The national dish of Brazil is undoubtedly feijoada (fay-zho-AH-da), a thick stew of black beans and a variety of pork meats. Feijoada represents the blend of cultures that is Brazil.
As a cook, I always like to learn more about unfamiliar foods. When a real opportunity presents itself to immerse myself in the food of another country, for example, I want to jump right in. And I now have a great excuse to explore a different international food culture -- my beautiful Brazilian daughter-in-law, Juliana. She recently served me my first home-cooked Brazilian meal -- straight from São Paulo. And it was tons of fun, informative and delicious.
When I think of Brazil, many colorful images come to mind. Lush rain forests with the Amazon winding its way through the jungle. Remote tribes still practicing ancient ways. Small primitive villages and giant modern cities. Girls in bikinis on the beach in Rio. Samba music. Jazz greats Gilberto and Getz performing "The Girl from Ipanema."
Back when I lived near Washington, D.C., there were several Brazilian restaurants, all focused on serving massive quantities of a variety of grilled meats. But the truth is, this is not the way Brazilians eat in their homes. Everyday Brazilian food reflects the history of each family, its customs and traditions. It features stews, fruits, vegetables and meats that say "comfort food" to that particular household. Wanting to understand Juliana's culture and upbringing led me to explore the unique flavors and ingredients of Brazilian cuisine.
Because of the distinctive melting pot that is Brazil's population, traditional Brazilian foods have been influenced by numerous groups. Unlike the rest of South America, Portuguese, not Spanish, is spoken in Brazil. The Portuguese colonized the nation in the 16th century and brought their language and key foods with them. Eventually, Portuguese foods blended with Native, African, Spanish and Arabic ingredients, and Brazilian cuisine evolved into an unexpectedly exotic and inclusive fare.
The national dish of Brazil is undoubtedly feijoada (fay-zho-AH-da), a thick stew of black beans and a variety of pork meats. Feijoada represents the blend of cultures that is Brazil. In this distinct melting pot dish, the basic main ingredient -- bean stew --came from the African slaves. The sausages and meats were the culinary contribution of the Portuguese. And cassava flour (also known as manioc), ground from starchy tubers, is associated with the the Native Indians of the Amazon.
Feijoada originally was a substantial and nutritious food prepared to feed a great many workers because it was inexpensive. Historically, it was made from unwanted scraps from the landowner's kitchen, such as pig snouts, ears, tails and feet stewed together with beans. But the stew has evolved over time to feature sausages, and smoked, dried and lean meats.
Today, there are probably as many recipes for feijoada as there are Brazilian families. Very popular as a celebratory dish, feijoada is the key part of a feast for festive gatherings. And as I've come to know, Brazilians need no excuse to celebrate life!
Feijoada is almost universally served with white rice, sautéed greens with plenty of garlic, a tangy refreshing salad of hearts of palm, tomatoes and onions called vinaigrette, and a dish of dry fried cassava, bacon and eggs called farofa (pronounced fah-ROH-fah.) Each of these accompaniments enhances the stew with a marvelous combination of unaccustomed, yet delectable flavors.
Once I got the beans and meats for feijoada into the pot and on the stove, I had plenty of time to explore these side dishes. I began by checking in with Juliana, who imparted the basic recipe for vinaigrette -- plenty of onions, tomatoes, hearts of palm and vinegar -- but told me the proportions are entirely up to my own taste. So in my version, I cut down just a bit on the onions and added more tomatoes. The vinaigrette came out perfectly, a tangy concoction reminiscent of pico de gallo.
The key side dish to this meal, farofa, originally seemed dry and gritty to me, but that's because I was not used to it and didn't really know how to eat it, either. Juliana clarified that farofa must be mixed with the bean stew as an accent when served, not eaten alone. Interestingly, cassava, the primary ingredient in farofa, is a major staple food across the world. It is the main source of carbohydrates for over a billion people. As I investigated several versions of this Brazilian dish, I ran across one that included raisins and bananas to go along with the bacon and eggs. My daughter-in-law was a bit shocked by my addition of the raisins and bananas -- although she had had it once with plantains -- but I thought the subtle tropical flavor was wonderfully compatible.
Sautéed greens with garlic are easy enough. Although collards are traditional in Brazil, I substituted spinach and found it to be satisfactory. When served with the stew, the sautéed greens, vinaigrette, steamed rice and farofa make a delightful medley.
If feijoada is the national main course dish of Brazil, pão de queijo (pronounced pan-ji-KAY-zho) is the national snack. Enjoyed by most Brazilians at breakfast with coffee, or as an anytime nosh, pão de queijo is a chewy cheese puff baked in large and small sizes. Pão de queijo is very simple to prepare -- all the ingredients are simply combined in a blender and then baked in muffin pans. I make it often to serve as an appetizer. The recipe makes a deliciously large quantity when you make them in mini-muffin tins. And the good news is that if you don't eat up all the puffs in one sitting -- very easy to do! -- you can freeze them to enjoy another day.
