado à paulista in the roll of São Paulo's intangible patrimony.

Should his efforts be successful, virado à paulista will join a number of traditional festivals, dances, and other foods considered worthy of preservation in the face of global homogenization. To be worthy of such august company you'd think that virado à paulista might be a complicated or extravagant dish. Nothing of the sort - virado à paulista is a common mid-day meal in thousands of downtown and suburban restaurants and lunch bars. It's often served as a restaurant's prato feito (blue-plate special). It's never expensive and sometimes it's downright cheap. But its supporters feel that it is worthy of preservation efforts due to its long history, and also to the emotional attachment that many paulistas have to this dish they've eaten since their childhood.

Basically, virado à paulista is a full-meal plate consisting of white rice, cooked beans, manioc flour, a slice or two of garlic sausage, a thin steak, sauteed kale, a fried plantain and sometimes a fried egg. Nouvelle cuisine this ain't. Satisfying and filling, a virado à paulista is fuel for the whole day - for the body and for the paulista soul.

Although there are innumerable variations on the basic virado à paulista theme, this recipe is a fairly typical rendition. Feel free to modify it as desired - everybody has their own favorite way to make virado à paulista.
RECIPE - Virado à Paulista
1 portion

3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, crushed
3/4 cup cooked dried beans, with their broth (click here for recipe for beans)
1/3 cup farinha (dried, toasted manioc flour)
4 oz. (100 gr) sliced garlic sausage (kielbasa, linguiça or similar)
8 oz. thin beefsteak (round steak or other)
salt to taste
7 leaves kale, destemmed and cut into thin strips
1 ripe plantain, peeled and sliced
cooked white rice
1 fried egg, sunny-side up (optional)
In a medium saucepan, heat 1 Tbsp of the olive oil, then saute the onion and garlic until transparent and softened but not browned. Add the beans and their broth and heat through. Mix in the manioc flour, adding a bit at a time and mixing each batch in completely before continuing. Reduce heat to very low and cook for about five minutes, or until the manioc flour is softened. Remove from heat and reserve, keeping warm.

In a small frying pan, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil and fry  the sliced sausage until browned and crispy. Remove the sausage to a small plate and reserve, keeping warm. Season the steak with salt to taste, add the final Tbsp olive oil to the pan in which the sausage was fried and fry the steak to the desired degree of doneness. Reserve the steak, keeping warm. Still using the same frying pan, briefly stir-fry the kale - just until it takes on a brilliant emerald color. Seaon with salt and reserve. Finally, fry the plantain in the same frying pan.

Assemble the plate - put a scoop of white rice and a scoop of the beans on a large deep plate. Place the steak to one side, and top with the sausage slices. Add the kale and banana slices, and if desired, top it all with a fried sunny-side-up egg. Serve immediately.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cooks to the Rescue! Saving Traditional Paulista Cuisine

cuzcuz paulista
The megalopolis (plus or minus 19 million inhabitants) that is the city of São Paulo is a modern,  avant-garde city of tomorrow, both for good or for bad. Although the city has a long history, its look is ever forward, rarely backward - art, music, architecture all march relentlessly into the future, and referential art, which looks backward to earlier times, is not valued.

What is true for fine arts in São Paulo is also true for the art of cooking. Because of the long history of the city, and of the countryside in the state of São Paulo that nourishes it, there is a wealth of culinary tradition that stretches back almost 500 years. Yet in São Paulo it's the chef who is the most outré, the most daring and inventive who wins prizes and accolades. Molecular gastronomy and creative and unheard-of fusions rule with critics and diners alike. Traditional paulista (from São Paulo) cuisine is an endangered species in its home territory.

Jefferson Rueda
A few youngs chefs from São Paulo, however, are working feverishly to rescue traditional paulista cooking from obscurity before it disappears entirely. They are riding to the rescue of the imperiled maiden that is paulista cuisine and hope to raise its profile and protect its treasures by taste education, by publication and by presentation.

A recent article in the São Paulo newspaper Folha de S. Paulo details the work of these mostly younger chefs. Here is Flavors of Brazil's translation of the article:

The traditional cuisine of São Paulo is in decline. This beautifully simple, rustic cuisine, marked by the importance of corn, pork, and chicken.

And so have arisen a few daring young chefs - who make the humble origins of this paulista cuisine, which has been a source of shame, a source of pride - stubbornly searching for the roots of this cuisine, and resolved to make some noise in the city. Cooks like Jefferson Rueda and Ivan Achcar Eudes Assisi, who work to rescue the aromas that wafted through their childhood homes, in recipes that feature ingredients from the earth, the countryside, in a well-rounded new cuisine, using only traditional techniques.

