Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Week 29: A Journey to Brazil

Ah, Brazilian cuisine.  Until this week, my idea of a Brazilian dinner was limited to grilled meat and caipirinhas.  Of course, that is a Brazilian meal well worth its hype, but I knew there would be more dishes to discover from a country with so many European and African influences, a vast Atlantic coastline, the Amazon River covering almost half of its land, and topography from sea level to mountains averaging heights of 6500 ft. which is more than double the average heights of the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern United States.  With this in mind, I focused on dishes that emphasize Brazil’s local ingredients, illustrate its influences, and highlight its unique approach to typical South American fare.

Wednesday Night Dinner:  Caruru de Camarao
Caruru de Camarao is a stew featuring shrimp and okra.  This traditional dish from the Bahia region, a coastal state, includes many native ingredients and demonstrates a significant African influence.  I find it impossible to describe the origins of this dish without recognizing the history of slavery in Brazil.  In the early sixteenth century, Brazil obtained over three million slaves, more than 38% of all African slaves, primarily to work in its mines and on its sugarcane plantations.  (In comparison, the United States obtained approximately 645,000.)  Most of the slaves were processed through Bahia, and incidentally, Bahia was the site of an extremely influential slave rebellion in 1835.  With such a strong African presence, dishes like Caruru De Camarrao are bound to appear. 

Caruru de Camarao
After having just completed a week of Senegalese cuisine, I suppose my radar for African-influenced dishes was more acute than usual, but as I researched traditional ingredients for Caruru de Camarao, I was fascinated by the dish’s ability to cross cultures with such ease.  Here’s a quick ingredient summary:  shrimp, lime juice, palm oil, onion, garlic, bell pepper, tomatoes, scallions, cilantro, ginger, okra, dried shrimp, natural peanut butter, and coconut milk.  Without a “Brazilian” label, this recipe could easily be construed as African, Southeast Asian, or South American cuisine.  Because its origins lie in Brazil, I made it and celebrated it as a Brazilian dish. 

I found a recipe and a great explanation about the history of the dish in The South American Table: The Flavor and Soul of Authentic Home Cooking fromPatagonia to Rio de Janeiro written by Maria Baez Kijac.  Traditionally, the dish is served in celebration of twins, and since I am from a family of twins, this appealed to me as much as the dish.  (My mom is a twin, and my sisters are twins.)  Here’s an excerpt from the book about the dish:

“Caruru is a tradition dish of Bahia, usually served in honor of the ‘twin saints,’ Cosme and Damian.  Familes with twins invite friends and neighbors to celebrate the feast of the twin saints, which takes place in September.  This custom, called ‘caruru of the two-two,’ features a large platter of caruru.”

In all honesty, I would make this dish in celebration of anyone.  I loved it!  One of my favorite Thai indulgences is Panang Curry, and the flavors and textures in this dish remind me of Shrimp Panang.  Interestingly, I read that peanuts are sometimes substituted with coarse manioc flour depending on which ingredient is more readily available in an area.  Although I’m sure the dish is still nice with manioc, I doubt it has the same rich and flavorful qualities as with ground peanuts. 

Saturday Afternoon Lunch:  Empadinhas de Palmito
Empadinhas de Palmito
Hearts of Palm is a popular ingredient in Brazil.  In addition to its typical uses in salads, Brazilians also incorporate it into soups, pizzas (typically a combination of arugula and hearts of palm), and empanadas.  Interestingly, Brazilian empanadas are not folded over like turnovers; instead, they are similar to mini pot pies.  For my lunch, I made a recipe with a filling of hearts of palm, onions, bacon, black olives, and queijo minas, which is a Brazilian farmer’s cheese.  They were quite delicious, but of course, anything with that combination of ingredients should be.  I struggled a bit with my pastry though.  I think the dough needed to rest for a little longer, and I ended up overworking some of it for my last few pies.  The ones pictured were my best examples, but most importantly, they all tasted great.

I must say that I hadn’t really thought about using hearts of palm in anything other than salads, and now I am considering new opportunities to incorporate them into other dishes…. pasta with a lemon and olive oil, sautéed with onions as a relish for fish tacos, or even grilled and served on a roll with arugula, piquillo peppers, and fresh ricotta.

Saturday Night:  Brazilian Steakhouse Dinner
When planning for this project, I attempt to create menus that challenge me in at least one manner.  Sometimes, I look for interesting new flavor combinations, and other times I choose to make something because it includes an ingredient that is new to my kitchen.  At first, opting for a steak dinner felt a little like cheating on the project, because steak dinner is our house specialty.  (Seriously, our go-to dinner for guests is steak, horseradish mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and either flourless chocolate cake or homemade ice cream.  It’s also our favorite dinner on a weekend night that we just want to chill and not think about anything.  No recipes. No fuss.  We just shop and cook.)  On the flip-side of that argument, not having a steak dinner seemed like a miss, too, so I challenged myself to create a Brazilian-style Steak Dinner like none that we had ever cooked at home.

