Sunday, December 30, 2012

RECIPE - Watermelon Caipirinha (Caipifruta de Melancia)

It's been a rough start to winter in Europe and North America recently, but Brazil is currently suffering one of its hottest and driest summers on record. This past Wednesday (26 December), Rio de Janeiro experienced its hottest day in almost a hundred years - since 1915 to be precise. The official temperature, as measured by the municipal weather department was 43.2 degrees celsius, which translates to 110 degrees fahrenheit. A friend of ours who lives in Rio reported that one of the large time-temperature signs on Rio's beachfront was reading 51F (or 124F) though he did say that the sign was in the sun. Whatever the official numbers were, it was a scorcher, and though the temperatures have moderated slightly in the past few days, these are Brazil's dog days.

At such extreme temperatures, nothing really relieves the heat, though air conditioning, fans, a dip in the sea and a cold drink all help. Brazilians love icy cold fruit drinks in the summer, and although alcohol doesn't really aid in heat relief, a splash of cachaça, Brazil's national spirit, is a traditional addition to fruit drinks.

The most traditional fruit employed is lime, and the most traditional cocktail is the caipirinha, which Flavors of Brazil has covered extensively in the past. But, increasingly, Brazilians are mixing up their fruits and creating new variations on the caipirinha theme. This one, from one of Brazil's best-selling food and wine magazines, swaps cubes of chilled watermelon (melancia in Portuguese) for the traditional lime.

One of the unique things about the caipirinha is that the whole fruit is used in the drink, not just juice. In this case, though the watermelon rind, thankfully, is not included, the cubes of watermelon are crushed in the glass and are not strained. The seeds make for a beautiful drink, and the pulp of the watermelon makes this a cooler that you can chew.

The drink requires a very ripe watermelon, so those readers of the blog who live in the Northern Hemisphere should probably wait until their summer arrives. Brazilians, Australians and other Southern Hemisphere residents can try one now, when the days are hottest and watermelons are ripest.
RECIPE - Watermelon Caipirinha (Caipifruta de Melancia)
Makes one drink

1/2 cup cubed ripe watermelon, chilled
2 oz. cachaça (can substitute vodka or white rum)
1 Tbsp granulated white sugar
1 tsp fresh-squeezed lime juice
cubed ice
In a cocktail shaker or large tumbler, combined the watermelon, cachaça, sugar and lime juice. Using a mortar or the handle of a large wooden spoon, cruch the watermelon cubes to release their juice, but don't completely liquify them - leave some small chunks of pulp.

Fill a large old-fashioned glass with ice, then pour the drink over. Do not strain the drink, leave the seeds and chunks of pulp in the drink.

Serve immediately.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

RECIPE - Polenta with Turkey Ragu and Mushrooms

Capixaba chef Sylvia Lis, using the Italian traditions of the mountainous interior of the state of Espírito Santo, combines left-over roast turkey with polenta and mushrooms to create an unusual and delicious lunch or dinner main course. The dish is based on Italian-immigrant traditions and is often served on December 25th (in Brazil, that's the day after the Christmas meal - not the 26th). Our previous post on Flavors of Brazil details the traditions surrounding this dish, this post will provide the recipe.
RECIPE - Polenta with Turkey Ragu and Mushrooms (Polenta com Ragu de Peru e Cogumelos)
Serves 6

For the ragu:
3/4 lb (300 gr) left-over turkey meat, shredded
1/3 lb (150 gr) mushrooms, shitake if possible, sliced
2 Tbsp finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 to 3 cups combined turkey broth (made from roast-turkey carcass) and left-over turkey gravy
2 sprigs fresh thyme
extra-virgin olive oil
salt to taste
finely chopped Italian parsley (for garnish)

For the polenta:
2 cups polenta
1 cup cold water
3 cups boiling water
1 Tbsp cream cheese
salt to taste
Prepare the ragu:
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil, then add the chopped onion and garlic. Cook for a minute or two, until the onion softens but doesn't brown. Add the sliced mushrooms and saute for a few minutes, tossing the mushroom slices frequently. Add the shredded turkey and the white wine. Bring the wine to a boil and cook for a few minutes, or until the wine thickens a bit. Add the turkey broth and gravy bit by bit, until you have a medium-thick rich sauce. Season to taste with salt if necessary. Reserve, keeping warm.

Prepare the polenta:
In a large saucepan, combine the polenta and the cold water, stirring and mixing until all the polenta becomes moistened. Add the boiling water and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and pulls away slightly from the edges of the pan. If necessary add more boiling water, in small amounts, to make sure the mixture doesn't become too thick - you want it to be just slightly soupy. It should be just pourable. Stir in the cream cheese, making sure it's completely mixed in, then season for salt.