In parallel with the cooks, on September 21st São Paulo City Councilman Juscelino Gadelha applied to have a traditional dish called virado paulista enshrined as part of the intangible patrimony of the city of São Paulo in the city's heritage list. The recipe is one of the iconic dishes of the style of cooking that first began to take shape (and still is formed) by the hands of Portuguese colonists and native Indians. Of the pioneers and cowboys. Of those who left what is now the city of São Paulo barefoot, armed with guns, and hammocks for sleeping, a few bringing along silver spoons, old books to entertain themselves, such as those described by pioneer Alcântara Machado. Of those on backcountry expeditions in the last quarter of the 17th century, searching the land for gold and Indians.

For food, these pioneers took little with them when they left the city. They made good use of the fish that swam the rivers, the berries and all the animals that they found in the brush. They were required by decree, according to food historian Caloca Fernandes, to "sow corn, beans and squash, easy to grow plants that will ensure a supply for new pioneers."

"In time this diet, rustic in character, became a permanent remembrance of the pioneer experience," says historian Antonio Candido. "And today there are elements of that adventurous spirit, which appear in the work of (chef) Eudes Assisi, for example."

Born and raised on the São Paulo coast, youngest of 14 children, chef Eudes, who once traveled the world cooking on cruise ships, now champions local ingredients such as the pupunha palm,  the wild lime and the taro-like taioba. 

"My coastal culture was being lost, no one was drying home-caught fish on a line, as my mother once did" says chef Eudes. But in the restaurant that Eudes will open in 2012, his plan is to showcase that genuine coastal cuisine of his childhood, a mixture of fish and bananas, sweet and salty. 

Similarly Jefferson Rueda, who now works in a prestigious European restaurant, will return to São Paulo in December and plans to open his own restaurant there in January. It will highlight the rustic gastronomy of the state's interior, which was first settled by Italian immigrants who came to work on coffee plantations. "Paulista cuisine has influences from other Brazilian states and other countries too," says Rueda. Chef Eudes in his Casa da Fazenda (Farmhouse) restaurant will simple pork loin, chicken with okra, virado paulista, thus sharing this idea of a "collective memory" cuisine.

"Do you know where I find comfort in São Paulo?", asks chef Eudes. "In classic paulista restaurants like Sujinhoin neighborhood botecos, in that little bar on the corner."

Jefferson Rueda agrees: "The rustic cuisine of the interior of  São Paulo is something beautiful. Everything resolves around the table."

Ivan Achcar Eudes Assisi
The work of these chefs is not something unique to them or to  São Paulo. Similar chefs are working around the world to ensure that culinary traditions that date back hundreds or thousands of years are not lost irretrievably. We should all give them a nice round of applause, and all the support they need.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

RECIPE - Cashew-nut Brownies (Brownie com Castanha de Caju)

Although last week was a kind-of-official Rice Week here on the blog, we didn't intend to have this one turn out to be a Cashew Week, though it seems to be happening naturally. One post just leads to another, so we'll follow this thread for a while, though this recipe for brownies with cashew nuts will be the last post to mention the words cashew or caju this week, we promise.

Brownies are an American dessert that has taken Brazil by storm in the past few years. They're popping up on restaurant dessert menus everywhere and there are bakery/cake shop-style brownie shops in many Brazilian cities. Here in Fortaleza we have a shop called Empório Brownie which specializes in these squares of chocolate deliciousness.

This recipe, which comes from women's website mdemulher, substitutes cashew nuts for the standard walnuts, as in a classic brownie recipe. Otherwise, it's very true to the original recipe, and the results are an interesting tweak on the usual brownie. For those who love cashew nuts, and they are legion, it's just one more way to gild the lily that is a brownie. Do give it a try sometime.
 RECIPE - Cashew-nut Brownies (Brownie com Castanha de Caju)
15 portions

1 1/3 cup butter
12 oz (360 gr) semi-sweet baking chocolate
6 whole eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/4 cup (270 gr) all-purpose flour
3 1/3 cup (600 gr) granulated white sugar
1 cup (150 gr) roasted, unsalted cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).

In a double-boiler, melt the butter and chocolate together. Stir to mix completely. Remove from heat, then stir in the beaten eggs, mixing completely. Reserve.

Combine the flour and sugar in a large mixing bowl, then stir in the butter/chocolate/egg mixture with a rubber spatula, a bit at a time. Stir in the chopped cashew-nuts, mixing carefully and completely.

Pour the batter into a buttered square 8" (20 cm) cake pan. Smooth out the surface with the spatula.

Bake for about 45 minutes in the preheated oven. The brownies are done when a toothpick inserted in the center of the batter comes out clean.

Remove from oven and let cool completely in the pan. Cut into squares and serve.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New Ceará-specific Apple Logo

Considering the importance of the cashew fruit (caju) to the economy and gastronomy of the Brazilian state of Ceará, some local wags here in in Fortaleza, the state's capital, have suggested to Apple that they slightly modify their world-famous logo to salute the fruit.

