Brazilian dishes spiced by faraway lands
Quick! Name a classic Brazilian cookbook. Can you? Anyone? Neither could I, until recently. Brazil may be a paradise for tourists, but none ever seem to come back with recipes.
Even though most Brazilians would probably say their food is too diverse to pigeonhole, “The Brazilian Kitchen’’ is a solid first step toward codifying the national cuisine. In it, Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, a caterer and cooking teacher, chooses a representative selection of rough and savory but not especially spicy stews, starchy sides like yuca, rice, and plantain, and eggy sweets.
Schwartz was raised in Rio de Janeiro, moved to New York to go to the French Culinary Institute, and interned at Le Cirque 2000. She lives in Connecticut, where she teaches cooking and is married to an American.
With their repeating vocabulary of cilantro, lime, coconut milk, and dende oil (that’s red palm oil, which you can get at Asian groceries if you can’t find it elsewhere), Schwartz’s recipes are often eerily reminiscent of cuisines of the same latitude but continents away — Indonesia, West Africa, the curries of India and Thailand. Like these, Brazil’s foodways reflect centuries of native, colonial, and post-global intermingling.
Schwartz says curried chicken salad is especially popular in Brazil, though like other curried chicken salads, it feels like a descendant of the country-captain chicken of imperial India and our South. The technique is a little different. You boil down the curry, seasonings, and aromatics into a curried-onion paste, which spreads more effectively through the salad than sprinkling with yellow curry powder.
Fish stew or moqueca, a staple of northeast Brazil, surely has counterparts in the colonial past. It’s a full-bodied, garlicky seafood stew of the sort you might find near a Portuguese fish market (although it would probably not be made with palm oil, and it might be more vinegary).
If you’ve had Indonesian gado-gado stew, or West African maafe with groundnuts and tomatoes, you’ll recognize the basic elements of chicken, shrimp, peanut, and cashew stew, or xim xim de galinha. As in its international counterparts, xim xim’s gravy is the main attraction, rich, sweet, and filling, as only a nut-based stew can be.
No Brazilian cookbook would be complete without feijoada, the national dish. Simmered with oxtail, pork, and black turtle beans, it’s almost comically hearty, capable of serving a large family for two or three days.
We did have some vegetables, but the repertoire is not large. For roasted potatoes with bay leaves, you have to render chicken (or duck) fat, or buy some. The scent of fresh bay is strong and a fine complement. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself licking the leaves afterward.
A fine julienne of collard greens with onions makes an easy, go-with-everything weeknight green. Asparagus with shallot and parsley sauce, on the other hand, does just the opposite, playing dress-to-impress with bacon and Parmesan over peeled, blanched asparagus (you even use baking soda to keep the green bright).
Portuguese-style almond cake is a ground-nut confection, very moist, eggy, and sweet. The cooking time runs short by 10 minutes, but it’s not a fatal flaw. Everyone agreed the cake’s best eaten with creme fraiche, even my son, who can be counted on to despise any dairy product approaching the tartness of yogurt.
By the time our Brazilian week was over, we were all riding a bit low in the water, and no one in the family would have done justice to a bikini on the beaches of Rio. However, we found it easy to wash down such misgivings with a couple of caipirinhas (more or less a straight lime injection thinned with sugar-cane rum). And I suspect you will, too.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org