Mounting the dish:
In a large deep rectangular or round serving dish, pour out the polenta. Using a ladle, spoon the turkey and mushroom ragu over the surface of the polenta, starting in the middle of the pan and working your way out to both ends. Sprinkle the ragu with chopped parsley and serve.

Christmas Leftovers - Espírito Santo-style

This post should by all rights have been published yesterday, at least if the majority of Flavors of Brazil's readers were in Brazil. The post is about day-after Christmas leftovers and what to do with them, and in Brazil the Christmas feast is eaten late in the evening on December 24th, not on December 25th. Consequently, it's on the 25th that Brazilian family cooks have to deal with leftovers.

However, most of our readers come from English-speaking countries, and in the majority of those countries, the Christmas feast comes to the table sometime on December 25th, and the leftover situation comes to the forefront only on the 26th. (We're not even going to get into the whole business of when Australia and New Zealand eat leftovers, there on the other side of the International Dateline.) In honor of those readers we've decided to use our post for today, call it Boxing Day if you want, to give our readers a bit of a lesson on what cooks in the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo often do, and to pass on the recipe if you want to duplicate their efforts at home.

The fertile and mountainous state of Espírito Santo is located on the southeast coast of Brazil, occupying the stretch of coast north of Rio de Janeiro state and south of Bahia. It's a state that has a long agricultural tradition and for centuries European immigrants who were farmers in the Old World have chosen to continue that path in Espírito Santo when they arrived in the New. Espírito Santo has a large number of citizens who can trace their ancestry back to Italy, and many of them are farmers or come from farming backgrounds. Espírito Santo has a large dairy industry and many of Brazil's Italian-style cheese come from that state.

As always, immigrants to Espírito Santo brought their food traditions with them, and the cuisine of the interior of the state, in particular, is heavily influenced by Italian foodways. Capixabas (the demonym for people who live in Espírito Santo) are like most Brazilians and usually eat turkey for Christmas, which isn't really an Italian tradition. But when the 26th rolls around, local cooks make sometime typically Italian out of the turkey they have on hand. They make a rich ragu with turkey and mushrooms and serve it with polenta. What could be more Italian than that?

In our next post, we'll provide the recipe for this delicious way to deal with excess turkey.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Brazil's Christmas Meal - Regional Variations

Just like North Americans do, most Brazilians eat turkey for their big Christmas celebration meal. That makes sense - after all the turkey is native to the Americas. In certain European cultures, goose is favored, or even salt cod - which also makes sense, as these foods have a long European tradition, but in the New World, turkey reigns supreme.

However, Brazilian Christmas isn't just about turkey. There are some other dishes that are equally traditional in Brazil, and which either are served alongside a turkey or instead of one. These traditional dishes vary from region to region in Brazil, which makes sense considering the huge geographical, climatic and cultural differences from region to region in this, the world's fifth largest and fifth most-populous nation.

This week, in the food section of the nationally-distributed newspaper Estado de S. Paulo, a number of well-known chefs from regions all around the country discussed what is traditional in their city, state or region, and provided recipes for some of the most popular regional Christmas dishes. In our next few posts, leading up to Christmas day, we'll detail some of these dishes and pass on the recipes to our readers. It's Flavors of Brazil's way of wishing our readers, who come from 220 different countries, a very Brazilian FELIZ NATAL!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

More Moonshine - Mocororó

Caju (cashew) fruit
Back in 2010, Flavors of Brazil published a post about a Brazilian drink called aluá, a lightly acoholic concoction made from pinapple peelings, sugar and water. (There's also a version made with soaked dried corn and recipes for both can be found here.) At the time we noted that aluá, which has a very long history, is particularly associated with tradional festivals - the festas juninas of Brazil's northeast, and the feasts that play an integral part in the ceremonies of the Bahian afro-brazilian religion Candomblé.

The folk traditions of northeastern Brazil also include another fruit-based alcoholic beverage, and this one is associated with specific folk rituals as well. The drink is called  mocororó, and drinking it is an important part of a folk dance in that region of the country called torém.

Both the drink, mocororó, and the dance, torém, have been traced back to pre-Columbian indigenous rituals, and both to this day carry connotations of Brazil's first inhabitants. Both are found throughout the northeastern part of Brazil, but are most closely associated to the traditions of the state of Ceará, where Flavors of Brazil is based.

