24 April 2009

Quail eggs!

Ok, so I know quail eggs are found all over the world and not just in Brazil, but here they are very popular. "Ovos de cordorna," like all eggs that come from the small bird who comes from the pheasant family, they are like miniature, brown-camouflage versions of chicken ones, with an inner shell that is a slightly lighter robin-egg, light blue color.

The taste is equatable to that of a hen's egg, but I think is richer in flavor. P.S., throughout most of Latin America one does not find eggs in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Instead, they are located on a shelf, at room temperature, and in my opinion, allows for a more consistant, farm-fresh taste. I have never heard of people getting sick from eggs kept this way, as long as they are consumed by the validation date.

I find them easiest to eat soft or hard boiled simply because it is less shell-removing work than say trying to make a scramble. Esthetically, you also cannot help but prefer a tiny hard-boiled, Easter egg-coloring-gone-marbled egg, to the boring white kind, right? I also think a quail's feathers and headress are quite chique. A nice, natural closure to the poor-quality chocolate/marshmallow/hyper-color dyed/ubber-sugary style egg holiday that just passed! Happy post-Easter!

23 April 2009

To the juice bar...home again, home again, giggidy, gig

A mini-holiday in Rio de Janeiro allows for me to elaborate on the somewhat limited selections that I have in my charming, yet out-in-the-country, town of Paraty. For dinner one night we went to a lanchonete (lahn-shoh-neh-chee) which is a juice bar/sandwich/sometimes hot food shop. This particularly yummy one named "NaturalPolis" (a take on Brazilian cities with suffixes reminiscent of European languages that once were spoken here in the southeast of the country like Petropólis and Florianópolis) in the fashionable Leblon neighborhood. As you can see by the list on the left of fresh fruits available to blend into juice, there is no shortage of choices here! Some of my best-loved are "melancia" (watermelon), "caqui" (persimmon), "graviola" (a squishy, white-fleshed fruit encased in a soft, green, notched skin and called guanábana in Spanish, guyabano in the Philippines, and soursop in English, though I had never heard of or seen this fruit before living in the tropics...and one of my all-time favorites-first photo below, left), "fruta do conde" (also called "pinha" in Brazil or sugar-apple in English and grows in tropical regions with a flavor similar to graviola, only in a smaller version-second photo below), and "cacau" (the slimy/sweet insides of the cocoa pod that cradles the seeds that chocolate is made from-second row, left). Other popular selections are "acerola" (red cherry look-alike, and one of the most concentrated sources of vitamin C from Mother Nature-next to cacau), "pitanga" (a kind of peppery, tart, fluted-looking berry-third row, left photo), "cajú" (the fruit of the cashew tree that has the nut attached to the top of the fruit and must be roasted before consumed to clear it of toxicity-next photo) and "cupuaçu" (super-healthy pod from the Amazon that is related to cacau-last photo).

You can have your liquid health mixed with water or milk (occationally soy milk), sweetened or sugar-free, and with optional add-ins like oats, other powered grains or milk, and chocolate vitamin powder (think Nesquick).

On this night I selected, for me, one of the greatest discoveries in the world of fruit-jaca (zha-ka)! Known also as jackfruit, is the largest tree-borne fruit on earth and can reach a weight of up to 80 pounds! The outside armor is a bit intimidating, with its gree spines and sour smell, but just crack it open and see a beauty come out of the beast. The edible parts, which resemble little bouquets, taste like perfumed flowers mixed with pears...or something like that! The first time I sampled jaca was when I was traveling through the north of Brazil and stayed at a little bed & breakfast in the state of Bahia. We were served this with our coffee and our tapioca "bread" and I immediately fell in love! I had never seen jaca as a juice before and was eager to give it a whirl. Delicious!!

Lanchonetes also serve an assortment of food, though usually of the pocket sandwich (called salgados, pre-made and kept warm in glass cases for the customer to see...good if fresh, food poisoning territory if old) or bread-and-cold meat varieties. Sometimes made-to-order, hot foods are also an option. Most contain grilled or breaded beef or chicken, ham, eggs, or cheese, rice, beans (I prefer black), French fries, and salad (almost unanimously consisting of lettuce and sliced tomatoes, sometimes onions and carrots, and palm hearts if you are really lucky). Hamburgers are also a Brazilian staple, though few here know that they were not a Brazilian invention. Sadly, you will never find pickles on the side!
I got a chicken-salad sandwich on warm, salty-buttered bread with shredded carrots and corn (and I think fresh parsley) mixed in...can it get much better than that!

11 April 2009

Easter week begins...let's see how much sugar we can eat!

Throughout Brazil, large, window-box like carts filled to the brim with homemade desserts are parked on street corners, ready to satisfy every kind of sweet tooth. The one I like to frequent is run by a gorgeous, young man with a cheek-to-cheek smile named Ueslei (ooh-es-lee), which is the Brazilian spelling of Wesley. He sets up shop every evening (weather permitting) in our colonial town's historical center and sells each sweet for $2.50 reais (less than $1.25 US dollars). Once a customer selects the goodie they want, he cuts it from its original baking pan, scoops it out with a metal spatula (easier said than done with some, like the toasted coconut-turned solid block one with a toffee-consistency), places it on a paper napkin, and if desired, drenches it in condensed milk (a favorite icing throughout Latin America). Let's take a look at what he has to offer!

