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Brazil: the land of nuts and wax, home to beautiful beaches and many beautiful people, where one of the world's largest statues of Jesus looks out over great wealth and some of the world's worst poverty.

Brazil is unique -- it is the sixth-largest country in population, and the fifth largest in size, and it is the only country in the Americas 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 Pao 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.

Pao 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 irresistible.

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.

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 entree, I used a recipe that combines the coastal country's love of seafood with its African influences, Vatapa. 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.

Pao de Queijo

1/2 cup whole milk

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 cups tapioca flour (see note)

2 eggs

1 cup farmer's cheese, (bought or homemade, recipe follows), optional

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (1 1/2 cups if omitting farmer's cheese)

Arrange racks in the top and bottom thirds of oven; heat to 425 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large saucepan, heat milk, butter, salt and 1/4 cup water 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.

Beat mixture on low speed just until dough starts to come together, about 30 seconds (or, 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 cheese(s) and beat on low speed until evenly distributed.

Using a 1 1/3-ounce ice cream scoop or a large spoon, portion dough into 1 1/2-inch balls and place on prepared baking sheets, spacing about 2 inches apart.

Bake 5 minutes, then reduce oven oven to 350 degrees and continue to bake until pao 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.

Makes about 30 pieces.

Note: Tapioca flour (do not use tapioca pearls) is available in the alternative grains section of many grocery stores, often in the baking aisle.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

Farmer's Cheese

1/2 gallon whole milk (see note)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup white vinegar

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.

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.

Add the vinegar and stir the milk; curds will immediately begin to form. Let sit for 15 minutes.

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 whey as possible. The resulting curds will be dry and crumbly. If you want a creamier texture, mix a little of the whey back into the curds.

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.

Makes about 3 cups.

Note: Do not use ultra-pasteurized milk, which will have a long expiration date, perhaps 30 to 90 days from when you bought it.

Recipe adapted from thespruce.com

Churrasco With Chimichurri

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

Kosher salt

1 clove garlic, thinly sliced or minced

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot

2 teaspoons finely chopped Fresno chile or red jalapeno, more or less if desired

3 tablespoons minced cilantro

1 1/2 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

Combine vinegar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, the 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.

Prepare grill for medium-high heat.

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.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

Vatapa

2 onions, chopped

1 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined, divided use

2 to 3 cloves garlic

1 to 3 jalapeno peppers, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1 tablespoon minced fresh 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 ground black pepper

1 (13- to 15-ounce) can coconut milk

Place the onion, 1/2 pound of the shrimp (about 1 cup), garlic, jalapenos, turmeric and ginger, if using, in a blender and puree, adding a tablespoon or so of water if necessary.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion-shrimp mixture and saute until cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes.

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.

Makes 8 servings.

Recipe adapted from whats4eats.com

Quindim

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 use

3 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon butter, soft

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the coconut in a large bowl and pour the coconut milk on top. Mix well and let stand 5 minutes.

In a blender, add egg yolks, 9 tablespoons of the sugar, the melted butter, the coconut mixture and the vanilla. Mix for 2 minutes.

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).

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.

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.

Makes 8 servings.

Recipe adapted from 196flavors.com

Food on 05/09/2018

Print Headline: South American way

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