Almost universally, primitive humankind has discovered ways to turn the sugars in fruit drinks into alcohol, and to imbibe the result for ritualistic use or purely for pleasure. Sweet drinks, left in the open air for a few days, become inbued with natural fermenting agents, primarily yeasts, and these agents transform the sugar in the drink into alcohol. What was once fruit juice becomes an alcoholic drink.

Humankind has long since learned how to help this natural process on its way, both by the artificial introduction of fermenting agents, and by the controlling the temperature of the drink so that it remains at a temperature conducive to fermentation. In the production of mocororó, Brazilian Amerindians left the introduction of fermenting agents to nature, but did lend a helping hand once fermentation had begun.

Mocororó is made from juice pressed from the caju fruit (the same fruit which gives us cashew nuts). The juice is left in the open air until fermentation starts, and then it is put into clay or glass containers. At this point, a very clever technique is used to enhance the fermentation process. The containers are buried in hot sand (which is easy to find along the coast and on riverbanks of Ceará) for up to six months. The sand ensures a perfect and consistent temperature for fermentation (and presumably also makes it less easy to "sample" the product before it's ready). After some time, the mocororó is dug up by which time it has quite an alcoholic punch.

 Mocororó is traditionally served in indigenous festivals and ceremonies in which the torém is danced. The Brazilian National Central of Folklore and Popular Culture describes the torém this way:
Group dance with participants of both sexes, who form themselves into a circle with a soloist in the center. It is a ritual dance of indigenous origin, whose participants imitate animals - like the jump of the mullet fish, the fight of raccoons, the song of the parakeet, the lunge of a snake. Shaking an aguiam, a type of maraca, the soloist advances and retreats, quivers, jumps and stamps his feet, often imitating the snake or the lizard, demonstrating his dexterity and flexibility. The other dancers mark the beat by stamping their feet and moving around the circle in a counter-clockwise direction. The music is sung by the soloist and repeated by the chorus of the other dancers. Mocororó is distributed during the dance  Prevalent in the state of Ceará, the torém is danced during the caju harvest season, on social occassions and when indigenous groups meet other tribes.

The drink has stayed close to its origins and there is no commercial production of mocororó in Brazil. As a result, Flavors of Brazil cannot comment on either its flavor nor its alcoholic strength. But we have our eye out for it, and should we ever come across any, we'll report back soon there after (as soon as we recover, that is).

Translation and adaptation of Portuguese text by Flavors of Brazil.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

PHOTOS - Brazil's Own Fleur du Sel - Flor de Sal

As detailed in our most recent post, Brazil's nascent flor de sal industry is centered on the northeastern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte. The state is blessed with the right climatic conditions for the formation of flor de sal crystals, as there is plenty of scorching sun and hot, drying winds. These conditions foster the growth of the salt crystals, but they also make for difficult and trying work. In intense heat and wind, workers harvest the delicate crystals from the surface of pools of hot brine. Flor de sal is a heavenly product that is produced in hellish conditions.

These photos, which come from the Paladar section of Brazil's Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, show both the beauty and the hellishness of flor de sal production. We thought our readers might enjoy seeing them. (Remember to click the photos to enlarge them to full size).

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Brazil's Own Fleur du Sel - Flor de Sal

flor de sel crystals
NaCl is the four-letter chemical recipe for salt, a mineral that is an essential component of human nutrition. A chemical compound of one ion of sodium (Na) and one of chlorine (Cl), salt is absolutely essential for animal life, though it can be harmful when consumed to excess. The table salt (also called halite) that most of us consume daily originates, at varying degrees of remove, in the world's seas, where the concentration of this compound is what makes sea water "salt water."

Rio Grande do Norte
Some salt comes from large underground mines, in areas which once were seas. Other salt is harvest directly from evaporated sea water. In Brazil, most of the salt consumed is obtained by this second method, and the large majority of it comes from the northeastern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte. What makes this small state such an important producer of salt? It's a combination of location and climate. Rio Grande do Norte sits on the western shore of the tropical South Atlantic Ocean, so there's plenty of the basic material of salt - salt water. And Rio Grande do Norte's climate, which for most of the year is hot, cloudlessly sunny and reliably windy makes for rapid and efficient evaporation of sea water. As they say in Rio Grande do Norte, salt practically makes itself here.

Most of the salt harvested in the region, whether for industrial use or for human consumption, is made by pumping salt water into large pools (called salinas in Portuguese) up to two meters deep and exposing it to the constant sun and wind, waiting for the water to evaporate and leave only the salt behind. The mineral is then harvesting and refining into the type of salt required by its intended use.