Starting with the first photo on the left, the little chocolate balls at the bottom are called "Brigadeiro" (bree-ga-dair-oh). According to Wikipedia, the candy was created in the 1940's after "Eduardo Gomes, a Brazilian Air Force brigadier who first gained notoriety for playing a part in quashing a communist coup attempt in Rio de Janeiro. Later he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1946 and 1950. This was a time of shortage of traditional imports such as nuts and fruits because of the war. But, at the same time, Nestlé was introducing its chocolate powder and condensed milk (known popularly as Leite Moça) in the country." Add a lot of butter and coat in some chocolate sprinkles and you have a truffle-like winner.

Next is an orange-shaded maracujá (passion fruit) tart, complete with the fruit's black seeds on top as decoration. In the next photo is a lime version of the tart. It is amazing how light and fluffy this one is despite being primarily made of heavy cream!

On to a local favorite, pé-de-moleque (pay-dgee-mo-lekee) or "street-boy's foot". Again from Wikipedia, here is the origin of the name. "Certain streets in Brazil were made by laying down various odd rocks in a loose layer of sand/dirt, and having street-boys stomp on them to flatten the surface. Streets made by this method came to be called 'pé-de-moleque.' The appearance of the peanuts stuck together by molasses was found to be similar to that of these types of streets, and so, the sweet took the same name." Here in Paraty, our streets are famous for their imported Portuguese stones that make up the quaint, better-keep-your-eyes-on-the-ground-or-you'll-trip-and-fall-on-your-face cobblestones of the streets in the old part of town. Apparently this same dessert is found in parts of India by the name "chikki." Ok, so that is a great name too, but not as funny as the Brazilian one!

Then we see pudim de aipim e coco, or yucca/cassava and coconut pudding. This hearty, moist, baked dessert combines two favorites of mine: the South American (though it is found throughout tropical cultures) root vegetable and coconut!

Above left, are two more sugary coconut dishes. First is cuzcuz (pronounced like the northern African grain, couscous, and possibly takes its name from the influence of immigrants in Brazil from that region). Though normally found sweet, cuzcuz is made from manioc root and can be made into savory recipes with chicken and vegetables also. This one here is gummy and spongy and not as loaded with sugar, so is a popular candidate for condensed milk as a topping. Next to the cuzcuz is what is named "quebra-queixo", or "jawbreaker!" This is the one that I described earlier that is impossible to cut. I understand the name since trying to bite and chew through the toasted, shredded coconut glued together with caramelized sugar, definitely takes dedication, and good teeth!

The second photo is another type of pudding baked in the oven called "Italian cassarole," made from cheese and coconut...are you kidding...delicious!

My choice on this day is tapioca pudding covered with a caramel sauce. Tapioca in Brazil is not like the spoonable kind in a bowl found in the US. In fact, in the northeast of the country tapioca is common as a both a meal, and a dessert. There the manioc flour from which it comes is formed into a batter that is pan-fried like a crepe, and filled with ingredients ranging from shrimp or beef with cheese, to chocolate, coconut, guava paste and/or banana blanketed with, you guessed it, cheese! Here in the Southeast, tapioca is usually found in a thicker, square form like you see below. Check out the bite mark in the right-hand photo. That is how dense it is, despite still being able to soak-up all that caramel "broth" as it is described in Portuguese. It also retains the texture of "spider eggs" as we used to call them as kids.

Ok, I am officially worn out after my sugar rush and need a nap! I'll be back later with more sweet treats, only this time with more chocolate, Brazilian Easter egg-style! Tchau! (tch-ow) (Ciao) (Bye)

09 April 2009

Autumn in Brazil...time to eat pine trees!

Ok, so I'm not talking about eating the tree itself; just the kernel. The nuts of the pine tree are eaten around the world and the varieties that grown here in southeastern Brazil are no exception. Most people think of Brazil and imagine palm trees, not pine trees. The species that grow here are only up in the mountains where the elevation allows for cooler, drier temperatures. Some cultures say pine nuts bring fertility, prosperity, and have aphrodisiac powers. Who knows. What I do know is that they are tasty!
The kind here, called a pinhão (peeng-yow) or pinhões when there is more than one, are larger than say the ones made famous in Italy and essential for basil pesto. They are usually about 1 1/2 - 3 inches long, encased in a hard, coffee-brown shell and edible only after a good amount of cooking. Most locals stick them in a pressure cooker, but as I am not confident with the unpredictability of a pot on the stove containing the equivalent of a steam-powered engine under its lid, so I prefer the old-fashioned boil-till-it's-done method. The ones in the above photo are already cooked. They were kept in lightly salted, boiling water for about an hour on the stove and eaten warm as it is easier to peel open the layers that way. Most people here use their teeth to crack the casing and squeeze out the innards, but I think my dentist would advise against that. The smell was fantastic too and I did a make-sift, vapor facial afterwards with the scented water. Getting at the fruit of the tree requires as much dedication as eating an artichoke does, but worth the effort to get at the good stuff inside. I though was the kind of kid that would spend hours in front the fireplace hand cracking walnuts and pecans, using a pick to get out every last soft morsel.
So what do they taste like? It is kind of like a cross between a sugarless date and a slightly sweet potato, with an undercurrent of Christmas tree thrown in for good measure. It has a firm, kind of grainy texture but not with the oily residue of other nuts. I made my own version of pesto with these pinhões and it came out great! Tis' the season!