They've even gone so far as to design the new logo to help Apple's design department along. Here's what they sent Apple:

How do you like it? Flavors of Brazil thinks it's great and we'd love to have that logo lighting up the back of our Apple laptop.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bumper Crop This Year for Ceará's Cashew Fruits

The cashew fruit (caju in Portuguese) is the most important fruit crop in Flavors of Brazil's home state, Ceará. The weirdly shaped apple-with-a-nut-on-the-end yields not only the cashew nut, which is tremendously valuable for the export market, but also a fruitlike part, botanically known as a peduncle, which enjoys a gigantic domestic market as a source of juice and sweets.

The caju harvest of the past two years in Ceará was disappointingly small, mainly due to the lack of rainfall in the state during the rainy season from January to early May. But 2011 is a year of  La Niña, a worldwide weather phenomenon generated by cooler than average water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. In years influenced by  La Niña Ceará receives higher than normal rainfall - something that is good for the cashew crop. This year's rainy season extended well into the normally dry months of June and July and consequently the caju harvest benefitted tremendously.

The harvest is just starting now, but the state agricultural bureau is predicting a 2011 cashew harvest of 160 thousand tons. That's four times the size of last year's harvest which was damaged by insufficient rainfall. Because of the abundant rainfall, the bureau is also predicting that the quality of the crop will increase this year with most fruits having high sugar levels and low acidity.

The cashew-nut processing industry will also enjoy an upswing thanks to the excellent harvest. The bureau expects that the tonnage of processed cashew nuts in 2011 will be 187% higher than last year.

As the cashew crop is the largest source of income for the residents of 45 counties in the state, the economic benefit for the cashew-cultivation region is considerable. Although wholesale prices have not yet been established, we can hope that the consumer will also see some benefit of this cornucopia of cashews - higher quality and lower prices.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

RECIPE - Top-hat Rice with Curly Parma Ham (Arroz de Cartola com Pixaim de Parma)

To top off Flavors of Brazil's Rice Week, we thought we'd finish with this "Top Hat" recipe from noted Brazilian chef Madalena Albuquerque who works out of Recife's Just Madá restaurant. So far these week we've concentrated on traditional Brazilian recipes featuring rice, but it's not just in such recipes that one finds rice featured - contemporary re-imaginings and new creations coming from Brazilian chefs also highlight the importance of rice in Brazil's diet.

This recipe takes as its starting point a traditional Brazilian dessert called cartola (the word means top hat) whose main ingredients are plantain bananas, cheese and cinnamon. In this recipe these ingredients are mixed with rice. Thes rice is then plated with a cilantro confit and topped with crispy slivers of Parma cheese to create a startlingly non-dessert, decidedly savory, cartola.
RECIPE - Top-hat Rice with Curly Parma Ham (Arroz de Cartola com Pixaim de Parma)
Serves 4

For the curly ham
1/2 lb (200 grams) thinly sliced Parma ham, cut into chiffonade

For the cilantro confit
1 small bunch cilantro, leaves only
1 small bunch green onion, green part only
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
salt to taste

For the broth
2 cups (1 liter) water
2 medium onions
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 stick cinnamon, about 1 in (2 cm) long
For the rice
1 cup (200 gr) white long-grain rice
6 oz mozzarella or Monterey Jack cheese, cut into small cubes
1/3 cup cachaça
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 plaintain, not overly ripe, cut into small cubes
powdered cinnamon to taste
To prepare the ham:
Heat an oven to 350F (180C). Place the shredded ham on a cookie sheet, separating the shreds as much as possible and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the ham is browned, crispy and curly. Let cool on cookie sheet and reserve

To prepare the cilantro confit:
Mix all the ingredients in a medium mixing bowl, using as much olive oil as desired to moisten the confit. Reserve.

To prepare the rice:
First, in a saucepan or stockpot combine the ingredients for the broth, bring quickly to the boil, reduce heat and reserve, keeping at the simmering point. In another saucepan, heat the oil, then add the chopped onion and garlic and saute briefly or until the onion is transparent but not browned. Stir in the rice and continue to saute until the rice becomes mostly transparent. Add the cachaça and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the cachaça evaporates. Add half of the broth, stir to mix completely and bring to the boil. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat, until all the broth is absorbed, then add more broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, making sure that the broth is absorbed before adding more. When most of the broth has been added, check for doneness of the rice - add more broth only if necessary. Stir in the cubes of cheese and plaintain and the cinnamon stick. Remove from heat, cover the pan and let stand for about 5 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and reserve.

To plate:
In each of four deep soup plates, spread one quarter of the confit on the bottom, then mound a quarter of the rice in the centre of the plate. Sprinkle lightly with cinnamon if desired, then top with the crispy ham. Serve immediately.

Recipe translated and adapted from Prazeres da Mesa magazine.