As for dessert, I discovered that tropical fruit is the main ingredient in Brazilian puddings, cakes, custards and sweets. I conveniently had a bottle of pure, unsweetened passion fruit juice on hand, brought to me as a cook's gift from Hawaii by some friends. The passion fruit juice and the other ingredients whipped up beautifully into a velvety mousse called mousse de maracujá. As it happened, and to my delight, Juliana said it was her favorite. I know I'll be making it again.
So if you're wanting to explore an authentic South American cuisine, try making feijoada with all the trimmings. You'll be cooking for days, but the results are worth the effort. And don't forget to listen to some samba music while you're at it! I highly recommend "The Girl from Ipanema."
Pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese puffs)
This is the basic traditional recipe. You may vary it by adding garlic or herbs if you wish.
1/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup milk
1-1/2 cups tapioca flour
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
24-cup mini-muffin pan
Olive oil for brushing
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush muffin pan cups with olive oil.
Add all the ingredients to a blender and pulse until smooth. You may need to scrape down the sides with a spatula several times to blend completely.
Scrape batter into a medium bowl or measuring cup. Using a gelato scoop, scoop batter evenly into each cup. The batter should come up to about 1/8 inch below the top.
Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, turning the pan halfway through, until puffy and just lightly browned. Remove from oven and remove to rack to cool for a few minutes.
Eat while warm. You can also reheat later for 5 minutes or so.
If you wish to make ahead and freeze, cool completely before storing in plastic bags in the freezer. Reheat for 10-15 minutes from frozen or 5-8 minutes defrosted.
Batter can be made ahead and kept refrigerated for about a week.
Note: Brazilian cheese puffs are very chewy.
4 slices thick smoked bacon
1 large onion
8 cloves garlic, crushed
8 ounces chorizo, linguica or andouille sausage
8 ounces smoked pork
8 ounces smoked ham (such as Tasso)
8 ounces pork loin
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried coriander
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 quart chicken broth
1 pound black beans, soaked overnight
Dice the bacon and cook in a heavy dutch oven over medium heat until crispy. Scoop the bacon out with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add the onion to the bacon fat in the pot, and cook until softened. Leave the meats in whole pieces and add to the pot, browning for a few minutes. Add the bay leaves, coriander, salt, pepper, vinegar and chicken broth. Scrape the bottom of the pan to dissolve the brown bits.
Add the black beans and enough water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 4 hours. Add more water if the mixture becomes dry. There should always be enough water to cover the beans.
When the beans are tender, remove meats using a tongs. Allow to cool enough to handle and place on a cutting board. Slice the sausage into 1/2 inch rounds. Cut the smoked pork, smoked ham and pork loin into small pieces, about 1/2 inch to an inch.
Return the meats to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1-2 hours more. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Serve in bowls or deep plates surrounded by steamed white rice, farofa, garlic greens and vinaigrette salad.
Traditional garnishes include chopped cilantro, chopped green onions and sliced oranges.
2 cups cassava flour (also known as manioc)
4 slices smoked bacon, diced
4 tablespoons stick butter
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and diced
1/2 cup raisins
1 large banana, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large skillet, toast the cassava flour over very low heat, stirring constantly with a spatula. When it changes color to amber, remove from heat. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
Cook the bacon in the same skillet until crispy. Add the butter and reduce heat to low. Stir well to deglaze pan, then add the cassava flour. Stir again to combine the flour with the butter, bacon fat and bacon. It should resemble a crumb topping.
Add the raisins and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the eggs and bananas, and toss gently.
Serve on the side of feijoada along with garlic greens and Brazilian vinaigrette salad.
Brazilian vinaigrette salad
1 can hearts of palm, drained and sliced
1/2 cup sliced sweet onion (such as Vidalia)
3-4 ripe tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-4 tablespoons red wine vinegar to taste
2 tablespoons lime juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients, adjusting amounts to taste. You really can't go wrong with this salad, as all amounts depend on your personal preferences.
Brazilian garlic greens
2 10-ounce bags frozen collard greens or spinach
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the oil over medium high heat, and add the garlic. Cook for 10 seconds. Add the frozen greens and reduce heat to medium low. Cook until the greens are completely defrosted. Turn up the heat and cook until wilted and most of the liquid is evaporated.
Serve to the side of feijoada with farofa and Brazilian vinaigrette salad.
Brazilian mousse de maracujá (passion fruit mousse)
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
2 7.5-ounce cans media crema (canned table cream)
2 cups passion fruit concentrate or pure passion fruit juice* (see Note)
Best to make in batches using half the ingredients for each batch:
Pour half the passion fruit concentrate or juice into a blender or food processor. Add the sweetened condensed milk and the table cream from one each of the cans. Blend until smooth, scraping the sides if needed with a rubber spatula. Pour into a large bowl, and repeat with the remaining ingredients. Whisk to combine the two half recipes.
Using a ladle, pour about 1/2 cup passion fruit mixture into 8-10 ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight until firm.
Sprinkle with a few passion fruit seeds, if available, and a squirt of whipped cream.
* Note: If you are unable to find passion fruit concentrate or juice, you may easily find it online. Or substitute mango juice or pureed ripe mango instead. However, if you use mango, I recommend adding a tablespoon of lime juice to mimic the tartness of the passion fruit.
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