Until recently, in Brazil, salt intended for human consumption was refined for purity, then packaged and sold without differentiation or variety. But in Brazil, as in the rest of the world, in the past decade or so humans have begun to show an interest in unrefined or natural salts, in salts that reflect regional differentiations, and in salts with different crystalline formation. One of the most popular of these "gastronomic" salts is called fleur du sel, a French term meaning "flower of salt", though in Brazil is it translated into Portuguese as flor de sal.

Although imported French fleur du sel has been available for quite a few years in gastronomic emporia in Brazil's big cities, it's only been in the past four years, since 2008, that domestic Brazilian flor de sal has become available, and it's only now that it's becoming widely available. All of that flor de sal comes from Rio Grande do Norte.

The term fleur du sel refers to a specific crystalline formation of salt, one that has a characteristic lightness and crunch and one that is suitable for garnishing a dish at the last minute or for a dish in which the cook wants only a part of the dish to be salty. The technique of making fleur du sel originated in Brittany, in France as much as a millennium ago, and it is this ancient technique which today produces Brazil's own flor de sal. Water is pumped into a series of pools, and as it evaporates, it is moved from pool to pool, becoming more concentrated with each step. When the water finally becomes a super-concentrated brine, and only under perfect climatic conditions of abundant sun, heat and wind, a fine web of hollow salt crystals forms on the surface of the brine and can be cafeully scooped from the surface. This is flor de sal. Formed of fragile, hollow, light crystals, flor de sal is pure salt in its most delicate  natural form. The hollowness of the crystals is what gives flor de sal its typical crunch and what differentiates it from garden-variety salt.

Making flor de sal is difficult, hot, backbreaking work, and it depends on perfect weather conditions - if there isn't enough wind, or there are passing clouds, the crystals won't form on the surface of the water. So in Brazil, as elsewhere, flor de sal is significantly more expensive than table salt. However, since production commenced four years ago, Brazilian consumer acceptance of flor de sal has grown every year, and today there are three firms producing it in Rio Grande do Norte and selling it throughout the country. Today the market is purely domestic, but there are plans to increase production and develop the export market for Brazilian flor de sal. The potential for growth in this industry is enormous, as Rio Grande do Norte is blessed with all the ingredients for making flor de sal. Some other locations, such as the world's large deserts, have plenty of sun and wind - it's the water they are lacking. Others, like Pacific Islands, have all the salt water they can handle, but are too cloudy or humid for the crystals to form. When it comes to flor de sal, Rio Grande do Norte, apparently, has it all.

With material translated and adapted from Paladar, Estado do S. Paulo newspaper.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

INGREDIENTS OF BRAZIL - Feijão Manteiga (Butter Beans)

If the Lord's Prayer were colloquially translated into Brazilian Portuguese, those who recited it wouldn't ask for their "daily bread" but rather for their "daily rice and beans." In the biblical prayer bread represents the food required to sustain the body, and for millions of Brazilians, rich or poor, it's not bread that they eat every day of their life, it's rice and beans.

The beans that Brazilians eat on a daily basis are not, of course, green beans. They are dried legumes that have been reconstituted and cooked in liquid until tender. In fact, Brazilians don't even use the word feijão (which means bean) when referring to green beans. They have another word, vargem, for this vegetable and don't consider it a bean at all. Beans mean dried beans, full stop.

There are numerous varieties of dried beans eaten in Brazil, ranging from black beans to white ones, and from large kidney beans to small pea-shaped varieties. The choice of bean is often regional, and most people in Brazil do not eat one type of bean on Monday, another on Tuesday, etc. The bean they eat is always the same. If a Brazilian was raised on black beans, that's likely all he or she eats, and if it was carioca beans served at the family table, that'll be the bean of choice forever.

One bean that is very strictly regional is called feijão manteiga, which translated literally into English means butter bean. However, the bean is not the same as the lima bean, which is called butter bean in many regions of the USA. That bean is called feijão-de-lima in Brazil. The bean on which Brazilians have bestowed the moniker feijão manteiga is a medium-size, light brown bean about the size and shape of a pinto bean, but without the mottling that gives that bean its name.

The Brazilian butter bean is well-named, for it has a rich creaminess when properly cooked, and this richness gives it the mouth feel of butter, though there is almost no fat in the bean. The taste is also characteristically nutty with a hint of sweetness. It's one of the most flavorful and delicious of all the thousands of varieties of dried beans.

Feijão manteiga is eaten primarily in Brazil's north and northeast, and in the state of  São Paulo, and is not well known in other regions of the country.

In the next post on Flavors of Brazil, we'll publish a traditional recipe from São Paulo for this delicious legume.