Brazil is unique — it is the sixth-largest country in population, and the fifth largest in size, and it is the only country in North or South America where the official language is Portuguese.
The Portuguese influence is only part of the country’s culinary charms. The indigenous people who were colonized by Portugal in 1500 still leave their mark on some of the food, and so do the many slaves from Africa who were brought in for 200 years to work on the sugar plantations.
It is a history much like our own, and the food that resulted from this forced and often unhappy blending of cultures is wonderful.
I took a tour of the foods of Brazil with help from a friend, who spent her childhood there. I asked what her favorite dishes were, she told me and then I made them.
You can, too. There is a whole world of flavor that awaits.
I began with a true delight, an appetizer called Pão de Queijo. Also known as Brazilian Cheese Bread, these are essentially the Brazilian version of French gougeres, those delectable cheese puffs that are the hit of every party.
Pão de Queijo are the same — same idea, same cooking method — with one big difference. Instead of wheat flour, they are made from tapioca flour. Cassava, which is what tapioca comes from, is native to South America and grows easily there.
The tapioca flour makes for a crispier texture on the outside and a subtly different flavor. They are chewier than gougeres, and less hollow, but just as insanely addictive.
They were also somewhat cheesier than the gougeres I typically make, because I used a combination of parmesan and farmer’s cheeses. The farmer’s cheese adds creaminess, and you may be able to find it in a store, but I just made it myself because it is so easy and I’m a little obsessive. If you can’t find it and don’t want to make it, just use more parmesan. You won’t be disappointed.
For a main course, I made the dish that Brazil is most famous for, churrasco. Churrasco is meat, usually beef, that has been grilled on skewers. It requires no seasoning except a fairly heavy dose of salt just before grilling.
In Brazil they use large, coarse salt called sal grosso, which is larger than kosher salt but smaller than rock. I used a Celtic gray salt that is about the right size, but you can just use kosher salt — or table salt, for that matter. Don’t overthink it.
The cut of meat Brazilians use for churrasco is called picanha, which we know as the top sirloin cap. But just because we have a name for it doesn’t mean it is easy to find at a store. I used a sirloin, because the cap is just the top part of the bottom sirloin, if that makes sense. But you could also use skirt steak, as they do in Puerto Rico, flank steak, as they do in Argentina, or tenderloin, as they do in Nicaragua.
I topped mine with chimichurri, the all-pervasive sauce made from parsley, cilantro (in this case), garlic, oregano, red wine vinegar and oil. Nothing goes better on grilled meat, which is why it so frequently accompanies churrasco.
For another entrée, I used a recipe that combines the coastal country’s love of seafood with its African influences, Vatapá. This is a spicy shrimp stew, made with a surreal amount of onion that is pureed with raw shrimp, flavored with coconut milk and thickened with bread crumbs. Whole shrimp are then cooked into this sauce.
All in all, it’s a typical recipe for the tropical regions, until you get to this: It also has peanut butter.
That’s the influence of Africa, where a similar dish would have been made with groundnuts. The peanut butter adds a singular flavor, a heady shot of umami that undergirds the entire meal. This is a hearty dish that’s remarkably satisfying.
Finally, I made dessert. And I was wowed.
Quindim is just that kind of dish. It is a coconut custard, impossibly rich, that makes you stand up, take notice and pay it your respects. And I’m not even hugely fond of coconut.
The secret is the egg yolks. It requires eight yolks. It serves eight people. The math is not difficult.
Obviously, it is a lovely shade of bright yellow. And there aren’t many ingredients beyond the yolks: a lot of coconut, a bit of sugar, a splash of coconut milk, a hunk of butter and just enough vanilla.
They are so rich — and good — that portions are intentionally small. Brazilians make them with molds like miniature bundt cakes, but any small ramekins will do. I used a muffin tin, and they came out perfect.
I may never use it to make muffins again.
PÃO DE QUEIJO (BRAZILIAN CHEESE BREAD)
Yield: 30 pieces
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups tapioca flour, see notes
2 large eggs
1 cup farmer’s cheese, optional, see notes
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (1 1/2 cups if not using farmer’s cheese)
Notes: Tapioca flour (do not use tapioca) is available in the alternative grains section of many grocery stores, often in the baking aisle. Bob’s Red Mill is a popular brand.
— Farmer’s cheese may be available at some of the best-stocked stores, or you could make it yourself with the recipe below.
1. Arrange racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven; preheat to 425 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Heat milk, butter, salt and 1/4 cup water in a large saucepan over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until butter is melted and mixture begins to boil, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and add flour all at once; vigorously stir with a wooden spoon until dough is dry and shaggy, about 10 seconds. Transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a large bowl. Let cool 5 minutes.
3. Beat mixture on low speed just until dough starts to come together, about 30 seconds (alternatively, vigorously stir with a wooden spoon). Add eggs, one at a time, and continue to beat on low speed until incorporated (dough will look broken at first, then come together). Continue to beat on low speed until dough is smooth, sticky and somewhat stretchy; do not overbeat or dough will lose its stretch. Add farmer’s cheese, if using, and parmesan and beat on low speed until evenly distributed.
4. Using a 1 1/3-ounce ice cream scoop or a large spoon, portion dough into 11/2-inch balls and place on prepared baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart.