I began my Saturday morning with a visit to a local Brazilian market in search of a few special items for our steakhouse dinner.  When I arrived at Mercado Brasil near Dadeland in Miami, I must admit that I did not think it looked promising; however, looks can be deceiving.  I found everything I needed at that little market:  picanha, linguica calabresa, and manioc flour.

Grilled Linguica Calabresa
Linguica calabresa is a smoked sausage which originated in Italy.  The Portuguese use this sausage in many dishes, and they brought it to Brazil.  It is incorporated in Brazil's most popular dish, feijoada, along with at least six other cuts of meat.  I purchased some to incorporate in the beans I cooked for this dinner, which meant extras!  We grilled them and topped them with a thin slice of mild cheddar cheese for a great pre-dinner snack.

Brazil’s most popular cut of steak is picanha, or the top sirloin cap.  Typically, the meat is roasted whole on a spit, but it is sometimes grilled in thick pieces over direct heat.  I purchased the smallest one I could find (2.5 pounds) and followed Stephen Raichlen’s instructions in Planet BBQ for grilling the thick slices with only salt for seasoning.  The results were incredible.  We grilled each piece fat side down first for about four minutes in order to crisp it, and then we grilled each side for two minutes and the bottom for two minutes.  I am still in awe of the amount of flavor this cut of steak imparted from its fat.  Absolutely delicious!  Of course, we had leftovers for two days because this cut is anything but small, but I never complain about leftovers like these.

Grilled Picanha, Farofa, Rice, and Beans
As with most South American countries, rice and beans is a mainstay of the Brazilian diet.  I decided to include them with my steak dinner if, and only if, I could find a recipe with a real Brazilian perspective.  Fortunately, I discovered exactly what I needed on blue kitchen’s blog post, “Direct from the source: Brazilian Rice and Beans.”  This post from January 2007 features Brazilian food blogger Patricia Scarpin’s recipe for authentic Brazilian Rice and Beans.  I highly recommend trying out this recipe.  No joke...the hubs asked me if there were more beans in the kitchen when he still had steak on his plate.  That says it all!  In all fairness, we are Southerners, and this recipe for Brazilian beans is very similar to traditional Southern pinto beans, minus the red chile, cumin, and bay leaf.  Maybe we are just predisposed to liking these beans.  Either way, they were a hit!  I made the recipe as directed, except I made them in a dutch oven.  I used linguica calabresa, instead of bacon, because I felt like it added a bit more Brazilian authenticity to the dish, plus it gave me an excuse to buy linguica calabresa for a our pre-dinner bites.  This dish offered a welcomed change from our usual mashed potatoes with steak, and I will definitely make it again.

One ingredient that recurs constantly in Brazilian cuisine is Manioc Flour (also called cassava flour, tapioca flour, and yucca flour).  Farofa is a side dish of toasted coarsely ground Manioc flour typically served with grilled meats.  The idea is to let the juices from the grilled meats soak into the farofa.  In its most simplistic form, it is made by toasting coarsely ground manioc flour in butter (or lard) and salt.  I also found recipes with additions of meat, peppers, and onions.  I made it by melting butter in a cast iron skillet, adding salt, and then adding the flour until it looked like the “fluffy” mixture I saw in pictures.  (For me, that ratio was about 3 tbsp of butter to 2/3 cup flour.)  On its own, the farofa tasted like salty, buttery bread crumbs; however, when mixed with a bite of steak or rice and beans, it added a complementary layer of seasoning and texture that elevated those dishes.  It’s one of those dishes that tastes better with each bite.

For dessert, I planned to serve Brazil’s simple Romeu e Julieta, a slice of quiejo minas and a slice of guava paste.  Alas, we ate so much steak that we could not even fathom eating dessert.  Another day!

Sunday Morning:  Pao de Queijo
Pao de Queijo
I couldn’t resist making a fresh batch of homemade Brazilian Cheese bread for Sunday morning’s breakfast.  Our house smelled like butter for three or four hours after I made these rich little rolls.  I made them with quiejo minas and sour manioc flour.  They were not as fluffy as I expected, and I think that is because I should’ve used finely ground flour.  None of the recipes I found online designated the grind of flour, and when I found a bag of coarsely ground sour manioc flour at the Brazilian market with a recipe for these on it, I assumed that this would be the right choice.  Next time, I’ll try it with finer flour, and I think I will achieve a lighter texture.

I really enjoyed this week of discovering Brazilian cuisine.  I love an opportunity to seek out a new market in the city, and I will definitely return to Mercado Brasil for future needs.  The caruru provided a perfect transition from the previous week’s Senegalese cuisine to Brazilian cuisine.  I have a new found obsession for incorporating hearts of palm into more dishes.  Most significantly, I discovered an amazing new approach to “steak night” at home and an incredible recipe for rice and beans.  A definite week to savor!

1 comment:

  1. Nice, nice post! Glad you and "the hubs" liked Patricia's Brazilian rice and beans. And I love the adventurous idea behind your blog.