5. Bake 5 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue to bake until pão are very light brown, with some darker brown speckles (that’s the cheese), and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, 20 to 25 minutes. Halfway through baking, rotate pans top to bottom and front to back. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.
Per piece: 67 calories; 3 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 20 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 8 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; no fiber; 139 mg sodium; 46 mg calcium
Recipe from Bon Appetít
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Yield: About 3 cups
1/2 gallon whole milk, see note
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup white vinegar
Note: Do not use ultra-pasteurized milk, which will have a long expiration date, perhaps 30 to 90 days from when you bought it.
1. In a heavy-bottomed large pot, bring the milk and salt to a slow boil. Keep the heat at medium or medium-low, to avoid scorching the milk.
2. When small, foamy bubbles begin to form on the surface, but it is not yet at a rolling boil, turn off the heat. It should be about 190 degrees.
3. Add the vinegar and stir the milk; curds will immediately begin to form. Let sit for 15 minutes. At this time, you may add additional flavors, such as fresh herbs.
4. Place a colander over a large bowl or pot. Drape a dampened cheesecloth or dampened dish towel over the colander, and strain the mixture. Lift the cheesecloth and wrap it around the curds, twisting and squeezing to remove as much liquid as possible. The resulting curds will be dry and crumbly. If you want a creamier texture, mix a little of the reserved whey back into the curds.
5. To shape the cheese, keep it wrapped in cheesecloth and form it into a mound on a plate. Set another plate on top and press the curds into a flat disc that is 1 to 2 inches tall. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour before removing cheesecloth. Farmer’s cheese will keep up to a week in the refrigerator. Use it as a spread, in recipes or as you would use cream cheese or cottage cheese.
Per (2 tablespoon) serving: 38 calories; 2 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 6 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; no fiber; 44 mg sodium; 69 mg calcium
Adapted from thespruce.com
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CHURRASCO WITH CHIMICHURRI SAUCE
Yield: 4 servings
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more coarse salt
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced or minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
2 teaspoons finely chopped Fresno chile or red jalapeño, more or less if desired
3 tablespoons minced cilantro
11/2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh oregano
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds top sirloin cap, sirloin, flank steak, skirt steak or tenderloin
1. Combine vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, garlic, shallot and chile in a medium bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in cilantro, parsley and oregano. Whisk in oil with a fork or whisk. Can be refrigerated overnight or up to 2 days; use at room temperature.
2. If steak is fairly wide, such as sirloin, flank or skirt steak, slice it in half lengthwise. Liberally season with coarse salt. Skewer the steaks; traditionally, the meat is curved to form a ‘c,’ with each piece pierced twice. Grill on a medium-hot grill until cooked to your preference. Allow to rest 5 minutes before carving against the grain into thin strips. Serve with the chimichurri sauce.
Per serving: 618 calories; 49 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 200 mg cholesterol; 40 g protein; 1 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; no fiber; 294 mg sodium; 12 mg calcium
Adapted from Bon Appetít
* * *
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 onions, chopped
1 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined, divided
2 to 3 cloves garlic
1 to 3 jalapeño peppers, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 tablespoon minced ginger, optional
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups stock or water
1/2 cup natural peanut (or cashew) butter
1 cup bread crumbs
Salt and pepper
2 cups (1 can) coconut milk
1. Place the onion, 1/2 pound of the shrimp (about 1 cup), garlic, jalapeños, turmeric and optional ginger in a blender and purée well. Add a little water if necessary.
2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion-shrimp mixture and sauté until cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Stir in the stock or water and whisk in the peanut or cashew butter until smooth. Stir in the bread crumbs, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1 pound shrimp and coconut milk and simmer another 5 or 6 minutes or until shrimp is almost cooked through. Serve over rice.
Per serving (based on 8) : 416 calories; 29 g fat; 15 g saturated fat; 106 mg cholesterol; 20 g protein; 22 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 804 mg sodium; 101 mg calcium
Adapted from whats4eats.com
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Yield: 8 servings
1 cup grated or shredded coconut, fresh or dry
1/2 cup coconut milk
8 egg yolks, pushed through a sieve
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon butter, soft
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place the coconut in a large bowl and pour the coconut milk on top. Mix well and let stand 5 minutes.
3. In a blender, add egg yolks, 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the melted butter, the coconut mixture and the vanilla. Mix for 2 minutes.
4. Rub softened butter thoroughly inside 8 small ramekins or 8 muffin tins. Coat bottom and sides with remaining 1/2 cup sugar, or as much as it takes. Pour the mixture into the molds and let stand 10 minutes at room temperature. Place molds or muffin tins in a baking dish and fill with water halfway up the sides of the molds (the water does not have to be hot).
5. Cook 40 to 50 minutes until the tops are golden and the custards are set — the centers jiggle just a little when the mold is tapped.
6. Allow to cool almost to room temperature before unmolding. To unmold, run a knife around the edges. Place individual serving plates or a platter on top of the molds, and turn both upside down; the custards should release easily. Refrigerate custards until chilled; this dessert is best served cold.
Per serving: 250 calories; 14 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 200 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 29 g carbohydrate; 28 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 14 mg sodium; 54 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by 196flavors.com
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